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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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They also took the fight beyond Turtle Bay. The U.S. team tracked anti-American votes, and sent the tallies to members of Congress. When another anti-American gambit—the threatened expulsion of Israel—turned serious, Jeane worked with her allies in Congress on a resolution stating that if Israel were, indeed, expelled, the United States would withhold its contributions and withdraw itself from the U.N. In 1983, when the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean civilian airliner and brazenly lied about it, Jeane riveted the world when she presented the Security Council with a recording of Soviet communications proving the sickening reality: The Evil Empire had, in fact, just killed 269 people in cold blood. 

It was one of her finest moments, an almost preternaturally perfect emblem of her lifelong mission: to tell the world exactly what totalitarian governments were doing, and to stop them wherever they could be stopped.

Of course none of this sat well with apologists for such governments, whether foreign or domestic. Jeane had enemies in low places—though not only there. Words like “temperamental” and worse were used behind her back by rivals within the administration, where the struggles for Reagan’s ear and favor were practically blood sports. But Jeane did not acquiesce in these domestic competitions either, and often used the media to counterattack. “A woman in high office is intrinsically controversial,” she once observed in an interview.

Many people think a woman shouldn’t be in high office. Kissinger is described as a “professor.” I am described as “schoolmarmish.” Brzezinski is called “Doctor.” I am called “Mrs.” I am depicted as a witch or scold in editorial cartoons and the speed with which these ster-eotypes are used shows how close those feelings are to the surface.

And what of the “real” woman beneath the famously arched eyebrows? Peter Collier does a good job of adding details to the portrait: her love of France, her pride in her cooking, her constant concern for her family. Anyone who knew her could add more. Her favorite painter, unexpectedly, was Amedeo Modigliani; an original of his, loaned from the Met, hung in the ambassador’s residence in New York. She had an inimitable way of ducking into subordinates’ offices when the line outside her own was longest—a practice as delightful to those treated to her company as it was irritating to those deprived of it. She delighted in good language, good music, and, above all, good friends of similar intellectual weight. 

Seldom has the distance between a forbidding public persona and a warm, playful private one stretched quite so far. And as anyone who knew her personally was also aware, her talk of putting “family first” was no mere rhetoric. In one especially poignant story, Collier reports that she once confided in a friend, during a moment of family tragedy, that she would trade all her public success for peace in the hearth. 

Jeane’s later years were spent as a columnist, speaker, and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where she enjoyed the company of friends such as Michael Novak, Irving Kristol, and others of serious mien. Her Making War to Keep Peace (2007) certainly rewards reading, as does the rest of her writing over the years. But it was not the “big book” she once thought to write, as she herself said, and as Collier notes, she was by then “seemingly without the urgent desire to put a fingerprint on events that she’d felt a quarter century earlier.” 

This withdrawal from the spotlight reflected domestic preoccupations, among them her husband’s struggles with ill health. But it was due as well to the fact that certain fundamental convictions had put her on a collision course with a new strain of neoconservative thinking after the Cold War. Having cut her scholarly teeth on totalitarianism in Germany, Russia, and China, she was allergic to utopianism and anything that smacked of it. (She once wrote that she was “convinced that a diabolical vision of the public good is the greatest
horror and the source of the greatest evil in modern times.”) A moralist Jeane Kirkpatrick may have been, but about the morality of the use of force she was more skeptical than others in the conservative camp. And so she publicly criticized the Clinton administration for acting as if “the U.S. was responsible for protecting and restoring democracy around the world, regardless of the costs or whether American interests are at stake”—a judgment that could be applied equally to her own side. She also privately resisted the war in Iraq. 

As with any biography, Political Woman relies on some inside sources more than others, and as such, might be criticized by some who knew Jeane personally. A few may feel Collier tells too much, including details about her most personal preoccupations. For the rest of us, though, this winning biography is a welcome opportunity to introduce a new generation of political thinkers and doers to a remarkable subject, and to reflect on the larger meaning of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s life’s work. At the least, her fierce and resolutely unapologetic defense of American interests reminds the world that words always count, that rhetoric is never just rhetoric, and that ignoring what adversaries actually say is a perilous indulgence that the free world could not, and cannot, afford. 

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution.