The Last Time I Saw Margaret Thatcher
I got thrown out of the San Diego Convention Center . . .
When I last saw the Iron Lady, I got thrown out of San Diego’s Convention Center. It was 1998 and I was a freelancer covering an event called the “Insights World Conference.” The gathering was the clever invention of some Washington lobbyist. For $200 to $400 a ticket, software millionaires and techies from Silicon Valley could come to sunny San Diego and hear a mix of futurists and stars from the Political Right, all the while being glad-handed by Republican fund raisers. Besides Thatcher and John “Megatrends” Naisbitt, James Baker and Newt Gingrich were among the featured speakers.
Unfortunately, my friend Tom Wilson was recently unemployed and insisted on going as well. Usually that would be okay, but I could not forget that brouhaha two years earlier when I had an assignment with an in-flight magazine and he had attached himself to a press junket to Cabo San Lucas. Against my better judgement, when I put in for press credentials, I added that I would be bringing a “photographer.”
So, as part of his masquerade, I reasonably expected Wilson would bring his SLR camera all tricked out with a zoom lens. “I forgot,” he admitted when he swung by to pick me up, “but not to worry.” After a quick stop at Thrifty Drugs, he returned to the truck with three disposable cameras.
At the Convention Center we were sent downstairs to the Press Center where, as the unemployed and the under-employed, we spent several hours because of the free sandwiches and unlimited 16-ounce beers. When Larry King came in for a press conference, I straightened up, took out my notepad and tape recorder, and moved closer to the stage. But instead of talking about anything relevant to this right-wing gabfest, a beaming Larry got to the podium and pointed to this stunning young woman sitting behind him in a folding chair and announced he had just got married again! (I think it was his fifth. I lose track.) “She’s wearing me out,” the septuagenarian winked at reporters, “but what a way to go!”
The clamor, unfortunately, woke my boozed-up photographer who snapped to attention, remembered his professional duties, and rushed to the stage. Of course, instead of pictures of Larry, he started snapping photos of Larry’s stunning young Frau — who, either naturally or with the help of surgeons, looked like an exact reincarnation of a twenty-year-old Raquel Welch. After he had exhausted his supply of disposable cameras, my photographer indicated his willingness to go upstairs to the arena where, after all, the convention was taking place.
You have to remember this was 1998, and it was a relatively new thing to have those massively huge tv screens set up in an auditorium. I found the whole thing kind of creepy: Sitting in this darkened arena with maybe five thousand attendees. Newt Gingrich proposing we transfer 10,000 agents from the IRS to the INS. (Wild applause). Newt’s exit line: “Let’s make the world safe for entrepreneurs.” (Wild applause). Egad.
It felt creepy but somehow strangely familiar. Then the lights went out. In the dark, the San Diego Men’s Chorus sang “America.” Then Maggie Thatcher’s two-story-high face appeared on the six huge screens in front of the darkened arena and the Iron Lady started straight into scolding. It was awesome stagecraft, and I’d had too many beers.
Then it occurred to me. This was exactly like those Nazi rallies recorded by Hitler’s favorite film maker. “Leni Riefenstahl! Leni Riefenstahl!” I started shouting as loud as I could, hoping it would spark some recognition in those around me and possibly save some young software millionaires from the clutches of Republican fund raisers.
I was too late. They were enthralled. And besides, security was escorting me and my photographer out of the building. And that was the last time I saw Maggie Thatcher, on one of those big screens over my shoulder. She was saying everything started to go wrong in 1947.