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Voice of America

How Professor Kirkpatrick became Ronald Reagan’s woman at the U.N.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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solipsistic, brooding president fights for reelection. A bold attack by terrorists on a U.S. embassy takes the administration by surprise. National malaise increases. Most people are not better off than they were four years before, and many worry that their best days are behind them. Gas prices are high. Political frustration is even higher.

Kirkpatrick at the UN

Sound familiar? As a one-size-fits-both summary of the Carter and Obama administrations at the end of their first terms, this is dreary if unfortunately accurate stuff. But consider the bright side: It was just such a crucible in 1979 that turned out to launch the Reagan revolution—in the process buffing many a Reaganite to high gloss. And of all those Reaganites inadvertently created by those years, none was more personally impressive or publicly commanding than the late Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick. 

A Georgetown professor who served as ambassador to the United Nations for four years (1981-85), she was a political and intellectual phenomenon like no other. Her legacy has been overdue for a serious look at least since her death in 2006, at age 80. That fact, taken together with this unwanted moment of political déjà vu, makes Peter Collier’s sprightly and entertaining new biography timely food for thought. 

A veteran author and publisher, Collier is genially suited to the task. Engaging and nicely persnickety about language, he also delivers on understanding the subtleties of his subject—beginning with the ironies of this particular political woman’s rise to fame. 

In retrospect, as Political Woman observes, it is hard to imagine a less likely Republican powerhouse than this one. Born to avid heartland Democrats—Jeane’s father once told her that she “better by God not bring home a Republican”—she clung to that party label till the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of her political conversion. (In fact, “Dictatorships and Double Standards”—the 1979 Commentary essay that catapulted her to Ronald Reagan’s attention—coincided with the publication of another piece by her in Common Sense explaining of herself, and the rest of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, “Why We Don’t Become Republicans.”) She did not officially become a Republican until 1985, after leaving the U.N.—meaning that she was almost certainly the most beloved Democrat in Republican history. And this was just one irony, among several more, about what her biographer rightly calls her “improbable odyssey.” 

There are others. Wife to a distinguished and influential political scientist, Evron “Kirk” Kirkpatrick, and mother to three sons, she insisted all her life that family came first—yet ended up one of the most visible public women of her time. A true political and intellectual pioneer in various worlds dominated by men, she was scorned rather than embraced by the feminists of her era—Gloria Steinem called her a “female impersonator” and Naomi Wolf maundered that Jeane was “uninflected by the experiences of the female body”—even as the boys’ clubs of politics and diplomacy tried to lock her out. Perhaps most improbable of all was her uncanny channeling of things that millions felt but that no one could articulate quite like Jeane Kirkpatrick. A professor of political science with all the scholarly baggage implied by that title, she nonetheless connected viscerally with the pounding popular pulse, from her electrifying speech to the 1984 Republican Convention about “blaming America first” to her riveting addresses to the U.N. General Assembly, and beyond. 

Many people simply adored her, as those crossing her orbit soon learned. (I was an editorial assistant during her last months at the United Nations.) Reading this biography reminds me why. Jeane had ardent fans not only in the United States, where she spent her later years reading, writing, and giving speeches, but also in places where the ideas she battled were written in blood. Collier relates, for example, a visit she made to the Soviet Union during glasnost. Andrei Sakharov, who had spent years in prison, “came up to her delegation saying, ‘Kirkpatski, Kirkpatski, which of you is Kirkpatski?’ When Jeane was pointed out to him, he seized her hands emotionally and said, ‘Your name is known in every cell of the gulag.’ ”