The Magazine

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
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.”