A review of Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, by Peter Collier
Peter Collier, founding editor of and consultant to Encounter Books, wrote this surrogate autobiography of Jeane Kirkpatrick as an act of loyalty and friendship because she either wouldn't or couldn't write her own. Kirkpatrick had a fierce aversion to invading her own privacy. Twenty years before her death, she had been compelled to return a large advance for a memoir of her time in government. She was unable to make much headway on it despite writing reams of material. Somehow they never cohered into a lively finished account.
In the late 1990s, knowing little or nothing of this episode, Collier sought to persuade her to write a conventional autobiography. He thought he had her consent. Over the next few years they had about ten pleasant discussions over dinner about the shape and direction of the work. But she was continually distracted by another project, a "big policy" book (published posthumously in a heavily-edited form as Making War to Keep Peace ) and by the spiraling tragedies of her family life. Besides, her enthusiasm for it was never keen. And as she saw death approaching, she confessed to Collier that the book about her life would remain unfinished.
Collier lightly replied that then maybe he should write it. "Well, maybe you should," she replied. This throwaway remark gradually acquired the force of an obligation for Collier, and drawing on conversations with her friends and relatives, and her private papers, he put together Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick.
This brief history of the book's origins points us towards an apparent mystery. Why should a woman with such sterling achievements—who had many Republicans urging her to run for the presidency—be so nervous of revealing more of herself and of her struggles in a forum that, after all, she ultimately controlled? Why did she not relish the chance to pay off old scores from her bureaucratic battles in the Reagan presidency? Why did she not want to retaliate against the angry feminists such as Naomi Wolf who had scorned her achievements and questioned her very status as a woman? The answer may be that she herself had doubts, not about her femininity to be sure, but about her achievements and her status in other respects.
George Orwell famously remarked that "An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats." This insight is not peculiar to Orwell. A psychologist told me some years ago that many of the most successful people feel themselves to be frauds, and the more they are praised and rewarded, the more fraudulent they feel. Some feel this more strongly and consistently than others, but most feel it from time to time. And if we actually have experienced defeats, our anxieties will be reinforced and we will likely have qualms about revisiting them in public—especially if we have underlying doubts about our worth in the first place. Does Political Woman suggest that this could be true about Jeane Kirkpatrick?
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Her childhood days in Oklahoma and Illinois, as she remembered them later, were idyllic in much the same small-town way as Ronald Reagan's, if slightly more prosperous. Her parents were loving, her home modestly comfortable, her life organized around lessons, tomboy antics after school, recitations, leading parts in plays, deep schoolgirl friendships, and lighter high school romances, all against a hopeful background of America at peace. Jeane Jordan was more serious than most girls; she refused one date in order to stay home reading The Federalist. She was more interested in politics, too. She was a yellow dog Democrat—her family's choice—and her best friend was a Republican. (They put the friendship on hold during elections.) In most respects, though, she was a popular girl living the good small-town life. She was present in the local cinema when its manager halted the movie and brought this paradise to an end by announcing that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. But later in life she kept a small statue of Will Rogers on her coffee table at the American Enterprise Institute.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Kirkpatrick's nostalgia and her affection for the American Midwest and its provincial Protestant values. But they were not the focus of her worldview and loyalty, as they were for Ronald Reagan and, in a different context, for Margaret Thatcher. As the story about The Federalist suggests, she had a precocious interest in "big ideas." As soon as she could, she pursued big ideas in big places by heading to Chicago (briefly), New York, and Paris. Her choice of discipline was political science, and her particular interest was the totalitarianism that had recently wrecked and still threatened the world. She studied with Marxist academics such as Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse. She met Hannah Arendt. She spent her weekends in Greenwich Village where she knew James Baldwin well enough to call him "Jimmy." In short, she moved in radical circles and, like many an unformed young girl from the provinces, she might have gone to the bad and become a socialist herself. But three events, plus a pragmatic tough-mindedness evident even in her early ideological exploring, saved her from that fate.
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The first was the Alger Hiss case. She took the trouble to read daily reports of the congressional hearings and decided that Hiss had lied and so might well be guilty of greater lies. She became irritated with her radical friends who were caught up in the myth of his innocence and victimhood. The second was the 1948 election. Barnard College was divided between "country-club Republicans for Thomas Dewey and romantic leftists for Henry Wallace." Jeane went to a Wallace rally, heard the candidate warn that the FBI would soon be rounding up dissidents if he were not elected, realized that his campaign was effectively a Communist front, and voted for Truman. She later believed that casting this vote had been a key moment in her life. Not as key, however, as the third event: her job interview with Evron Kirkpatrick, who headed the Office of Intelligence Research in the State Department.
