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Remembering Margaret Thatcher

As Britain's "Iron Lady" was laid to rest Wednesday, commentator Lee Cullum looked back on her personal encounters with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

I've interviewed a lot of people, but no one has matched the forceful intellect and personality of Margaret Thatcher. I saw her at the height of powers and again, when they began to fail her, ten years later. Our first time together was in the sitting room of her suite at the Mansion Hotel, where we taped an hour-long conversation almost four months after she had been shockingly driven from office by her own Tory party.

I was impressed right away by the trouble Thatcher took to make this encounter successful. An assistant of hers asked Debra Skriba, our producer, which she would prefer - a blue suit or a green one. Debra chose the hunter green. While the former prime minister was getting dressed, her son, long, tall Mark Thatcher who was living then in Dallas, came out and asked when we planned to air the show. I explained that we would edit it to half an hour and that would require about a month. No, he insisted. It must be sooner. I told him we would do the best we could.

Here's Lee Cullum's 1991 interview with Margaret Thatcher for KERA's "Conversations" series:

Obviously she had sent him on this errand. Why, I wondered, did the broadcast date concern her so? My guess is this: The Persian Gulf War had ended only a month before. Of course, she was delighted with the outcome and wanted to make that especially clear in President George H.W. Bush's home state. But she knew that before long word would begin to bubble up of civilian casualties, and she did not want to sound euphoric about that.

So here, walking briskly onto our set in her suite at the Mansion, was a meticulous  politician who knew how to look down the road and anticipate every possible pitfall. This was a leader accustomed to the stages of Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and Washington. But she didn't for a moment underestimate the importance of her appearance in Dallas. To her everything was important, everything demanded a maximum effort. That strenuous attention to every detail might have led, finally, in some way, to her undoing.

There were intimations of trouble when I saw her again, in the ballroom of another Dallas hotel where I was to interview her for an evening program of a group that included Ross Perot and then Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. After dinner Lady Thatcher asked for some time alone, to assemble her thoughts. I followed her as she withdrew to a room nearby, and caught a glimpse of her, pacing, surprisingly anxious for so practiced a speaker. I realized that I had to be careful with my questions, to be sure they were within the range in which she was working at that point. This was no longer the fearsome scourge of coal miners in Britain. This was a woman grown suddenly frail and vulnerable.

The evening went well, and afterwards she said, “You made that easy, thank you." Two days later a lovely letter arrived from Margaret Thatcher, writing on the road, never giving up, leaving her mark in ways great and small.

Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist and commentator living in Dallas.

Lee Cullum was the host of CEO, KERA’s original monthly series of interviews with North Texas business leaders that previously aired on KERA television and radio. She is a commentator for Morning Edition on KERA-FM and contributes columns to The Dallas Morning News. A veteran journalist, Lee was previously a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and All Things Considered on NPR. In addition, she was editor of the editorial page of the Dallas Times Herald and host of Conversations, a series on KERA with major newsmakers. Lee also worked as a reporter, on-air moderator and executive producer of Newsroom on KERA.