Peter Collier, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, New York: Encounter Books, 368 pages, 2012, $27.99.
She was “the first woman independently to achieve real power in the area of international affairs,” according to The New York Times, one of her primary critics. “No woman had ever been so close to the center of presidential power without actually residing in the White House.”
Someone of that stature would surely write a riveting autobiography. Jeane Kirkpatrick tried but did not deliver, so the task fell to veteran biographer Peter Collier, whose elegant Political Woman, the first full biography of Kirkpatrick, illuminates the subject and much more.
Jeane hailed not from the Northeast, land of reversible names, but Oklahoma, land of Will Rogers, whose statue she kept on her desk. Her father Frank “Fat” Jordan labored in the oil fields and she did not advance because of family connections. From the academic milieu in New York and Paris, Kirkpatrick easily could have fallen into the Stalin idolatry of her times, but her intellectual formation would not allow it.
Kirkpatrick “studied totalitarianism all her life and was aware of its tensile strengths and subtle ruses for maintaining power,” writes Collier. “She had cut her intellectual eye teeth on documentary evidence revealing the psychological and political consequences of the gulag state.” She met Hannah Arendt (Origins of Totalitarianism) and Franz Neumann, a Columbia University historian who had fled Germany, and who gave her files about inner workings of the National Socialist regime. These documents, Kirkpatrick said, “changed me forever.”
Husband Evron “Kirk” Kirkpatrick, who served with the OSS, forerunner to the CIA, gave Jeane a cache of accounts describing purges, famine, show trials, and such in the pre-war USSR. “How could people do this?” she said. “How could other people let them?” Kirk also served up documentary evidence from Chinese Communist soldiers taken prison in Korea, which described the “systematic violation of the human being.”
A three-fold cord is not easily broken. Instead of Sartre’s apologies for Soviet tyranny, Jeane preferred the formulation of Camus: Communism = Murder. She believed Alger Hiss was guilty. She wound up “convinced that a diabolical vision of the public good is the greatest horror and the source of the greatest evil in modern times.” Further, “It isn’t war that’s the greatest danger. It’s tyranny. Tyranny has killed the most millions of people.”
In her famous 1979 “Dictatorships and Double Standards” article in Commentary, she observed that traditional autocracies leave the habitual rhythms of life intact and sometimes evolve into democracies. “Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes,” she wrote. Those ideas had consequences when Ronald Reagan tapped Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the United Nations.
She did not accept the Brezhnev Doctrine that the USSR had a mandate from history to preserve and expand its empire. Rather, she agreed with Reagan that it was an evil empire and that the duty of the United States was to roll it back and expand liberty. Communist bosses were not alone in opposing her.
Collier provides a thorough box score of the conflicts in the American academy, the Democratic Party, the Reagan administration, the State Department, and the United Nations. That body routinely condemned the United States, Britain, Israel, and South Africa while turning a blind eye to Soviet repressions, genocide in Cambodia, and other Communist atrocities. Ultimately, Collier notes, Kirkpatrick achieved her goal of taking the “Kick Me” sign off the back of the United States.
She supported the Nicaraguan Contras and that earned her the sulfuric enmity of the American Left, whose members shouted her down as a “war criminal” as she delivered the 1983 Jefferson Lecture at the University of California at Berkeley. Jeane finished her speech and considered it important to be “rich in terms of the number and kind of enemies I had.” As for friends, Andrei Sakharov told her “your name is known in every cell of the gulag.” She also befriended George McGovern, a political opponent, after each lost children to alcoholism.
Collier concludes with George Will’s observation that Reagan and his sidekick Jeane Kirkpatrick set about deleting the Soviet Union from mankind’s future. Neither that, nor her undeniable smashing of the glass ceiling, gained her any points with the feminist movement, then as now the women’s auxiliary of the left. Gloria Steinem called Jeane Kirkpatrick a “female impersonator,” and Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) said she was “a woman without a uterus.”
Perhaps because of her husband’s intelligence background, Collier speculates, Kirkpatrick seemed to believe that potential readers had “no need to know” about her. At this stage of history, the need to know would seem to be huge. The bulk of this story took place a generation ago, and America has the attention span of a hummingbird. In Political Woman, readers in the Age of the Tweet can get to know Jeane Kirkpatrick, “prickly eccentricities” and all, and meet or recall the vast cast of characters who jostle in these pages, from Idi Amin to Betty Friedan.
Political Woman may prompt some to study totalitarianism and its current variations for themselves. Since many campuses barred Jeane from speaking, the book should prove particularly useful for students of history and political science, and for aspiring diplomats.
“I’ve always been passionately in love with my country,” Jeane Kirkpatrick said, and it showed. One could not see her abandoning longtime allies or, as currently fashionable in the State Department, blaming the violence of Mexican drug cartels on American guns.
As she said in her famous speech, they always blame America first. CJ
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Reason, National Review, and many other publications.