The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick
By Peter Collier
Encounter, 368 pages
Jeane Kirkpatrick led a harder life, professionally and personally, than her admirers ever imagined. In fact, her reputation as an American version of Britain’s “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, was a reflection of her ability to concentrate on philosophical and policy objectives while keeping her travails carefully compartmentalized. Given the often hostile reception she received because of her tenacious advocacy of U.S. national security, it is understandable that Kirkpatrick sought to conceal the chinks in her armor that might give her enemies satisfaction. But such efforts at concealment will have their price, even when they succeed in keeping political adversaries, the media, and busybodies at bay.
Indeed, the story of how Peter Collier’s new biography, Political Woman, came into being offers a glimpse of how Kirkpatrick managed her highly compartmentalized existence. During his tenure as founding editor of Encounter Books, Collier, the author (and co-author) of bestselling biographies of the Ford, Kennedy, Rockefeller, and Roosevelt families, pressed Kirkpatrick to resume an autobiography she had first attempted to write immediately after stepping down as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1985. That effort, on which she worked in fits and starts for years, was clearly something Kirkpatrick was not comfortable pursuing, since it would have meant parting the curtain either on her own past or her Reagan administration service.
Collier offered an alternative approach: He would do the “research” by interviewing her and then essentially prepare first drafts for her elaboration. She agreed, and submitted to extensive questioning, but as she neared the end of her life, it became clear the project as she and Collier had envisioned it could not be completed. But by making no real effort to bring the interview process to an end, she effectively allowed the book to come into existence. It has now arrived, almost six years after her death at the age of 80.
The book itself reveals why producing an autobiography proved impossible for her. Much of Collier’s recounting of Kirkpatrick’s personal life is painful to read, and there are passages that will make readers wince. The difficulties encountered by her own children, particularly the ultimately unsuccessful battle her eldest son, Doug, waged with alcoholism, clearly took a heavy toll on her. Indeed, Collier concludes that “motherhood was her least successful role” and notes that in her later years, “she was being pulled down by the gravity of her family life, which embossed her later years with desolation.”
And adding to Kirkpatrick’s agony, despite her external appearance in tough political battles, she confided to a reporter in 1981: “I’m not someone who is personally tough. I’m just not.” We might prefer not to read so much about the personal life of a contemporary, but this is biography, not hagiography. Collier certainly provides a few bright spots as well. Who else but a teenage Kirkpatrick could decline a boy’s movie invitation by saying, “No, I’m going to stay home tonight and read The Federalist Papers”?
Collier shows all this even as he carefully delineates the achievements of her career, most notably an insightful portrayal of her transformation from a New Deal liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. This was no casual flip-flop, but a fitful, agonizing journey whose destination was not known until it was concluded. As Jeane herself said, “The Democratic Party was, for people like me, a primal identification.” Even as late as the spring of 1979, when a student asked whom she supported for president, she replied: “Oh, I don’t know. Teddy Kennedy, I suppose.”
While her philosophical journey was personally arduous, the criticisms she endured publicly didn’t make it any easier and in some instances reflected new lows in modern American political discourse. Consider just two of the tribulations Kirkpatrick had to bear. First, and most outrageous, was the attack from feminists. Second, and of an entirely different order emotionally, were her fraught intellectual relations with neoconservatives, with whom she was sometimes uncomfortably lumped.
In the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign, we have seen the consequences of crossing the approved liberal line in Hilary Rosen’s attack on Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, for “actually never [having] worked a day in her life.” Implicitly, Rosen was disqualifying Romney for not being enough of a woman as defined by Rosen. Politically, Rosen’s gambit failed miserably, but no one should doubt she was sallying forth from the ramparts of a much more comprehensive, stronger ideological fortress, built up over decades.
Kirkpatrick suffered a comparably harsh political attack from precisely the same ramparts but for the opposite reason—that her tough-minded views disqualified her as a woman. As she put it, “with a bitter smile,” in Collier’s description, “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.” A professor at Brown named Joan Scott said, “She is not someone I want to represent feminine accomplishment.” And those were the polite criticisms.
In fact, Kirkpatrick was a trailblazer for professional women in academia and in government. Collier’s title, Political Woman, is taken from her own 1974 book, about successful women in what had previously been indisputably a man’s world, handling “the private price they paid for being a public person.”1 Seeing herself as a “successful feminist,” Kirkpatrick “thought her accomplishments had value precisely because they had been achieved without the institutional brace of a movement, the ululations of victimhood,” Collier writes, “or maudlin sympathy from the media.”
The real political lesson is that gender, racial, or other identity politics are not the fundamental fault lines in American society. Instead, it is the continuing struggle between individualism and collectivism. What galled Kirkpatrick’s adversaries beyond measure was that she would not bend her knee to feminist collectivism. She remained firmly an individualist.
Although the issue of her neoconservatism was not nearly so acrimonious as her gender status, it nonetheless generated considerable misunderstanding and discomfort. Here in the pages of Commentary ran in 1979 what was undoubtedly Kirkpatrick’s most widely known work, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” (shortly after, as noted above, she was still thinking about Teddy Kennedy for president). This was the famous essay that first brought her to Ronald Reagan’s attention, then to her subsequent endorsement of his presidential candidacy, and ultimately to her UN ambassadorship.
“Dictatorships and Double Standards” was a blistering critique of Jimmy Carter’s badly flawed foreign policy, which castigated right-wing authoritarians even as Kirkpatrick announced Carter thought America suffered from an “inordinate fear” of Communism. She argued that Communism had never evolved into democracy, whereas right-wing regimes sometimes did, thus providing an important distinction between the two types of authoritarianism. And history proved her right: Where Communism collapsed, it did so because of popular revolt, not by that “convergence” so beloved by the left here and in Europe.
Kirkpatrick’s insight was not time-bound to the Cold War. Following John Stuart Mill’s classic essay “Representative Government,” she argued that the conditions for successful democracy do not spring up automatically or overnight. Democracy is more than merely holding elections and counting votes, a lesson we repeatedly forget to our dismay. Representative government is a culture, a way of life, and it emerges spontaneously no more than does any other human institution.
“Dictatorships,” moreover, also reflected her assessment of the flaws of McGovern-Carter style liberalism that she fleshed out in a pseudo-haiku in her unfinished autobiography:
Weak is strong
Vulnerable is safe
Rich is guilty
Hostile is neutral
Friendly is suspect
There’s nothing to worry
It applies with chilling force to the Obama presidency today.
Long after her service in the Reagan administration, Kirkpatrick’s views often led to crossed rhetorical swords with neoconservatives, especially when she expressed deep reservations about the war to oust Saddam Hussein. But the notion, expressed by some outraged former comrades, that she had altered her views over the years, was the result of misreading her own path-breaking essay. She was fundamentally a Burkean, whose views rested on empiricism, context, and inductive rather than deductive logic, thus explaining her desire for post–Cold War America to become a “normal nation” returning to “normal times.” To Kirkpatrick, that meant emphatically rejecting a foreign policy that “looks at the world and asks what needs to be done with little explicit concern for the national interest.”
Her estrangement from the neoconservatives with whom she had long been associated was one of the elements that made her final years difficult and depressing. In this, as in other parts of Political Woman, her private pain is revealed in a way the controlled and contained Jeane Kirkpatrick never could have herself—and why it required a biographer of Collier’s skill and sensitivity to present a fully rounded and profoundly moving portrait of a fascinating and original American personage.
1 Collier’s somewhat jarring subtitle (The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick) is actually her own assessment: “It has been a good life . . . a full life . . . I wouldn’t call it a big life exactly . . . a big, little life, perhaps.”