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The ambassador as teacher, &c.


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As I remarked in that symposium, I first met her in an elevator. Out of my mouth tumbled, “Ah, the woman of whom Bill Buckley said, ‘She ought to be woven into the flag as the 51st star.’” She said, “That’s the nicest thing anybody ever said about me.” I said, “That’s the nicest thing anybody ever said about anybody.”

Citing WFB’s comment, Michael Kinsley once quipped, “Sounds painful.” Very funny.

I called Jeane K. whenever I could, when I was writing on various subjects. I remember asking her about human rights in Cuba — why free people were so indifferent to them. She called this “both a puzzling and a profoundly painful phenomenon of our times.” In a discussion about Jimmy Carter, I mentioned how upset he had been when Violeta Chamorro beat the Sandinistas, down in Nicaragua. Jeane K. said, “You’d have thought a democrat would be happy.”

And once, when I was looking into Chinese political prisoners, I brought up a story I had heard about her. Toward the end of the Soviet Union, Jeane was in Moscow, with other foreign-policy VIPs. Andrei Sakharov sought her out, saying, “Kirkpatski! Kirkpatski! I have so wanted to meet you and thank you in person. Your name is known in all the Gulag.” It was. And it was known because she had named the names of Soviet political prisoners on the floor of the U.N. She gave all the “zeks” hope, letting them know they were not forgotten and not alone.

She always believed in pressing and spotlighting individual cases. She quoted Arthur Koestler to me: “Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts.”

Her tenure at the U.N. — in Reagan’s first term — coincided exactly with my political coming of age. Exactly. And she taught me a lot, as she went about her work — about foreign policy, history, politics, and the world.

In a hundred ways, she thrilled me: I remember when she walked off a stage at Berkeley, when the kids (and faculty members, I’m sure) wouldn’t let her speak. She didn’t just stand there and take it, trying to talk over them. She just walked off. Oh, what a thrill! She was an academic, and had a proper understanding of what a campus was for.

She was a liberal Democrat, in the old sense, and, because she was, she despised the New Left. These are the people who are today called “liberals.”

I remember something else, quite small — but something that sticks in my mind. In the mid-1980s, it was thought she might run for the Republican presidential nomination. I believe she was still a Democrat. A lady television journalist — I think I remember who it was, but I can’t be sure — was questioning her about this. All these conservative groups are talking you up for president! she said. They’re always telling you how great you are. What do you say to them?

And the lady journalist spoke in a tone that said, You’re a serious and intellectual woman. Aren’t you embarrassed by the enthusiasm from this quarter? You wouldn’t want to throw in with a bunch of right-wing yahoos, would you?

Anyway, the journalist asked, “What do you say to them?” And Jeane replied, “I thank them.” Period.

Stunning.

I also remember a time when she was given a long, very warm, somewhat florid introduction. When she got to the microphone, she said, simply, “Thank you.” Then she began to read from her prepared text. Jeane K. was like that. No BS, at least in my experience.

Do you remember when General Secretary Gorbachev published his book Perestroika? Kirkpatrick made a point of saying that she had read it and that others should, too: “It’s a very interesting book.” You could learn from it, whether you liked what you learned or not. She also didn’t want you commenting on the book unless you had read it.

She was from Oklahoma, a fact I always liked. Another foreign-policy thinker and actor of her stripe is from Oklahoma, too: Jim Woolsey.

Jeane once told a friend of mine, when my friend was young, “Try to make your employment have something to do with the life of your times.” It was good advice, for many people, and I often think of it and quote it: My National Review colleagues and I have managed this, after a fashion.

I was going to talk to her the day before she died. Because, you see, I was writing a piece on John Bolton, who was leaving the United Nations. I wanted her thoughts. But I was lazy that day, or distracted or something, and I didn’t call her. Some time later, I heard she’d died.

Physically speaking, she could appear very plain. At other times, she could appear beautiful. That was striking. Her face lit up when she smiled, and her eyes danced a little. I also loved her voice, a contralto voice, which would rise when she got animated (which she could). In some conversations, she was a little listless, a little ordinary. In others, she was formidable, even dazzling, as she held forth. That reminded me of what the aforementioned friend had told me: “No one could dominate a dinner table like Jeane.”

