Peter Collier is the long-time writng partner of David Horowitz, the founder of Encounter Books, and the author of best-selling biographies (co-authored with David Horowitz) including The Kennedys: An American Dynasty and The Rockefellers: An American Epic. Other notable titles by Peter include Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties (with David Horowitz) and, most recently, Medal of Honor: Portaits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty (just republished in its third edition).
Peter’s new book is a brilliant biography of the late, great, sorely missed Jeane Kirkpatrick. The book is Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirpatrick. It is engrossing, absorbing, intimate and beautifully written. You come away from the book with the feeling that you knew Mrs. Kirkpatrick.
I asked Peter if he would send us something that would allow us to bring the book to the attention of our readers. He has responded with an adaptation of the book’s Introduction regarding the genesis of the book:
Jeane Kirkpatrick tried to write a memoir soon after leaving the Reagan administration in 1985 when she was an incredibly hot property, chased by speakers’ bureaus, newspaper syndicates and literary agents. Advanced close to $1 million by Simon & Schuster, she worked fitfully on it for a couple of years before finally giving up. Jeane never had trouble saying what she believed; but she did have problems saying what she felt. The first person singular pronoun was her enemy.
Still, in the years that followed her failure with the Simon & Schuster book, people kept urging her to tell her tale. I was one of them. In 1998, when we were both on the board of Freedom House, I was starting a publishing company called Encounter Books and asked her about a book about her life. I told her how important I thought the book I was proposing would be, even years later, in telling two major stories at once: the migration she had led of centrist Democrats out of their hijacked party into the Reagan camp, and the major role they had played in fighting the Cold War to victory.
We danced around the subject for a few minutes and then I made her a proposal to overcome her obvious reluctance: I would do the groundwork, interviewing her occasionally, as our schedules permitted; then I would put together something like a syllabus of her own thoughts and memories, which she could work from as an editor as much as a writer.
In what I soon came to understand was a habitual tendency to let people believe they had heard what they wanted to hear from her, she gave the impression of being interested in this plan. And so we began to have “conversations.”
Most were at her office at the American Enterprise Institute, a place filled with memorabilia that provided context for the project: a “Truman for President” button; the fan letter that Ronald Reagan wrote her after he read her famous 1979 article “Dictatorships and Double Standards”; a battle standard given to her by Enrique Bermúdez, the commander of the Nicaraguan Contras who had named a battalion after her.
Living on opposite coasts, we had ten or so of these conversations over a period of a few years. She tended to lecture rather than chat, particularly if big ideas were at issue. (She understood that this made her seem a little starchy, and once told me: “It’s a problem. I was a teacher long before I got involved in government and I’m a teacher now that I’m not in government. It’s who I am.”)
She didn’t like to stray too far from her favorite subjects: how growing up in Middle America at a certain moment in our national life had been a time-lapse civics lesson; how loyalty to the Democratic Party was so deeply embedded in her identity that it required an intellectual bone marrow transplant to get rid of it; how the study of totalitarianism had become her life’s work by the time she was twenty years old; how her friends Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson were her ideal of public servants; and how she and other centrist Democrats unwilling to regard the decline of America as irreversible had rebelled against Jimmy Carter’s presidency, although she herself had done this without any notion that she would eventually embrace and be embraced by Ronald Reagan.
And she spoke of Reagan himself, whom she saw as a quintessential Westerner, drawing strength from his ability to be silent about his feelings just as the men in her own Southwestern birth family had been. “Others saw this as a defect in the president,” she said, “but it was part of what made him great—the ability to live within his own boundaries and chart a course without worrying about how he was going to present his drama.”
When our talk veered toward more personal subjects, Jeane’s quills stood up. If I persisted in heading for areas she had tried subliminally to indicate were off-limits, her manner suddenly defaulted to the hauteur she’d used so adroitly in her public life.
Still, for the most part, I think, she took pleasure in the conversations. Surprisingly, one of the subjects to which she kept circling back was feminism, especially the “second wave” that had developed out of the 1960s, which she thought bore that era’s birth defects. She regarded these radical feminists as narcissistic and ahistorical, and ultimately anti-woman in their scornful attitude toward marriage and children. She knew what she had accomplished and was defiantly proud to have done it her way—as an individual, without the backing of a movement that would have reduced her existential maneuvers to a dumb show of grievance and reprisal dead-ending in demands for guaranteed outcomes.
