The American Iron Lady

By Bruce Thornton
May 25, 2012

Peter Collier, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick (Encounter Books). To order it, click here.

At a time when our foreign policy is in the hands of the feckless, delusional, and incompetent, it is bracing to have Peter Collier’s fascinating biography of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s smart, no-nonsense, straight-talking ambassador to the U.N. Collier, along with his sometime co-author David Horowitz, is the Plutarch of American political biography, having authored earlier books on the Kennedys, Fords, Rockefellers, and Roosevelts. Himself a convert from left-wing dogma and delusion, he brings to Kirkpatrick’s life both flawless story-telling skills and a shrewd eye for the psychological, intellectual, and social detail that tracks Kirkpatrick’s development from a reflexive liberal Democrat to a formidable opponent of appeasement and the staunch defender of political freedom who became, in William Safire’s phrase, “the courage of Ronald Reagan’s convictions.”

Kirkpatrick’s life is a paean to the American heartland and its clear-eyed realism about human nature and the limits of the politically possible. She was born in 1926 in Duncan, Oklahoma to a New Deal, Yellow-Dog Democrat oil driller named Welcher “Fat” Jordan. In 1940 the family followed the oil boom to Mount Vernon, Illinois, where Jeane’s keen intellect and restless curiosity fomented dissatisfaction with the small-town limits on both her mind and gender. Her first stop was at Stephens College, a two-year girls’ school in Columbia, Missouri. A visit to New York City convinced her that her intellectual ambitions needed larger scope, so she enrolled at Barnard, “where women could take themselves seriously,” she would write later. On weekends she hung out in the Village, and knew James Baldwin well enough to call him “Jimmy.” Yet a trajectory that seemingly pointed to becoming a conventional left-wing New York intellectual was deflected by her critical mind, which was not satisfied with the received opinions of her milieu. Contrary to her professors and classmates, for example, a reading of the Alger Hiss trial transcripts convinced her of Hiss’s guilt. Likewise she supported Truman in the 1948 elections while the “romantic leftists,” as Collier calls them, voted for Henry Wallace.

Her independent intellectual development continued at Columbia University, where she studied political science. Her mentor was Franz Neumann, a German Jew who had been a lawyer in the Weimer government. Neumann was an independent Marxist who lacked the starry-eyed admiration for Stalin that afflicted many American leftists. Her study of the inner workings of Nazi governance, which taught her, as she said later, “the human capacity for evil,” changed her life. So too did meeting Evron Kirkpatrick in Washington D.C. in 1951, who hired her as his research assistant. “Kirk,” as he was called, worked in the State Department and was a close friend of Hubert Humphrey as well as an anti-communist New Deal Democrat. Fourteen years Jeane’s senior, he became “the Pygmalion who would intellectually sculpt her in a way that brought her fully to life,” Collier writes. Her first assignment was to edit some papers detailing daily life in the prewar Soviet Union. The experience of learning what Kirkpatrick called “a hell purposefully created by government” was another critical stage in her development as a warrior against totalitarianism and its appeasers.

Kirkpatrick’s next stop was Paris, where she traveled to escape a serious illness and a burgeoning romance with Kirk. Once more, a path that would have led a less critical intelligence into leftist orthodoxy was blocked by Kirkpatrick’s reaction to the famous quarrel between one-time comrades Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre over support for the Soviet Union and its permanent revolution. Reading Camus’ The Rebel and listening to his lectures convinced Kirkpatrick that Camus had both the facts on his side and the moral high ground. She was particularly impressed by what she called “his suspicion of abstract theory and its friendship with totalitarianism; his elevation of the human dimension over the political one; his focus on the impact of ideas and the personal consequences of ideologies.” As Collier describes this transformative experience, one begins to see emerging the champion of freedom and human dignity who three decades later would give moral and intellectual force to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Back from France, Kirkpatrick eventually married Kirk and settled in Georgetown, where she connected with others like herself, heartland refugees, “very American, yet slightly alien among the elites” of postwar Washington, Collier describes them, bright people from modest backgrounds who “made their way by sheer intellectual force rather than by networks,” “pragmatic ‘show me’ people, and unapologetic in a patriotism that would not be shaken even during the turbulence of the Vietnam era.” She met other recovering leftists, like onetime Trotskyite James Burnham, and former communist Sidney Hook, both of whom later would become some of flabby liberalism’s most trenchant critics. As the sixties spiraled downward into left-wing thuggish intolerance, knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and apologetics for communist tyranny, she began to see the same conditions she had studied in other countries that had degenerated into totalitarianism from a lofty, abstract utopianism. The New Left’s assault on centrist liberalism––institutionalized in the 1972 highjacking of the Democratic party and its marginalization of lower-middle and working-class constituents in favor of a “new elite” of lawyers and other professionals––was to Jeane another sign that the old anti-communist, socially compassionate but pragmatic liberal Democrat no longer had a place in a party increasingly dominated by the sectarian left. Like many of those liberals who would get mugged by reality, Kirkpatrick had to find a more independent path.