I edited her a couple of times, and she was a pleasure to work with. I never stopped learning from her. On the day she died, a liberty-loving friend of mine in Asia sent me an e-mail with this on the Subject line: “Kirkpatski! Kirkpatski!”

As I said in my symposium note, I didn’t know Jeane Kirkpatrick well, but I loved her, and I’m grateful for her life.

I think I’ve expressed this opinion to you before: You can tell a lot about a president by the pardons he gives out, and by the Medals of Freedom he awards, too. I wrote about pardons in the first days of 2003. (I just did some Googling.) And here is what I observed:

In the final days of 2002, Bush pardoned seven people: a Mississippi man who tampered with a car odometer; a postal employee who stole $10.90 worth of mail; a Tennessee man sentenced in 1962 for making untaxed whiskey; an Oregon man convicted in 1966 in a grain-theft conspiracy; an Iowa man sentenced in 1989 for lying to the Social Security Administration; a Washington State man sentenced in 1972 for stealing $38,000 worth of copper wire; and a Wisconsin minister who refused to be inducted into the military, sentenced in 1957.

You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, and you can make your own contrasts with the current president’s predecessor.

And then there are the Medals of Freedom. Bush gave out a passel on Friday but I’d like to mention two of them: those to Paul Johnson and Natan Sharansky.

Johnson should be familiar to any NR reader, and to any reader, really, who knows English. He is a genius historian and journalist, a priceless mind and pen. He is sometimes compared to an earlier Johnson, Samuel, and not absurdly.

Since I write so personally (you might even say selfishly) in this column:

I remember discovering his Modern Times, which I read in its original version, when it was called A History of the Modern World. I still remember the look of the copy that I borrowed from the library. (I could buy no books in those days.) And then I devoured The Birth of the Modern, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, and on and on.

Johnson has enriched the world, but to heck with the world, for the moment: He has enriched me.

And his journalism is just as good as his tomes. He can write long, he can write short. He can write magisterial, he can write whimsical and pithy. He is so versatile as to seem without limits. Do you read his column in The Spectator? Oh, you must — every one of them, whatever the subject, and every word.

And he is a kick to be around, as many NR cruisers know. His opinions and teachings and bons mots come liberally. I think I told you about a splendid piece of art criticism he issued on our Rhine cruise last spring. We were walking toward Cologne Cathedral, and Paul noted the modern, ugly, and soulless structures hard by it. “Savages,” he muttered.

He asked me which I thought the best of Bruckner’s symphonies. “Most people would say the Eighth,” I replied, “but I would nominate the Ninth — the summa, and transcendent of time and space.” He agreed with a glad smile.

You think that pleased me?

Introducing a Johnson collection, years ago, WFB made the point that you can overlook Johnson’s greatness, because he is routinely great: day in, day out. You can almost take that greatness for granted. But President Bush, in awarding Medals of Freedom, did not.

Natan Sharansky, you know — and Bush knows him too. The president read Sharansky’s book The Case for Democracy when it was still in galleys (i.e., pre-publication form). He told the Washington Times, “If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky’s book.”

Let me quote from a piece I wrote following a conversation with Sharansky — this was in the summer of 2005. The piece is called “Being Sharansky,” and is found here.

Sharansky met with Reagan quite a bit — some of his stories about the late president are priceless — and he has a grasp on President Bush. “Reagan called a spade a spade, and his policy was based on instinct, not on some grand strategy. But his instincts were absolutely right, and that’s why he made history. He’s the one who put Communism into the grave.” Then this outlook — the linking of human freedom and security — “was fully abandoned by the West, including by America during President Bush’s father and certainly during President Clinton.” Bush 43, however, is in the Reagan mold.

