Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, by Peter Collier (Encounter, 368 pp., $25.99)
William F. Buckley Jr. said of Jeane Kirkpatrick, “She ought to be woven into the flag as the 51st star.” When I was introduced to Kirkpatrick, I quoted this remark. She said, “That was the nicest thing anybody has ever said about me.” I said, “It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about anybody.”
She was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Reagan’s first term. But she was much more than that: She stood for a point of view. This view was anti-Communist, pro-American, pro-West. She was the kind of Democrat who was mortified by American weakness abroad and American weakness at home. She was an intellectual, an academic, with a taste for political combat. And she was unafraid. William Safire wrote that she had “the courage of Ronald Reagan’s convictions.”
Once, I interviewed Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Cuban-American politician, about his journey, intellectual and political. He was one of those Democrats who crossed over into the Republican party. He said, “Jeane Kirkpatrick was my soulmate.” Many of us could say something similar.
She now has a biography, Political Woman, by Peter Collier. It is a superb one (from a writer who has proven himself as a biographer many times over). Kirkpatrick made halting attempts to write an autobiography. She is better off with this book by Collier. Apparently, she was reluctant to write in a personal vein. Collier has given us the woman in full. His is an admiring biography, but he lets her have it, when she deserves it.
Jeane Duane Jordan was born in 1926 in Duncan, Okla. Duncan is where Erle P. Halliburton started his oil company. In the first decade of the 21st century, his name would be a hate-word of the Left. Jeane’s father worked in the oil industry. Journalists, writing about her, often referred to her dad as a “wildcatter.” Collier reports that she objected to this, indignantly: Her dad had been a driller — a contract worker, not a speculator. Get it right.
The family moved to Illinois when she was twelve. But she would always consider herself a westerner. And she saw Reagan, an Illinoisan who settled in California, as a fellow westerner.
She was something of a queer one, Jeane Jordan. To buy her first book, she saved up her allowance: The book was a thesaurus. In high school, a boy asked her to go to the movies. She said, “No, I’m going to stay home tonight and read The Federalist Papers.” Her family was strongly Democratic, and she would be the same, for as long as she could. Her father joked — if it was a joke — that she could bring home any boy she wanted, as long as he wasn’t a Republican.
After high school, she went to Stephens College in Missouri, and then to Barnard in New York. Her field of choice was political science. She may have been a Democrat, but, even then, she was a different kind of Democrat: She knew that Hiss was a liar. During the 1948 campaign, she attended a Wallace for President rally, at which Pete Seeger played the banjo. (He’s still at it — I saw him at an event last month.) She did not like what she saw and heard at the rally. She voted for Truman. Forty years later, she wrote, “I am retrospectively proud of myself for having resisted, at 21, the temptation of radical politics.”
She learned about the Holocaust, and would be forevermore a staunch friend of the Jews. She learned about totalitarianism in general. She spent the rest of her life wondering about two questions. As she put it, they were, “How could people do this?” and “How could other people let them?”
Smitten by France, she went to that country, where she was an eyewitness to the great struggle between Sartre and his supporters and Camus and his. Sartre was by far the more popular, of course, but she was definitely with Camus. For one thing, she liked “his elevation of the human dimension over the political one; his focus on the impact of ideas and the personal consequences of ideologies.”
Along the way, she met the man who would become her husband, Evron Kirkpatrick, called “Kirk.” He was a political scientist and Democratic activist. Collier calls him “the Pygmalion who would intellectually sculpt” Jeane Jordan. He was married when they met — to a woman named Evelyn, who had just had a baby. He had been married before, too, to a woman named Doris, with whom he had also had children. But he had “outgrown” Doris, Collier writes, and his marriage to Evelyn was “disintegrating.” So . . .
In this book, Doris and Evelyn play the role that discarded spouses are supposed to play: They are hustled off the stage so that the show can go on, with the stars in place. No one will ever write a book about Doris or Evelyn. Jeane had trouble acknowledging her husband’s first marriages, as people do.