Yet she was paradoxically also deeply wounded by the fact that the feminists she scorned had not only ignored her achievements, but disparaged them as inauthentic. She would repeat with a bitter smile some of the things she claimed they said about her: “Gloria Steinem called me a female impersonator. Can you believe that? Naomi Wolf said I was ‘a woman without a uterus.’ I who have three kids while she, when she made this comment, had none.” While she fully understood the source of this animus—her connection with Ronald Reagan and her unique status as the most effective public defender of his policies—there was still a wounded quality to her discussions of it.
She never adopted the grand manner of a former high official and was not inclined to advertise her considerable accomplishments: one of the first female doctoral students in political science at Columba University, one of the few tenured female professors in her early days at Georgetown, and later a “political woman” who became the United States’ first female permanent representative to the United Nations. Being regarded merely as a leading conservative feminist never ceased to rankle.
To move our project forward, I finally pulled together some of the stories Jeane told me about her coming of age into a demonstration chapter. She read it and remarked, “Well, it’s accurate and sort of sounds like me.” With some hesitancy, she finally formally agreed to take up the memoir as soon as she finished a “big policy book” she was working on. I tried to get her to sign a contract, but she said that “the Simon & Schuster thing”—by which she meant the lacerating experience of having to return a large advance—had made her gun-shy about taking money before there was a manuscript.
As Encounter Books became more time-consuming, our contacts grew more sporadic. I’d call Jeane every so often and ask her how the policy book was going. Not as well as she wished, she usually replied hesitantly. She sent a draft to me and asked for an opinion. It was a hard read, far from the summary statement on U.S. foreign policy she had hoped to produce. (It would be published after her death—heavily edited from the form in which I had seen it—as Making War to Keep Peace.)
The last time I saw her was in spring 2005. I knew she’d had bouts of illness, but even so was taken aback by her physical diminishment: bones jutting out of her wrists and shoulders; fingers angled by arthritis; cheeks sunken in a way that enlarged her eyes and gave her a startled look. Perhaps most alarming, strangely, was that her brindle-colored hair, which I’d never realized she’d been dyeing all those years, was suddenly white. She picked at her food and talked glumly of how bad she thought it was for us ever to have gone into Iraq, although she was not about to go public with her doubts, and seemed to feel bad that she was no longer able to live in the intellectual house remodeled by the new generation of neoconservatives.
Then she transitioned to the subject of our project. “I’m not making much progress on any of my work these days,” she said. “I’m sorry for all your effort, but I don’t see myself getting to that book about my life we’ve been talking about. I’m afraid that this unfinished business of ours will probably remain unfinished.”
I could see that the admission had cost her something and told her glibly that if this was the case I might have to go ahead and write it myself. She thought for a long minute and then said, “Well, maybe you should.”
At the time I made it, the offer was flippant. But after Jeane died, it gradually took on the feel of a promise to keep. In writing Political Woman, I drew on our fragmentary conversations, her draft autobiography (which she reluctantly showed me) and other random, unorganized materials she left behind. I also used the recollections of friends and family members to fill in some (but by no means all) of the gaps.
It is not the book that I still wish she’d been able to write. But I think it captures the unique nature of her improbable odyssey—that of a curious and ambitious young woman who came out of the American heartland with a burning desire to grapple with “big ideas,” subjected herself to a grim study of totalitarianism as a way of sharpening her appreciation of freedom, made a significant place for herself in the worlds of scholarship and political activism, and finally, after years as a Democratic Party insider, accepted a cabinet position in a Republican administration where she went on to become, in William Safire’s accurate phrase, “the courage of Ronald Reagan’s convictions.”
And at the foundation of the life she built was a truth she always insisted on making self-evident: “I’ve always been passionately in love with my country.”
Not many people could get away with making this statement. Jeane could, because for her it was not just a sentiment but a reflection of her inner light.
Adapted from Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, by Peter Collier. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted with the kind permission of Encounter Books. All rights reserved.