Barack Obama led tributes from the United States to the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose death on Friday led to an outpouring of remembrances that went well beyond normal courtesies. Obama described Thatcher as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty” and a true friend to the US. Former president George HW Bush and the Republican House speaker John Boehner also paid generous tributes.Thatcher was an icon for conservative figures in the US, both as partner of Ronald Reagan, the most popular Republican president since the Second World War, and as a champion of small government and balanced budgets. But her popularity extended well beyond the American right. Along with Reagan, she was widely viewed as being instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was praise too from Hollywood, with Meryl Streep, who in The Iron Lady played Thatcher in her declining years, expressing her admiration for Thatcher’s pressing ahead with what she believed in, in spite of arousing a level of hatred normally confined to “mass murderers”.Former president Bill Clinton led the tributes from the left, recognising Thatcher’s achievement in becoming the first British woman prime minister. He described her as an iconic stateswoman and fearless leader. “Like so many others, I respected the conviction and self-determination she displayed throughout her remarkable life as she broke barriers, defied expectations and led her country,” Clinton said.
Obama, in a statement from the White House, also focused on Thatcher’s success in breaking gender barriers. “As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered,” the president said. “As prime minister, she helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best. And as an unapologetic supporter of our transatlantic alliance, she knew that with strength and resolve we could win the Cold War and extend freedom’s promise.”
He added: “Here in America, many of us will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history – we can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”
George HW Bush, who occupied the White House towards the end of Thatcher’s premiership, in a statement on behalf of himself and his wife Barbara, said: “Margaret was, to be sure, one of the 20th century’s fiercest advocates of freedom and free markets – a leader of rare character who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world. The personal grief we Bushes feel is compounded by the knowledge that America has lost one of the staunchest allies we have ever known; and yet we have confidence that her sterling record of accomplishment will inspire future generations. May God bless the memory of Margaret Thatcher.”
Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under presidents Nixon and Ford, told CNN: “She was a woman who [knew that] a leader needed to have strong convictions because the public had no way of orienting itself unless its leadership, its leaders gave it the real push. She didn’t think it was her job to find the middle ground.”
Thatcher still has a resonance in the US today, being frequently cited in speeches by conservatives. CNN showed a passage of one of her speeches relevant to the present debate about curbing the debt. Boehner, who is at the centre of the White House-Congress confrontation over debt and spending, described her as the greatest peacetime prime minister in British history. He said: “Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, stared down elites, union bosses, and communists to win three consecutive elections.”
Boehner added: “Americans will always keep Lady Thatcher in our hearts for her loyalty to Ronald Reagan and their friendship that we all admired. At this difficult hour, I send the condolences of the US House of Representatives to prime minister Cameron and the British people.”
The Republican senator John McCain, who backed Reagan in his approach to the Soviet Union, described Thatcher as “one of the great leaders” of the last century.
Streep offered her condolences to Thatcher’s family. “To have withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, leveled in our time at a public figure who was not a mass murderer; and to have managed to keep her convictions attached to fervent ideals and ideas – wrongheaded or misguided as we might see them now – without corruption – I see that as evidence of some kind of greatness, worthy for the argument of history to settle.
“To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation; this was groundbreaking and admirable.”