The American Iron Lady

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


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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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  • Rod McGregor

    This is the same Jean Kirkpatrick who confessed to not knowing who was the head of state of Grenada AFTER the invasion by US forces. Embarassing to see her being informed it was the Queen of England. Whoops. That's Secretaries of State for you. Well informed. Not!

    • PDK

      Rod, the article I just read refered to Jean as Ambassedor to the UN, not Secretary of State. I do not recall her being a SofS ever. I could be wrong but I think you are misinformed.
      One and done! Nobama 2012, vote republican. Thank you.

    • ruth

      pick, pick, pick, pick….

  • H&R_ Barack

    Ms. Jeane Kirkpatrick the no-nonsense, straight-talking ambassador was also a formidable Georgetown dinner hostess whose credo was, "Never apologize."

    Once when entertaining an influential group of Washington elites in her tony district apartment, she failed to fully thaw the Cornish game hens she was serving. A guest, attempting to spear the frozen fowl with the tines of their fork; sent the cold bloody bird sailing across the dinner table and onto the floor.

    The unshakable Ms. Kirkpatrick, continued with her conversation and meal as if nothing happened. This by her own account in a Vanity Fair-type publication some years ago. She was remarkable,

    • Rod McGregor

      Oh, so she couldn't cook either.

      • H&R_ Barack

        Dumbass McGregor, the Scottish Bard of Nonsense………

        In the arena of general erudition and a faculty of reasoning and understanding; – - –
        Ambassador Kirkpatrick would have cooked your dull-witted goose and still had time to fly to France.

  • David M

    Jeane Kirkpatrick was an American Iron Lady and the USA has a living Iron Lady that so-called MSM dare not name her. She is the most courageous American, intelligent, eloquent, self-made, pro-life, pro-America, pro-Israel, and pro-First and Second Amendments. Liberals afraid of her and the so-called Conservatives ( Glenn Beck, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh,…..) are not better. Her name is ANN BARNHARDT and she has a site: barnhardt.biz.

  • Looking4Sanity

    My favorite phrase in this article is "liberals being mugged by reality". Oh, God! How I do love to watch THAT happen! They're ALL going to get "mugged by reality" on November 6th. I'm hoping that they'll all be left rhetorically comatose by that ideological beating.

  • http://gosumer.cogito.blogspot.com Sid Harth

    My Sister, Jeane Kirkpatrick, A Political Babe and I@gosumer.blogspot.com

  • Ghostwriter

    Uh moore,what does THIS have anything to do with the topic at hand?

  • wctaqiyya

    Yeah sure, it's amazing that a mere women can achieve anything? Sexist pigs.

  • mrbean

    Unlike the hag Hillary Clinton who only through her husband achieve stature and failed at everything she touched, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Margret Thatcher made on their own and were highly successful.

  • sfsikores

    R Bonner's book, Waltzing With a Dictator, a history of the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos reign as dictators, paints a negative image of Kirkpatrick and her strong Reagan support for the Philippine dictatorship. Reagan as an anti-communist ideologue cozied up to the Marcos dictatorship (along with central American dictators) and Kirkpatrick was in full support. Human rights violations, widespread torture, cronyism, and a complete looting of the Philippine treasury and resources were ignored by Reagan and Kirkpatrick as the US continued to send billions in payoffs just to keep Subic Bay and Clark Bases functioning (who many military experts felt totally unnecessary). Kirkpatrick was a direct opposite of human rights supporter … she and Reagan did everything possible to keep the evil Marcos dictatorship in power. With no help from the US, it was the Philippine isurgency, the Aquino movement … that toppled the gangster regime. A reason why the US is so hated in so many parts of the world is their support for oppressive dictators who provide military base access. Waltzing With a Dictator opened my eyes to the systemic failures of our foreign policies. Kirkpatrick was an anti-Commie ideologue with accomplishments and baggage.