Evron "Kirk" Kirkpatrick lived, prospered, and exerted great influence in three overlapping worlds—the academic discipline of political science, the liberal anti-Communist wing of the Democratic Party, and the intelligence agencies of the United States. He was close to Hubert Humphrey in the "Minnesota Mafia," and at a time when the Democrats were signed up to fighting the Cold War aggressively, he was what Collier calls an "action intellectual." He was charming and cultivated but, like Jeane, somewhat self-contained and even Delphic. He was also unhappily married for the second time. Shortly after hiring Jeane, he began to pay her marked attentions, dropping by her office for long chats, taking her out to lunch, and introducing her to such impressive friends as Humphrey and Max Kampelman. He was plainly smitten. She in turn fell in love, began with him what Collier describes as an impulsive "intimate relationship," and obviously feeling conflicted, first retreated to a hospital and home, and then fled to Paris.
"Fled" is perhaps the wrong word. Her anguish over Kirk gave her the immediate incentive, but no Julian Sorel has ever been keener to get to Paris than the young Jeane Kirkpatrick. One of her lifelong friends was a wealthy Frenchwoman whom she had met at Barnard, and her intellectual interest in totalitarianism made her want to immerse herself in the Parisian disputes between Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. She did so. She met Camus and was his passionate supporter in debates with Sartre. She regretted bitterly that he was eclipsed by the toad-faced anti-American until the Berlin Wall fell. And though sick for much of her ten months there, she discovered a love of France and a taste for French cuisine that never left her. But this was still a sort of convalescence. She was not really healed (or decided on what to do). Kirk decided the matter. He turned up in Paris. They returned to America, overcame the doubts of Jeane's family, and got married in 1955.
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For the next 20 years, with Kirk's help and guidance, Jeane settled into a new life and identity. She had three children, a moderately successful academic career, and wrote a book, Political Woman (1974) that ticked all the right academic boxes but, as Collier notes with mordant amusement, concluded that successful political women were much more like Jeane herself than like the strident feminist leaders of the 1960s and '70s. She had found her métier and her milieu. She was a political scientist and an anti-Communist liberal Democrat and her circle of friends included the most distinguished members of both groups. This identity fitted in with both her family loyalties and the drift of her scholarly interest in totalitarianism. It reflected her husband's life and opinions too. It was the safest, most respectable thing to be in the ages of Eisenhower and Kennedy. It was an identity in which she felt perfectly comfortable. And it helps to explain her initial doubts about joining the Reagan Administration and the fierceness of her reluctance to change her registration and become a Republican later. In the 1950s she would have thought such an outcome impossible—a sort of treason.
That is not to say her life was untroubled. She had to overcome the distrust of some of Kirk's friends who saw her as a "home-wrecker," which was extremely painful for Jeane. She was probably the beneficiary of the break-up of Kirk's marriage rather than its cause, but she felt some guilt, and was often vague about Kirk's marital status when they had met. In addition, as her three boys grew up, they gradually disappointed the high expectations of their parents, one boy disastrously so when he became an irrecoverable alcoholic. A friend remembers Jeane breaking down years later and sobbing that she would happily trade all her celebrity and distinctions for her son's recovery. And as the '50s wore on into the '60s and '70s, the ideological climate changed. Her secure identity became an embattled one as the radicals she rejected in her youth began their takeover of the Democratic Party and most of the better political science departments. She was one of the small group of academic liberals who resisted the revolution and became known as "neoconservatives." Kirkpatrick probably deserved this title more than many others because of the practical tough-mindedness that she brought to her thinking on ideology and foreign policy.
Neoconservatism was a cul-de-sac for young academics. But Kirkpatrick leapt into a new life on the trampoline of an article for Commentary magazine, "Dictatorships and Double Standards" (1979), arguing that authoritarian regimes, being less complete in their repression of civil society, were more likely than totalitarian regimes to evolve into democracies. This article made her famous outside the distinguished circle of her and Kirk's friends. It came to the attention of Ronald Reagan who recruited her into his campaign, appointed her U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and gave her a Cabinet position. Her serious public life had begun.
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Kirkpatrick was a successful ambassador to the United Nations in the fighting tradition of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She waged what became called "diplomacy without apologies." She took on those U.N. member-states—the great majority—that believed they could oppose the U.S. on important U.N. votes without imperiling their access to American aid and benefits. She challenged the anti-American statements of other diplomats and countered them by reciting the records of their governments on human rights. She revived the spirits of U.S. diplomats and of their colleagues from friendly U.N. delegations. And she managed to turn around some votes—notably, a Cuban resolution criticizing the U.S. on Puerto Rico—on which previous U.S. ambassadors would have surrendered in advance. As a result she became popular with the general public and exercised greater influence in the cabinet.
