Author Peter Collier’s new biography of Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Ronald Reagan and an iconic figure in the neoconservative movement, touches on the political and the personal.
“Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick” breaks down the tough exterior walls that Kirkpatrick built around her private life to tell the story of a groundbreaking woman in American politics who helped bring down the Soviet Union while at the same time fighting a sad story at home, with an alcoholic son and two other children who did not share her fervor for academia and learning.
Roll Call spoke with Collier about the biography and his friendship with Kirkpatrick, who died in 2006.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A:Jeane had been a friend of mine, and I admired her. And I had always thought ... that she had a remarkable story to tell. The story first of centrist Democrats leaving the Democratic Party, and her chief among them, building a sort of land bridge to Ronald Reagan. And then the second part of the story was really Jeane leading the charge inside the Reagan administration on behalf ... of those centrist Democrats as much as of the conservative vision of Ronald Reagan, and leading the charge to fight the Cold War to victory. And ... the fact that I simply liked her and thought that somebody ought to do something to keep her memory green for a while.
Q: You’re best known for your books on subjects well-known to every American with a basic knowledge of civics — the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts — about whom much has been written and scrutinized. What was it like to write a biography of an important, though lesser-known, political figure?
A: You’re right. The implication of your question is that you have to, in a sense, develop this syllabus of knowledge about a person such as Jeane. Whereas a person of a more celebrated and famous family, you start with a baseline of knowledge. So there was having to re-create all of the stories. And Jeane herself was famously closed-mouthed. She was a warm person, but she grew frigid when you got too close to the personal zones of her life. And so it was a challenge to understand her story and particularly the intimate part of her story about her coming to marry her husband, Evron Kirkpatrick, and really stumbling on parts of the story that she really would have not wanted to have known, such as the tragedy of her eldest child, who killed himself by alcohol, and the separation in some sense of her children from her and her husband in terms of their ambitions and in terms of their family solidarity. So I felt I had to tell that story because it was part of her story, but it was one that would have pained her and one that she went to some considerable lengths to hide.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.