She became a public intellectual, writing books on the changes in the Democratic Party, and essays for Commentary magazine. Disturbed by America’s foreign policy retreat and Soviet expansionism after Vietnam, she joined the Committee on the Present Danger and supported anti-communist Democratic Senator “Scoop” Jackson’s brief bid for the 1976 Democrat presidential candidacy. The disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter, which saw a global epidemic of Soviet aggression, culminated in the annus terribilis of 1979, when Iran and Nicaragua, deemed insufficiently respectful of human rights by the Carter administration, were both allowed to fall to brutal, repressive regimes hostile to America’s interests. Kirkpatrick’s journey was now nearly complete, the dangers of American global retreat sharpening to urgency her personal intellectual and political development.
At this critical moment she wrote for Commentary the essay that earned her opprobrium as a fascist apologist from the left, and praise from traditional anti-communist liberals, “the signature piece of writing,” Collier writes, Kirkpatrick “would have to defend . . . for the rest of her life.” “Dictatorship and Double Standards” straightforwardly exposed the moral idiocy, delusional idealism, and self-abasement of the American foreign policy thinking that had led to the abandonment of flawed yet useful allies, and that had created openings to communist and totalitarian regimes much bloodier and more oppressive than the governments they replaced. As Kirkpatrick pointed out, autocracies can evolve into democracies, as was happening in Spain, Greece, and Portugal, but communist regimes never do so without enormous external pressure and resistance. Kirkpatrick also scorned the self-abasing double standards that condemned pro-American authoritarian regimes while history’s most murderous abuser of human rights, the Soviet Union, was given a pass. Nor did she suffer the “posture of continuous self-abasement and apology,” as she called it, “vis-à-vis the Third World,” a masochism “neither morally necessary not politically appropriate.” One has only to remember Obama’s disastrous apology tours abroad to feel the truth of Kirkpatrick’s insight.

The essay brought Kirkpatrick to the attention of Ronald Reagan, who made her his ambassador to the U.N. Her tenure at the U.N. was one of the great achievements of American diplomacy. She forcefully rejected that corrupt and venal body’s reflexive anti-Americanism and active hostility to U.S. interests, making it clear that the Reagan administration was keeping score and would remember its enemies when it came to doling out foreign aid and contributions to the U.N. budget. It wasn’t easy, particularly for a woman. She had to face resistance from her own State Department, who seemingly put the interests of the U.N. over those of the U.S. She battled the spineless European bloc, whose nations “have long since accepted their prescribed role” in the U.N., she said, and “grown accustomed to being ‘it’ in a global game of dunk-the-clown, and have opted to ‘understand’ the point of view of their Third World accusers.” She changed the way the U.S. conducted business, replacing a flabby one-world idealism with something more like “a political operation in Chicago,” Collier writes, “where tough deals cut on the basis of enlightened self-interest trumped the theater of idealistic rhetoric.” And she had no patience with the egregious double standards of the General Assembly, which, as she put it, judged the U.S. and Israel in particular “by the Sermon on the Mount and all other nations on the curve.”

Finally, Kirkpatrick was a stalwart friend of Israel, resisting the hatred heaped on that vulnerable nation, and fighting against what she called “a systematic totalitarian assault on language and meaning” that cast the Israelis as Nazis and the Palestinians as victims of genocide. Nor did she tolerate in silence a Security Council that in 60 meetings during 1981 had failed to do anything about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, Iraq’s invasion of Iran, or Libya’s of Chad, yet still found time at 45 meetings to take up Arab complaints about Israel. Kirkpatrick’s forceful leadership at the U.N. was a major factor in the recovery of American prestige that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

After internal White House politics led to her ouster from the Reagan administration, over the succeeding decade Kirkpatrick became a popular public speaker and newspaper columnist, continuing to warn against impractical idealism even when it came from her own side, and to counsel against “expansive, expensive” global projects that she believed eventually harmed American interests. This put her out of favor with the neoconservative ascendency and its program of spreading democracy, “as if,” she wrote, “democracy could imbue chaotic societies and unstable governments with a respect for what we respected: the rule of law, basic human rights and a peaceful world order.”
The sting of being summarily dismissed by the American Enterprise Institute that had long been her intellectual home was salved by the sale of her last book to HarperCollins. Unfortunately, she died in 2006, just before the publication of Making War to Keep Peace, an “inquiry into the use of the American military when vital national interests were not at stake,” Collier writes, and a “critique of the misuse of the American military in misbegotten multilateralist adventures, of internationalist power grabs of by the UN, and of futile efforts to plant democracy in barren soil.” Most of the book’s attention, however, came from its criticism of the Iraq War, which obscured the larger, more important argument.

Collier’s narrative of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “big little life,” as she called it, is important not just for skillfully capturing the life, times, and independent mind of this quintessential American patriot, but for reminding us of a time when American foreign policy shed its internationalist infatuations, unwarranted self-abasement, and utopian nostrums, and restored to America a well-earned pride at being the greatest global force for freedom and goodness.

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