Magazine article The American Conservative

Reagan's Athena

Magazine article The American Conservative

Reagan's Athena

Article excerpt

Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Peter Collier, Encounter, 272 pages

In the summer of 1990 Jeane Kirkpatrick published an essay in the National Interest. It was less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. German reunification loomed in October. The Soviet Union had not yet collapsed. So what was Kirkpatrick's take on events?

Instead of espousing the triumphalism that characterized much of the neoconservative movement, she adopted a more severe tone. America, she announced, should become a "normal nation," one that could return to "normal times" now that it had overcome the "messianic creeds"--Bolshevism and Nazism--that had sought to leave their impress upon history, only to expire in the ruins of Berlin, where Hitler had staged his personal Gotterdammerung, and the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan, where the Mujahideen besieged the once mighty Red Army.

This was not a credo that many of her close colleagues chose to embrace. Rather, they sought a new mission.

Paul Wolfowitz suggested in a controversial 1992 document leaked to the New York Times that America should more or less announce "I am the Greatest!" to ensure that it established hegemony over any possible comers such as Germany or Japan, then seen as potential competitors. It was, moreover, time to shake up the Middle East, to rid it of tyranny and, along the way, to export the American way to every nook and cranny of the globe.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in Foreign Affairs, thus announced that what he deemed "The Unipolar Moment" had arrived--"communism may be dead but the work of democracy is never done." He paid homage to Kirkpatrick's efforts, but stated that "international stability is never a given," rather it is the result of "self-conscious action by the great powers and most particularly by the greatest power."

Kirkpatrick was unconvinced. She viewed the second Iraq War with profound misgivings, though she was cautious about publicly airing her doubts.

After the Cold War ended, Kirkpatrick's star power waned at her old redoubt, the American Enterprise Institute. Her final book on foreign affairs was rejected by AEI's press. One day she simply packed up her office and let. Another former UN ambassador, John Bolton, occupied it. In December 2006, on the eve of the publication by HarperCollins of her book Making War To Keep Peace, she died.

In his elegiac biography Political Woman, Peter Collier assesses Kirkpatrick's life and legacy. Collier, a graceful writer, has produced a study that makes for at times painful but always illuminating reading. He covers everything from her tumultuous family life to her unexpected emergence as a conservative celebrity during the first term of the Reagan administration. Kirkpatrick was the first woman to occupy a prominent place in what had been the old boy's network of the foreign-policy establishment, which often viewed her with scorn. As someone who knew and enjoyed talking with Kirkpatrick, I am struck by how deftly Collier has captured her intellectually intense, knotty, and willful personality.

As he emphasizes, Kirkpatrick's outsized personality was formed in Duncan, Oklahoma and Vandalia, Illinois. Her father, whose nickname was "Fat," had a prickly side that she inherited. Proud of his daughter but reluctant to see her stray too far from home, he stopped her from applying to the University of Chicago and compromised on Stephens College, a two-year school for women in Columbia, Missouri.


Later, after earning a B.A. at Barnard, Kirkpatrick entered graduate school in political science at Columbia University, where she signed up for a four-semester course on German politics taught by Franz Neumann, a refugee from totalitarian Germany and the author of a massive study of the Nazi bureaucracy, Behemoth.

According to Collier, this sage taught how "extremists of the right and the let, Nazis and Communists, had collaborated to cause the violent collapse of Weimar as supporters of the Republic stood by impotently appeasing them. …

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