A 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.
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.’ ”
How did an at-home wife and mother (albeit one with a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University) go on to become a moral heroine, a political superstar known around the world? Her rare combination of gifts didn’t hurt. She was an academic as adroit with a sound bite as with a lectern and pointer, and she was further graced with a voice so musically deep and unforgettable that it could have made reading a menu an act of profundity. “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” probably the most influential document ever penned by a Georgetown professor on summer vacation, is a case in point of how disparate strengths spelled unique synergy in Jeane Kirkpatrick. A lengthy and at times excruciatingly detailed analysis of the Carter administration’s foreign policy, the essay still makes for heavy lifting here and there. But it is also leavened by sly wit (e.g., “liberal idealism should not be synonymous with masochism”). In a similar vein, Collier relates that when a U.N. diplomat offered the boilerplate that the United Nations is a microcosm of the world, Jeane was heard to crack, “In my worst moments, I fear that this is true.” One thing that helped to make her a sensation was that she was something even rarer than a political woman: a political woman with a genuine sense of humor.
Collier also nicely conveys the spirit of the Reagan years, especially the bonhomie shared by those who saw themselves as the president’s revolutionaries. The conviction that they were on the right side of morality and history led the Reaganites to defend American interests with a confidence and vitality not seen since. As Collier relates, the chairman of the National Security Council, Richard Allen, once asked Reagan about his vision for the outcome of the Cold War.
“We win, they lose,” Reagan replied. “What do you think about that?”
The absent-minded yet ferociously focused professor whom Reagan sent to New York thought “that” was just ducky, as the U.N. and the rest of the world soon found out. Faced with
the refrain within diplomatic circles that what was said at the United Nations didn’t matter because it was a place where Third World countries could “blow off steam,” Jeane countered that it was “not a Turkish bath” and let everyone know that the days of “preemptive capitulation” were over. In an early address to the General Assembly, she charged that the U.N. was a place where “moral outrage [has been] distributed like violence in a protection racket.” When the Ethiopian foreign minister accused the United States of racism and genocide, the U.S. ambassador responded by reading from an Amnesty International report—about Ethiopia.
Jeane Kirkpatrick simply did not believe that acquiescence was the better part of valor, and even allies were not spared the sometimes-scorching blasts from the ambassador’s office. The Europeans, she charged in frustration at their passivity, have “grown accustomed to being ‘it’ in a global game of dunk-the-clown.” The United States, she said famously and often, had taken off the “Kick Me” sign. None of this is to suggest, as her enemies often would, that fighting back against the anti-Americanism of the times amounted to mere rhetoric. To the contrary: The Kirkpatrick team meant business. And an extraordinary team it was, including, over the years, her legal adviser Allan Gerson, Kenneth Adelman, Jose Sorzano, Alan Keyes, Carl Gershman, and other intellectual warriors, as well as fiercely loyal assistants, including Jackie Tillman, Shannon Sorzano, Louise Brunsdale, and Timothy Roybal. And of course, the irrepressible Charles Lichenstein, who would go down in populist history for telling the Soviets that if they ever succeeded in moving the United Nations out of the United States, the American delegation would “be down at the dockside waving you a fond farewell as you sail off into the sunset.”
For all their brio, however, the Jeane Team ended up taking “the glass house where everyone throws stones” (as she dubbed the U.N.) more seriously than anyone would have guessed. The United States, she promised, would treat that political institution as a political institution—meaning that votes against American interests would no longer be rationalized as unfortunate, if understandable, political fillips. Rather, they would now be fought for by way of “good precinct work, canvassing, persuading, [and] getting out the vote.”
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.