“I talked to Dick Cheney, back in January 2001, before the swearing-in. I had known him when he was in Congress. I talked to him about bringing back the linkage between security and democracy, and about the mistakes of Oslo. Cheney didn’t say a lot, but he was listening.” I point out, “Cheney is known as a good listener.” Sharansky: “Yes, but Clinton’s a great listener, too — he is so understanding. But then he does nothing.” Sharansky holds that Bush’s call for a democratic leadership among the Palestinians is historic, hugely consequential, and overlooked. “This is a return to the ideas that Reagan was expressing: ‘Our security depends on their freedom.’” This remains, however, a minority view in the world.

Of course, Sharansky began life as Anatoly Sharansky — and he was one of the bravest and most inspiring dissidents in the Soviet Union. His book Fear No Evil is a classic of prison literature. And do you know about Reaganite readings? For a time, while in Gulag, he was allowed to study the Bible, with a fellow prisoner, Volodya:

We called our sessions Reaganite readings, first, because President Reagan had declared either this year or the preceding one (it wasn’t exactly clear from the Soviet press) the Year of the Bible, and second, because we realized that even the slightest improvement in our situation could be related only to a firm position on human rights by the West, especially by America, and we mentally urged Reagan to demonstrate such resolve.

I ended that 2005 piece as follows:

At the close of our conversation, I ask him about his Psalm book. Does he still have it? A pocket book of Psalms was given to him by his wife, Avital, a few days before he was arrested. He went through hell to hang on to this book. The authorities often deprived him of it. Once, he went on a “work strike,” entailing several months of the punishment cell — until he got that book back. In another period, “I took my Psalm book and for days on end . . . recited all one hundred and fifty of King David’s psalms, syllable by syllable.” (I quote from Fear No Evil.) . . .

Toward the very end of his ordeal, at the airport in Moscow — Sharansky had no idea what was happening to him — he refused to board the plane before they gave him back his Psalm book. In front of photographers, he dropped to the snow, yelling for it. They gave it back to him. Once aboard — when they told him he was being released — he recited the Psalm he had always designated for his liberation day, Psalm 30: “I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.”

Anyway, back in New York, sitting in a hotel dining room — I ask whether he still has the book. He grins a little, reaches inside his jacket, and produces it. There it is, this tiny book, big as life. Apparently, he has it on him always, the way one carries wallet and keys. Has he ever been in danger of losing it (I mean, lately)? “Sometimes I forget where I’ve put it, and it becomes more of a problem with age.”

Of course, President Bush gave the medal to others, too — one of this year’s recipients was William Safire, the longtime New York Times columnist, and the author of many books. I read him for decades — hundreds of columns, for sure (and probably over a thousand). I learned a great deal.

Safire was just about the only anti-Communist on the Times’s op-ed page, and he was a defender of Israel. Defending Israel, when I started reading the Times, was very new to me (and so was anti-Communism). To be sure, some other columnists thought Israel was okay, when Labor was running the place; but Safire thought the place was okay even when Likud got in.

You can find conservatives who are sniffy about Safire, because he wasn’t “perfect” — that is, did not conform to some conservative ideal. (What is that ideal, by the way? You will never get agreement.) He was pro-abortion, and he was a “privacy” nut. Also, he voted for Clinton in 1992. But no one’s perfect, and Safire was, and is, damn good.

And I will mention just one of his books: Before the Fall, his memoir of the first Nixon term. (Safire was a speechwriter.) It is one of the wisest, most elegant, and most interesting White House memoirs ever written (and I read squillions, at one period in my life).

No, President Bush has made some debatable choices in handing out his Medals of Freedom. But, on the whole, he has performed superbly, just as he has on his pardons. You can tell a lot about a man by his pardons and medals — I mean, when he’s president (or the president, as Bush would say!).

My gosh, I have gone on a long time — let’s get out, pronto. Gonna lay a boatload of music on you — reviews from the New York Sun.

For a review of Steven Isserlis & Friends, go here.

For a review of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, go here.

For a review of the mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, go here.

For a review of the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, go here.

For a review of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bramwell Tovey, with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, go here.

And for a review of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, with Joshua Bell, violin soloist, go here.

As the Republicans said in 1946: Had enough?

I’ll see you.



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