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.
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