In Honor of Jeane Kirkpatrick

Aristotle wrote that the criterion of good moral action is not a principle or a law so much as “the man of practical wisdom”—that is, the person in your environment who habitually makes the wisest and bravest decisions of anyone else you know. Aristotle mentions, in his context, Pericles. In my circle, I always wanted to ask Jeane Kirkpatrick for advice and counsel. I wanted to watch what she did. I guess nowadays they call persons of this type “role models.” But that term doesn’t quite get the whole idea. It misses the interiority of the thing, the inner life, the fount of the wisdom one is seeking. Not a role player but a person who has lived through a lot, learned from it, and has a burning desire to get things right, circumstance by circumstance. That was Jeane. Someone asked me once who I would like to see as the first woman president. I said I would pick Jeane Kirkpatrick, but I really want her to be the first woman empress of the world! There are not many tough enough, but she was. Like Margaret Thatcher. It was wonderful to have two such strong women leaders in those crucial decades of our time. Women strong enough to keep the men from going “wobbly.”

When Karen and I first came to the American Enterprise Institute in 1978 (although I had been an adjunct visitor once a week for a year or so longer than that), Jeane was already one of our most distinguished colleagues, a widely noted author and lecturer, and a teacher whose classes were much sought after by students at Georgetown. Democracy and human rights were two of her main issues, although she was also fascinated by their opposites—the old-style tyrannies of the Latin American caudillo school, and the real totalitarians of mind and body, such as the Soviets and Red Chinese. One of her first big books was on women in politics, although her most well-known writings were her powerful essays in Commentary, such as “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”

Before he ran for the presidency, Ronald Reagan had read some of her work, and during the later stages of his campaign he called her to California to test some of her arguments on dictatorships, the idea of human rights, the prospect of democracy, and even arms control. She told it to him straight. She told me later that she never met a man who so effortlessly treated a woman as an equal, and who felt totally secure of himself in his own person. She was more impressed than she had expected to be, not least by his probing questions and the well-thought-out clarity of his own views. He was not what the press had led her to expect.

Later, when he asked her to be his Ambassador to the United Nations—in those days, causing no small amount of mischief for the United States and its allies (being rather more than most observers had noticed under the influence of well-placed communists in key staff positions)—Jeane consulted with her husband, a very wise political scientist himself, and quickly said yes. She demanded the kind of candor and straight-up treatment that her Oklahoma upbringing had taught her to expect—and to demand. She loved having roots back in Oklahoma, the freedom of the Plains, the toughness of the land and the people, the Will Rogers humor, the hard shell of having been brought up a Baptist. (“Came in handy for me at the UN,” she told me once, after some of the criticism her early boldness brought down on her head. “I’m grateful for that education.”)

Jeane was a wonderful gourmet cook and had friends (Chuck Lichtenstein, for one, and Anne Crutcher for another—food editor at the old Washington Star) who were as good or better. Eating at her house was a rare delight, even on impromptu occasions. She spent summers at her small cottage in the Macon region of southern France, and so her selections of wines for her meals were also a special delight—and an education. But the best part about her dinners was the feast of conversation: probing, wide-ranging, drawing upon everybody present, funny, full of friendship and cheer, intellectually invigorating.

Jeane would tell me quietly about how much more religious being under fire at the United Nations had made her—fire not only from certain overseas delegations but also domestic criticism from the usual suspects—because she found it necessary to clear her mind, and drink at the founts of conscience and inner light, and strengthen her resolve. Being outwardly so active and strong required of her a deeper and quieter inner life, she said. She didn’t do what she did for ego but for justice and liberty.

Jeane was the architect of the emphasis on democracy and human rights that turned the later years of the 1980s into one of the most dynamic and star-bursting periods ever for the birth of new democracies. What she added to the Carter rhetoric was a firmer sense of the necessary habits, dispositions, actions, and institutions that turn human rights from “parchment barriers” on paper into real social forces. She tried to put substance and action into the high-flown empty statements of UN resolutions. When nations said one thing, then did another, Jeane carefully called them to account, privately or publicly as seemed to her wisest. She demanded straight-shooting. Countries that begged the United States for aid and relief, military help or emergency airlifts—and then stood rhetorically with the enemies of the United States on the floor of the UN—were informed that greater integrity was expected from them.

Jeane Kirkpatrick was an enormous force for honesty, liberty, candor, straightforwardness, and sheer moral bravery. She was a valiant woman and a gallant soul. She was a thoughtful and gentle colleague; a very warm, generous, and open friend; and a great, brave American heroine.

She will add much to the arguments and intellectual excitements that rage, I imagine, at the celestial banquets to which we are all called. It will be fun to engage with her again.

Published in First Things December 11, 2006