US right toasts Thatcher's 70th

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

What with Irish-American pickets across the street yelling "Thatcher murderer", flashlights popping and a mix of celebrities that included the US Speaker Newt Gingrich, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Walters, she might still have been the resident of Number 10.

In fact it was just a belated 70th birthday thrash - but as far as the American right is concerned, Margaret Thatcher was, is, and will for ever be Prime Minister. In Britain these days, only by savaging her successor, John Major, can she gain attention; in the United States, her very presence sets conservative hearts atremble. And so it was at Union Station here on Monday night.

Six hundred guests came to pay their devotions, paying $1,000 (pounds 600) a plate and $15,000 a table for the privilege of being in the same room as the co-slayer of the Evil Empire. The Philip Morris tobacco group, "proud sponsors of this event", reportedly produced another $1m, leaving the US-based Margaret Thatcher Foundation ahead by $2m or more.

But most of all they wanted to hear the Iron Lady, and through her to reach out to Ronald Reagan, her partner in doctrine and deeds, patron saint of the New Republican Revolution, but now largely confined by Alzheimer's disease to his home in California. "Reagan and Thatcher", gushed Barbara Walters, are "names linked together for ever, like Rogers and Astaire." There was even a statue of them under construction in Tirana, Albania, Ms Walters said, named simply "The Liberators".

Nancy paid tribute from both the Reagans: "Dear Margaret, you have been so much to us in so many ways. You were and are America's finest friend. Ronnie and I will cherish your friendship always." As she ended her speech, the 40th president appeared to make a toast in images flashed on video screens on either side of the podium.

Baroness Thatcher replied in kind, describing Mr Reagan as "the second- most important man" and speaking of her pride at being the smaller half of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. It was "his decision to call the Soviet Union by its proper name, the evil empire," that helped "bring that evil empire crashing down".

And so the evening ended, drenched in nostalgia, a cross between the Lord Mayor's banquet and Oscars night in Hollywood. There was a musical interlude too, a medley of hits from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the bards of the Thatcher era. Naturally, they played Memory, but not Don't Cry For Me, Argentina. Even nostalgia has its limits.

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