That I would reveal that and think of it as one of the highlights of my life – a non-event! – reveals how highly I regarded her. I’ve met famous people, but it was the one that got away I remember in a fond, poignant sort of way. Her absence from a dinner party outside Washington, in the last year of her life, is a trophy on the mantle of my life. She was almost there!
I was reminded of all this recently when a terrific book came across my desk: “Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick.”
The only thing better than reading a biography of the peerless Jeane Kirkpatrick is reading a Jeane Kirkpatrick biography written by Peter Collier. Kirkpatrick’s singular narrative requires both a simplicity and elegance of writing that few people can pull off; Collier has it in spades.
For example, Collier early on discusses visiting Kirkpatrick at one of her homes; he wrote: “Cicadas shrilled in the plane trees outside her kitchen window, giving the scented summer afternoons the feel of a Pagnol novel.”
The women who rose from humble beginnings in rough-and-tumble Oklahoma, not so many years after statehood, to become a formidable intellectual and America’s ambassador to the United Nations (under Ronald Reagan), produced a life that many people want to read about. That’s why I think “Political Woman” deserves to make some publishing waves and gain the type of promotion and distribution it deserves.
The woman who tweaked Jimmy Carter and his disastrous national and foreign policies was born to Frank “Fat” Jordan and his wife, Leona, at a time when gunfights might still erupt in small towns. Jeane’s middle name was, improbably, Duane, and she only shed this curious moniker in her late teens. Despite these “primitive” beginnings (or maybe because of them – she valued all her life the Middle America she had grown up in), Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick brought her worldview and ideology to the forefront at precisely the moment America needed them most.
Even though she retained her family’s fondness for the Democrats (as did her soul-mate, husband, Evron Kirkpatrick), fairly late in life she made the transition to embracing neo-conservatism. She came to see that the Democrat Party had been hijacked by leftists who were deceiving people and being deceived themselves. When Carter stood by, looking like Fred Rogers while the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the mullahs took over Iran, Kirkpatrick knew she needed to act.
Writing an insightful piece on foreign policy for her new friends over at Commentary magazine, she got the attention of a former film actor who had some political ambitions.
Ronald Reagan read Kirkpatrick’s essay during a layover in Chicago. By the time he emerged victorious on election night 1980, he knew he wanted Kirkpatrick to be his eyes and ears at the U.N. They shared similar ideologies.
She said communists were “always defending the indefensible.” It is a bit frustrating now to notice how quaint many feel the Cold War was, but Kirkpatrick and her friends always understood how diabolical communism is.
“Political Woman” has a generous portion of light moments, as well. Collier gives further insight into Kirkpatrick’s personality – these vignettes in the book are usually hilarious.
Her son-in-law, Jim Evans, for example, once got into a kitchen conversation with her and, seeing that a longer answer might entrap him in a heated conversation with the grand dame, gave a brief, benign answer.
Hear Collier recount Jeane’s reply:”She gave him a shriveling look, and said ‘Everything you say is inconsequential,’ and walked off.”
Be still, my heart.
Kirkpatrick assembled a rich, full life at a time when women were expected to stay in their place. She was criticized from all directions. Fat Jordan often grew exasperated by his daughter’s blind ambition. Feminist icons also weighed in.
Naomi Wolf was a feminist who said Kirkpatrick was “a woman without a uterus.” Kirkpatrick noted wryly that she was the one who had children and a life of the mind in her intellectual pursuits.
She could also be sweetly, gratifyingly simplistic: “I’ve always been passionately in love with my country.”
She could maintain this love while at the same time adjusting some of her upbringing by rejecting intolerance.
Fat told her once she could “bring home a black boy, bring home an Indian boy, but better by God not bring home a Republican.”
A boy once asked her to go to the movies but she declined, saying, “No, I’m going to stay home tonight and read the Federalist Papers.”
Such a woman is rare, because such a person is rare. Every so often, a lone figure emerges in history, capable of leading by using the power of big ideas and standing firm on principles.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was like some people, though, a blend of contradictions. She was a severe pragmatist when it came to U.S. interests. This would allow her to work with folks like James Baker and others in Washington who were some form or other of isolationist. Yet she supported Israel. She knew the tiny country was both an outpost of freedom and a kindred spirit.
Collier recounts that when the Lebanon War erupted (and after the ghastly massacres at Sabra and Shatilla), George Schultz came to her and, sounding like a member of the Carter administration, confessed that he felt like he had blood on his hands, because America weapons made for Israel allegedly ended up in the hands of the Phalangists.
Kirkpatrick coolly noted: “Well, I don’t feel as if I have blood on my hands. We didn’t kill anyone. And, as I understand it, Israelis didn’t kill anyone, either. I doubt that American weapons were used by the Phalangists.”
Such clarity of conviction has always been rare in politics. The woman who was perhaps most rare is shown in all her splendor in “Political Woman.”
She would have made a great dinner companion.