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Matthew Sanders: My moment with Margaret Thatcher

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 8:18 a.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) 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.

FILE - In this June 12, 1987 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves to supporters from Conservative Party headquarters in London after claiming victory in Britain's general election. Ex-spokesman Tim Bell says that Thatcher has died. She was 87. Bell said the woman known to friends and foes as FILE - In this June 12, 1987 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves to supporters from Conservative Party headquarters in London after claiming victory in Britain's general election. Ex-spokesman Tim Bell says that Thatcher has died. She was 87. Bell said the woman known to friends and foes as "the Iron Lady" passed away Monday morning, April 8, 2013. (Gerald Penny, Associated Press)

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.

In this Dec. 17, 1979 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reviews the honor guard at the White House in Washington, as President Jimmy Carter follows. At left in Col. Stanley Bonta, commander of the guard. Ex-spokesman Tim Bell says that Thatcher has died. She was 87. Bell said the woman known to friends and foes as In this Dec. 17, 1979 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reviews the honor guard at the White House in Washington, as President Jimmy Carter follows. At left in Col. Stanley Bonta, commander of the guard. Ex-spokesman Tim Bell says that Thatcher has died. She was 87. Bell said the woman known to friends and foes as "the Iron Lady" passed away Monday morning, April 8, 2013. (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 1986 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stands in a British tank during a visit to British forces in Fallingbostel, some 120km (70 miles) south of Hamburg, Germany. Thatcher's former spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister, known to both friends and foes as FILE - In this Sept. 17, 1986 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stands in a British tank during a visit to British forces in Fallingbostel, some 120km (70 miles) south of Hamburg, Germany. Thatcher's former spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister, known to both friends and foes as "The Iron Lady," died of a stroke Monday morning, April 8, 2013. She was 87. (Jockel Fink, Associated Press)

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.

For 30 years since she took office, market democracies worldwide surged, generating unprecedented political and economic freedom, and reducing extreme poverty by almost half. Today, according to The Economist, the fundamentals of democracratic society are under threat yet again. This time, not as much from external threats, but from factions misleading their constituencies about the true paths to prosperity.

In a June 10, 1984 file photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, second left, stands with, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, left, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, second right, and Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at London's Buckingham Palace, prior to a dinner for summit leaders. Thatchers former spokesman, Tim Bell, said that the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died Monday morning, April 8, 2013, of a stroke.  She was 87.  (Associated Press) In a June 10, 1984 file photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, second left, stands with, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, left, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, second right, and Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at London's Buckingham Palace, prior to a dinner for summit leaders. Thatchers former spokesman, Tim Bell, said that the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died Monday morning, April 8, 2013, of a stroke. She was 87. (Associated Press)

In that moment in lower Manhattan, Maggie Thatcher once again stood in bright contrast to the dismal surroundings. Her memory should inspire each of us to likewise stand for the ideals and achievements that are her national and global legacy.

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt

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