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Special Friend Visits Reagan on Birthday : Celebration: Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attends a party for the ex-President, who turned 80.

February 07, 1991|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a moment--standing knuckle to knuckle and smiling into the round eyes of the cameras--when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan looked like the partners of their glory days. From the Williamsburg summit, perhaps, or Versailles, when he, the captain of the Free World's ship, and she, his first officer, had prodded and outraged and cajoled and bent the world to their will.

But here and now is a hilltop in Simi Valley. Here and now they are both ex, former, both cold warriors consigned to watching the world go to war without them.

Reagan awaited her outside his unfinished presidential library, framed by concrete pillars the size and shape of Sidewinder missiles. The Iron Lady--the Soviets coined the term and Margaret Thatcher embraced it--slid out of a black Cadillac and walked up, beaming. It was a mellow walk, not her old ministerial stride, when the high heels seemed to dig holes deep enough to plant seed corn in.

Reagan kissed her on the left cheek. "Oh, thank God," breathed the British photographers, who had feared a mere handshake. "One more, one more," they begged greedily.

Thatcher, who resigned in November after about 11 years as Britain's first woman prime minister, remains what Reagan calls his political "soul mate"--his "special friend," as he said of her Wednesday night at his 80th birthday party. In his Century City office, her autographed picture sits in view, off to his right.

It was his birthday that Thatcher came to celebrate. The last time she was in California was 1969, as a member of Parliament whose party was out of power. She planned to come three times since. Once, the World Affairs Council even had the invitations printed when she canceled.

Now she is just an MP again, but with a difference. In a town that knows how to weigh star quality ruthlessly, she does not fall short. Certainly she was more adoringly received here than she might be in some British town stung by unemployment or the poll tax. She was applauded by 2,000 workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, by the lunch crowd in the celebrity room of Universal's studio restaurant, by refinery workers in Carson.

Hers was not a laid-back itinerary; Margaret Thatcher does not frivol. The closest she got to glitz was a Universal Studios lunch with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, and a chat with actress Angela Lansbury on a sound stage. For the rest, she was absorbed by a new fuel made in a Carson refinery and engrossed by telemetry signaled back from Magellan as it orbits Venus.

Last December, she was only days out of office when two friends showed up in London and invited her here: Reagan and Arco Chairman Lodwrick Cook, who heads the library fund-raising effort.

Arco underwrote her visit. An Arco helicopter flew her around. She stayed two nights in Santa Barbara at Arco's conference center/residence. She lunched in the Arco Towers, roamed the huge Arco refinery, which she pronounced "quite the cleanest refinery I have ever seen." She toured Santa Cruz Island, a vast Nature Conservancy preserve purchased in part with a $1-million Arco donation in 1978.

Her husband, Sir Denis, who has an interest in retailing, spent about 90 minutes at a Mid-Wilshire area Arco am/pm mini market, tasted the vanilla frozen yogurt with Heath bar crunch topping (no relation to the former prime minister).

The Thatchers flew here on an Arco jet, stopping for refueling in North Dakota, where locals gave them chocolate-covered potato chips. Before she leaves today, she is scheduled to lunch at Nancy Reagan's favorite restaurant, where the tab for a dozen will reportedly be picked up by Arco.

The Arco name loomed so large in the itinerary that a British reporter remarked: "Now she knows what we've all felt like, being held hostage by the oil companies."

MONDAY

A trio of copters took the Thatchers to Simi Valley.

As Reagan waited at the library, some among the press corps began a ragged chorus of "Happy Birthday." The British were astonished. One suggested: "Maybe we of the British press should lead a chorus for Mrs. Thatcher of, 'Ooh, You're Out, Ooh, You're Out."

Thatcher has never exuded Ronald Reagan's warm fuzzies, never inspired that kind of affection. Her persona has been more formidable, half the hectoring nanny, half Boadicea, Britain's 1st-Century warrior queen.

Ex-prime ministers, she has complained, get something of a bum's rush "into the street." At the lavish Reagan Library, at the gala Reagan birthday dinner, she could not help but notice the difference. Reagan was basking in the stirring visual events banked around him like bouquets. In Britain, it's the queen who takes the bows.

And Reagan, whose allotted eight years ended with an orderly passing of power, likes his ease. Thatcher, who quit when her own party suddenly yanked its support, clearly does not.

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