After having three sons, Jeane took her Ph.D. from Columbia. This was in 1968 — a terrible year for the country and world, from the Kirkpatrick point of view. In 1967, The New York Review of Books had printed its infamous cover, showing how to make a Molotov cocktail. Kirkpatrick wrote the editors, “Please do not ever send me another issue of your revolting rag.” She was alarmed by McGovernism. She thought that America’s abandonment of South Vietnam was “the most shameful display of irresponsibility and inhumanity in our history.” She thought Carterism a disaster. She was ready for Reagan.
Richard V. Allen, Reagan’s first national-security adviser, told Collier, “Jeane and Margaret Thatcher were the only two women who made Nancy nervous. The president had an intellectual spark with both of them.” He was happy to send Kirkpatrick to the U.N. She was still a Democrat, but he had been one too, until he was over 50.
Kirkpatrick’s tenure at the U.N. was electrifying — even some who despised her had to concede this. Collier brings it all back to life. The Soviets, those tricksters, forged a letter from the South African intelligence chief to Kirkpatrick, expressing “gratitude.” They did this kind of thing: When Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, they forged a telegram of congratulations from Pinochet.
In a saner world, Kirkpatrick would have been lionized by feminists: She had risen from the oil patch to the commanding heights of U.S. foreign policy. But her views were wrong (“wrong”). She told Collier, “Gloria Steinem called me a female impersonator. Can you believe that? Naomi Wolf said I was ‘a woman without a uterus’ — I who have three kids while she, when she made this comment, had none.” I am reminded of a bumper sticker that appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign, alluding to Sarah Palin: “She’s not a woman, she’s a Republican.”
Would you like a statement that is pure Kirkpatrick, nothing but? She told an interviewer, sometime in the ’80s, “Having and raising babies is more interesting than giving speeches at the United Nations. Believe me.”
So much time did the Reagan people spend fighting one another, it’s a wonder they had time for the Cold War. Eventually, Kirkpatrick was shoved out of the administration. But she remained a big deal, from coast to coast. She finally became a Republican, in 1985. It was a wrenching experience for her, as it is for some. “I would rather be a liberal.” Her fans wanted her to run for president in 1988, and she flirted with the idea, but ultimately stood aside.
Her last 15 years are somewhat painful to read about, for Kirkpatrick wrestled with family problems, health problems, other problems. Collier paints a striking picture of her on her deathbed: “She sometimes held the Medal of Freedom that Ronald Reagan had given her . . . and seemed to want to put it around her neck.” She died in 2006, on a significant date: December 7.
For several years, starting in about 1998, I called her every chance I got, on any pretext: to solicit her opinion, to ask her to write for National Review, which she did. (Being uncertain of her byline, I asked, “Are you Jeane Kirkpatrick or Jeane J. Kirkpatrick?” “Ouf,” she said, “I suppose I can do without the ‘J.’ at this point.”) She had a wonderful voice: sometimes haughty and didactic, sometimes purring, even sexy. People such as the Saturday Night Live gang mocked her looks as mannish and severe. They could be. But she could be very attractive, and she knew it, I think.
In writing this biography, Peter Collier has written an intellectual history and a political history of America in the second half of the 20th century. But it’s a biography too, worthy of the life. If you loved Kirkpatrick, you will fall in love all over again. You will hear her and see her (with her “repertory of tics,” in Collier’s phrase). If you didn’t love her, you may gain new respect for her. And if she is unknown to you — what a treat you have in store!
Two or three years ago, I gave a talk in which I cited Kirkpatrick. Afterward, a mother and daughter came up to me. “My daughter knows Jeane Kirkpatrick’s grandson,” said the mother. The daughter said that someone — I forget who it was, I hope not a teacher — had told the grandson, “Jeane Kirkpatrick was a terrorist.” That was appalling, of course. But, honestly, I was just slightly pleased: After all this time, she can still get under their skin.
Kirkpatrick said that, in the 1960s and ’70s, America did something like try to commit suicide. But “the suicide attempt failed.” She was one of those who thwarted it. Years ago, she had some advice for a friend of mine, who was just starting out in the work world: “Try to make your employment relate to the life of your times.” Kirkpatrick herself did, and she made a wonderful dent.