Allied to defense secretary Casper Weinberger and CIA director Bill Casey and enjoying the benevolent approval of the president, she was a formidable force within the administration on a range of issues redolent of "Dictatorships and Double Standards," notably the Reagan doctrine and funding the Nicaraguan Contras. She was right on these issues and Reagan appreciated her stance. On one occasion, to signify his support for her following criticism from Secretary of State Al Haig, Reagan walked the long way out of the cabinet room in order to kiss her en route. Such favors encouraged her to believe she might become the national security advisor when the post became vacant. But when Bill Clark resigned in late 1983 she lost the internal bureaucratic battle, refused the secondary post of counselor to the president, and after a fairly long diplomatic interval left the administration to campaign for the Reagan doctrine as a private citizen and academic expert.
Jeane was realistic enough to accept that her career in government had ended in defeat. That defeat was unfair but also unsurprising. She was simply no good at bureaucratic infighting and no match for such professionals as George Shultz, Mike Deaver, and James Baker. She had not cultivated them; they were hostile to her ambitions; and when the crunch came, they united against her. They also had ammunition. She was probably over-invested in her thesis in "Dictatorships and Double Standards." It was of only moderate application to the main Cold War dispute with the Soviet Union and issues such as arms control. And as Collier points out, she was too rigid in her skepticism about the positive use of democracy promotion and human rights diplomacy to the point of being uninterested in the work of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Reagan himself had embraced the NED and this approach, which was being conducted by her own disciples such as Carl Gershman and Joshua Muravchik.
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Above all, Kirkpatrick had one or two serious lapses of prudential judgment that allowed her opponents to present her as too risky to head the National Security Council (NSC). The single most damning example of her bad judgment was her resistance to siding with Britain in the Falklands War. She defended this on the grounds that Britain had not always supported U.S. interests and that Washington's obligation to support Britain as a NATO ally did not apply to issues outside NATO. She did not see that winning the Falklands War was not merely a British interest but a vital British interest and that Britain was not merely a NATO ally but a U.S. ally on a worldwide range of interests. Everyone else in the NSC—Reagan, Bush, Casey, Weinberger, even Haig—saw these realities. She did not. And it damaged her.
Not enough, however, to prevent her being considered as a presidential candidate five years later. Was she ever serious about the Republican nomination in 1988? She took the proper soundings, rounded up potential donors, hired campaign consultants, and recruited a possibly key supporter in the governor of New Hampshire. She even became a Republican. Having marched her troops to the top of the hill, however, she promptly marched them down again. After agreeing to walk onto the stage with the other Republican hopefuls for a 1987 debate moderated by Bill Buckley—unannounced for maximum theatrical effect—she decided it was not for her and pulled out of the debate and the race. It is very likely that she flirted with running just as she flirted with writing an autobiography. But she drew back when the moment came.
She could not avoid controversies, however; they attached themselves to her with super-glue. Two in particular arose following the end of the Cold War. The transformation of Poland into a democracy and the collapse of the Soviet Union led her old adversaries on the Left to question her argument that totalitarian states were less likely than authoritarian ones to become democracies. The Kirkpatrick doctrine had therefore been disproved. Then her argument—rooted in conservative realism—that the U.S. could now afford to be a "normal" nation pursuing its national interests prudently aroused opposition from the second generation of neoconservatives who favored a more interventionist policy of democracy promotion. Between 1989 and Kirkpatrick's death in 2006 neither dispute was settled, but the balance of the debate shifted back in her favor—in the first case, decisively. Shortly before her death, Aviezer Tucker, a young scholar whose specialisms include a study of post-totalitarianism, pointed out that post-authoritarian societies were plainly superior to post-totalitarian societies in their ability to adjust to democracy. The reason was straight out of Jeane's essay: authoritarian governments do not decapitate all the non-political elites in society; totalitarian governments do just that. So a post-totalitarian society is one in which the only surviving expert elites are the national security and intelligence ones—and what we get is Putin's government by siloviki.
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Looking back on Kirkpatrick's life, a dispassionate observer sees a happy, fruitful, and successful one marred by some private unhappiness, mainly over her children, and a very forgivable failure to get to the very top of the political tree. She had a 40-year marriage with her soulmate, a successful academic career, a dramatic leap into the Cabinet, a U.N. ambassadorship (the first woman to obtain that bauble) in an administration that won the Cold War, the respect of colleagues and opponents, and the affection of many friends. But did she see it that way? Or did she like Churchill feel that her achievements, though widely admired, were below what she expected of herself? Did she even look at her life and feel, like Orwell, that it was little more than a series of defeats?
Who knows? All we can say is that she was very reluctant to write about her life and even to discuss large areas of it with friends. She is extremely fortunate, therefore, that a light remark to Peter Collier triggered a biography that is truthful, sympathetic, highly readable—and supportive of the dispassionate observer's view that Jeane Kirkpatrick's was a life well-lived.