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Sunday, April 14, 2013
With the passing of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last week, there was much discussion of her free market principles and the battle over the Falkland Islands. But I will always associate her with Rep. Morgan Griffith and Cracker Jacks.
Griffith learned of her death on Monday as he drove to his mother’s house with his 5-year-old in tow. Charlotte Griffith has Thatcher’s autograph framed and hanging in her home, a gift from her son, who met the prime minister when she spoke to the General Assembly in 1995.
The reverence mother and son have toward Thatcher might surprise those at the state Capitol who remember the congressman’s days in the House of Delegates.
The Salem Republican is famous for his history-major tangents, one of them inspired by the legislature’s 1998 decision to make Thatcher an honorary Virginian.
Griffith tried to talk his colleagues out of granting the rare recognition. At the time, only John D. Rockefeller, who bankrolled the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, was an honorary Virginian. The Marquis de Lafayette is sometimes listed as such, too, but in fact he was made a full-fledged Virginian in 1785. Given the time the Frenchman spent hanging out with the Continental army fighting for our independence, Griffith had no quibbles with that decision, nor with the honor granted to Rockefeller.
Thatcher had her own ties to Virginia. She served as chancellor of the College of William and Mary from 1993 to 2000. But that didn’t quite measure up to kicking Charles Cornwallis’ butt or preserving a key part of Virginia’s history and its tourism economy.
“If you think we ought to hand out Virginia honorary citizenships like they were prizes in the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks, then you ought to have voted for that bill,” Griffith told me at the time. “While a wonderful person — and outside of Churchill my favorite British prime minister; well, I like [Benjamin] Disraeli, too, but in modern history she’s my second favorite prime minister — I’m not sure she did enough to qualify.”
Griffith managed to win 21 other No votes, but many more eye rolls. The Iron Lady got her honorary title.
Only one other individual has received the accolade since then: Winston Churchill. And yes, Griffith not only voted for the resolution, he was a co-sponsor. Inconsistent? Maybe. But given the importance of the U.S. alliance with Britain during World War II, I have to give Griffith a pass. Besides, as he told me last week, “Had the order been reversed, I might have voted for Thatcher.”
In fact, Griffith has a genuine respect for the prime minister, and not just because she signed her autograph for him. Griffith spent time studying at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh in 1979, the year Thatcher became prime minister, and he traveled back to Britain many times over the years.
Although he was fond of the WW II-era rail cars in use when Thatcher came into power, more dependable trains appeared as part of a restructuring of the industry, which later led to privatization.
“Everything in Britain took a turn toward modernization,” he said of her tenure. “Britain was a country clearly in decline when she took over. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.”
Yes, Griffith takes his history — be it modern, ancient or anything in between — pretty seriously. This is the same man who insisted that a portrait of Virginia’s royal governor Lord Dunmore be removed from the state Capitol, and who inspired good-natured groans in the House of Delegates with his annual speech on the heroics of Revolutionary War Gen. Andrew Lewis.
He has had less occasion to engage in similar adventures at the U.S. Capitol, although the 9th District representative did oppose a resolution last year proclaiming Salem, Mass., the birthplace of the National Guard, objecting that Virginia organized the first militia. But I’m sure his inner history major will manifest itself before long.
“There are all these great lessons from history,” he said. “You also have to have a little fun with it.”
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