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The Iron Lady, a reporter’s gaffe, and a smile that 'felt like salvation'

Soon after I arrived in London in 1983, a political aide telephoned to ask – in advance of Margaret Thatcher's forthcoming visit to Canada – whether I could present myself at No. 10 Downing Street for a session with the prime minister.

Mrs. Thatcher was already a towering international presence; a formidable politician, freshly re-elected with a commanding majority. Britain had just fought and soundly won the Falklands war – although the outcome during the conflict seemed very much in doubt – demonstrating Mrs. Thatcher's willingness to take huge risks on issues of high principle. Her stature would grow – and her enemies would multiply – over the following years as she transformed Britain. She crushed Britain's unions, played a leading role in ending the Cold War, was among the first to grasp the significance of Mikhail Gorbachev and forged a remarkable partnership with Ronald Reagan.

But already in 1983, Mrs. Thatcher was larger-than-life. I confess I sat nervously in an exquisitely furnished room at No. 10 filled with trepidation. It was decided that I, for reasons I can't recall, would ask the first question, followed by the other two journalists invited to this quite-small session.

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There was a teapot on the sideboard. Victorious admirals stared out from paintings of naval battles won. Aides stood attentively.

In she walked, complete with the famously massive hand bag and her hair welded into place.

The Iron Lady had arrived.

She sat facing directly across the table at us. I had just spent three years in the United States where every politician, no matter how minor, is addressed by an honorific and then the name of their position. It was – far more then than now – almost universally masculine.

"Mr. Prime Minister," I began and froze, embarrassed beyond description. A chill descended on the room. Aides goofily fidgeted or went white. One of my colleagues failed to suppress a giggle.

I wanted the floor to open up.

Mrs. Thatcher's features instantly turned fierce. Her countenance was withering. No one could meet her gaze. She slowly looked around; first at her ashen aides, then my mirthful colleagues and then – after what seemed like an eternity – at me. And then she smiled at me, the kind of warm, genuine, shared-secret, smile that felt like salvation.

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"I'm sure," she said, and paused, evidentially savouring the moment, "our friend was addressing the office."

It was a moment of grace and unalloyed kindness, a very rare glimpse of the woman behind the public persona.

Only occasionally during the 12 years I spent in Britain – years that included Mrs. Thatcher's fights with the European Union, her survival of a terrorist bomb attack that rocked the hotel in which she was sleeping, her eventual ouster as party leader – was the softer, gentler side of the Iron Lady on display.

The Iron Lady was tough. She remade Britain. Mrs. Thatcher punched – in the vernacular of international relations – far, far, above Britain's weight. Like all political titans she made grave mistakes and history will judge her beyond the Iron Lady image.

I'll remember the moment in which she both crushed those cruelly amused by my discomfort and gave me the kindest of reprieves. I've no recollection of the rest of the interview.

Paul Koring is a member of The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau

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