Matthew Sanders: My moment with Margaret Thatcher

Published: Tuesday, April 9 2013 6:55 p.m. MDT

This is a 1980 file photo showing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher's former spokesman, Tim Bell, said Thatcher died of a stroke Monday morning, April 8, 2013. She was 87.

Gerald Penny, Associated Press

On a brisk, gray spring morning in 2003, I found myself numbly gazing down into the vast hole of Ground Zero. I came to lower Manhattan with colleagues from Boston to meet with American Express, whose headquarters sits just west of One World Trade Center.

In the corner of my eye, I noticed a diminuitive figure emerge from a vehicle in a fenced off, separate section of the site. To my amazement, I recognized the the older woman in her characteristically smart, bright-colored dress suit as none other than Lady Margaret Thatcher.

I nearly dragged my co-workers toward the fence for a closer look. Our steps were matched by her surly security guard who arrived to fix a steely stare on us. Taking a step back, I was able to see the Iron Lady quietly, almost reverently approach the precipice and peer down into the testament to terrorism's evils and humanity's resilience. While I can't imagine what her thoughts might have been, that scene rushed back to mind when I learned of her passing.

For me, that chance encounter was filled with meaning. The former Prime Minister of Great Britain had been a hero of my youth. Along with the indomitable Ronald Reagan, she made the case for individual liberty, argued for the retreat of government excesses, and faced down the global threat of communism inside and outside her nation. To those she inspired she was the Iron Lady, unyielding to any threat or scheme to personal and global freedom. To those she threatened, she carried monikers like Attila the Hen.

My personal connection to Thatcher couldn't seem more distant. I was raised in Weiser, Idaho, a community characterized by agriculture, hard work, loyalty to one another, fierce independence and love for children, country and God. At the entrance to the town still stands a billboard that says, "Welcome to Weiser, We Love Our Kids!" The schools and community celebrated constitutional freedoms of faith, speech, arms, assembly, vote and commerce and abhorred any encroachments on individual liberty.

Somewhat comically my high school football coach, John Shrolec, inserted the global politics regularly into our practices with his Bronx-bred passion. For those who jumped offsides or didn't give maximum effort, he would hurl his most poisonous insult, yelling, "What are you, some sort of communist spy sent here to ruin American football!?"

Amid that upbringing, and my own interest in international affairs, I followed with deep interest the global tensions between surging authoritarian regimes, and what seemed a shrinking band of believers in freedom and democracy. In the 1970s, many in the east and west foretold the demise of democracy.

Collectivist, but minority institutions like labor unions and other special interests gained substantial sway in governments. Market economies heaved and pitched with volatile energy prices, the costs of the cold war buildup and the space race. The rising generation lurched through destructive fads of hypersexuality, drug abuse and anti-establishment protests. Cycles of stagflation, inflation, interest rate rises, failed wars in Asia and terrorism shook the confidence of western nations.

The world did not seem safe for market democracies and free enterprise as the the engine for lifting individuals out of poverty. The world seemed arrayed against those who treated individual morality and willpower as national resources worth protecting and promoting. The world seemed poised for takeover by government promising bread on tables and chickens in pots.

Yet, amid the seemingly inexorable march of authoritarianism and a retreat to old-world habits of ceding power to aristocracy and lords, Maggie Thatcher stood as a bright light. She broke through with towering reason, moral certitude and staunch belief that humans are capable of self-governance. She led a reluctant country through wrenching change that set it on a course of renewal and growth that has blessed the world.

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