08/04/2013 15:30 BST | Updated 08/06/2013 06:12 BST

The Lady T I Knew: Iron in Private, Too

The first time I met Margaret Thatcher was in May 1996 in her suite at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. I was part of a group called the New Atlantic Initiative that had invited the Prime Minister, then a half dozen years out of office, to address a large conference of policy wonks from Washington and across Europe on transatlantic economic and security issues.

Three things stand out from the encounter.

First, I recall Mrs. Thatcher engaging me on the details of her draft speech. I found this remarkably collegial. I was in the company of two long-time advisers of hers, both friends of mine; I was the interloper (and feeling, by the way, just a little intimidated).

Second, I recall Mrs.Thatcher explaining to us - her husband Denis was there, too, joining around the coffee table - how she had deleted several tough lines in the draft of her speech about "the Germans"; only later, upon reflection, to restore said passage. "Why hide one's light under a bushel," she told us with a smile. It was hardly a state secret: Mrs. Thatcher never stopped distrusting Germany.

Finally, I remember how she kept asking her assistant about "the boys," as she called them, the Scotland Yard body guards assigned to guard the Prime Minister. She wanted to make sure they were okay, at one point asking if they had their milk and cookies. She was positively motherly.

The last time I saw Lady T, as her former aides had come affectionately to refer to her, was a few years ago at a small London dinner (thanks, as always, to my friend and her former speechwrriter John O'Sullivan). This time I encountered the Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep. She was sharp at times in the conversation, but would then drift away, telling the assembled group more than once during the evening that she had to watch the time to get home to Denis. Her husband had actually died several years earlier, in summer 2003.

How will Margaret Thatcher be remembered? There's a domestic and international legacy.

During that afternoon at the Biltmore, Denis told me what it was like for him being in public during the bitter, divisive and violent days of the coal miner strikes of 1984-85. Lady T did not hide her light under a bushel. 

"We had to fight the enemy without in the Falkland," she said at the time; "we (also) always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty," she insisted. Mrs. Thatcher despised socialism, collectivism and the general status quo of the time. The trade unions were her enemy. 

Denis told me how on one occasion in a London taxi, as he became recognized in the rear view mirror, the driver in this instance -- rather than hurling an insult -- flashed a smile and called back, "Tell your girl to keep going!" She did. Mrs. Thatcher destroyed the unions. 

The left may forever loathe her for it, but it was her "hard-line" policies that brought Britain's economy back from the dead. She did this while joining Ronald Reagan (and Mikhail Gorbachev) in burying Soviet Communism.

But that's not all.

Once the Berlin Wall was down, Mrs. Thatcher worked tirelessly to make sure that those liberated Central and Eastern Europeans got access to NATO and EU membership. The former PM rightly understood the danger that the new democracies could falter, and slide off the map of the new Europe.

In the midst of the NATO debate in the mid-1990s, I hosted a small dinner for Lady Thatcher and a group of Republican Senators in a private room at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington. Bill Clinton had come out in favour of NATO expansion. This had led a number of important American conservatives to start agitating against.

During the evening, Lady Thatcher told the august group of Republicans around the table -- all men, incidentally -- in effect, to knock it off. In fact, she told them exactly that. A week later, the Republican leadership was publicly endorsing NATO expansion as a moral and strategic imperative. 

Lover her, hate her, the woman had backbone. And principle. She had a way of shoring up the wobbly.

Lady T was never was one to hide her light under a bushel.

Margaret Thatcher, RIP.