  • wctaqiyya

    Kirkpatrick is not impressive, not at all. Sorry, she was just another functionary who would say or do whatever her master commanded. She will be quickly forgotten and that is, as it should be. I, being aged and wise, can add many others to this list. But, that's another comment.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      Really? I remember her in her position as UN Ambassador.
      After a typical anti-American rants she stood and started reading a list of countries and the amount of foreign aid sent by us to them.

      It was quite effective.

      • wctaqiyya

        Well, if by effective you mean she succeeded in illustrating the stupidity of American foreign policy, then yeah.
        And good for her that she rose to some level of prominence. However, being the UN ambassador, while nice, is not quite the same thing as being a policy maker. She forged no new ground, made no grand diplomatic breakthroughs and solved no problems. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't she pretty much just read from her script? I mean, she was no Marshall or Kissinger was she? So, I remain unimpressed. I won't dump on her, but she's no Bismark or Talleyrand. So, put away the ticker-tape and recycle that bronze you hoarded for her statue.

        • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

          She stood her ground and temporarily put a stop to the rampant American bashing at the UN.

          That's a good thing, at least to someone that believes in American exceptionalism.

          • wctaqiyya

            Yes, it's the America bashing that's the trouble. It's not the funding of our enemies. Funding our enemies is something we can be proud of. Because we're exceptional like that, exceptional like special Ed. Your hero might have made a better impression if she just sang the nursery rhyme about sticks and stones. Bragging about paying the same people who bash you is just stupid.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Feeding the poor, providing malarial drugs, technical knowhow, and all sorts of humanitarian needs to others shows a nobility to our culture.

            For them to stab us in the back shows a lack of it in theirs. And for her to point it out shows a shrewdness that you seem to find threatening. So, how much foreign aid has your muslim friendly country accepted from us infidels?

  • DR.MUSIC

    can she smash islam ? can she do it ? In islam logic and logical questions are blasphemy ….by the second question islam murders the questioner. This cult has to be wiped out . we have to do it …but who will? What will it take ? Who will smash islam ? Who will get into tomorrow’s history / herstory books? What will happen to our children’s children’s children if we don’t stop islam now ish ? Women and children will be ruined …..it’s mind blowing …. just imagine….. DUNE the novel was fantastic…the spice eating blue eyeballed natives were slightly cultish no doubt and the islam angle comes in brilliantly because islam is in fact a blood cult. That’s the whole thing with horrible islam ….all islam is a cult. A horrible cult…for women and children factually . islam is a cult …on steroids…. islam gotta go …mecca medina is gonna be on no one’s must-visit list soon.

    islam is being documented. The file is fattening.

    The macabre cult of islam corrupts the human mind ….the very fact that the good muslim is still in the macabre cult of islam means that he is open to the idea of his children being force fed hate and his corrupted children will definitely be dangerous to our children. We have to stop the macabre cult of islam in its tracks. We have to think of our children’s lives because the macabre cult of islam makes muslims think of our children’s death so then only the macabre cult of islam wins. The macabre cult of islam is in a losing position if even one non-muslim is alive. Do you understand all this ?
    THE WHOLE PLANET IS eagerly WAITING FOR THE DESTRUCTION AND COMPLETE WIPEOUT OF THE macabre CULT OF ISLAM.
    What part of “NUKE-EM” don’t we understand ?
    Islam is cancer, the cure is radiation!

    Who will get into the textbooks of future-history as the planet’s real savior ?
    I HAVE A FEELING IT WILL BE AN INDIAN OR AN IRANIAN. MAYBE EVEN AN AFGAN who read his Buddhist history and came to his senses…. I HOPE IT’S A WOMAN BECAUSE IN THE END IT WILL BE A WOMAN’S JOB TO CLEAN UP THIS macabre MESS THIS ONE MAD MAN CALLED MOHA-MAD WRECKED ON THIS PLANET FOR THE LAST 1400 YEARS. All the blood and gore will come to an end at last and peace will come for our women and children. I have a feeling it’s going to be a woman who smashes macabre islam by speaking and facing the truth of this horrible creeping blood cult.
    islam has to be smashed for your sake.
    For muslims isake slam has to be smashed.

  • terria

    your mom

    • lisa

      thts not nice