The Other Iron Lady

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. 

Q: Because this is the first book on her life and much of what you wrote was unknown to the general public, did you feel any sort of added pressure to make sure everything was correct?

A: I think that you do have that sort of a duty, particularly when you’re establishing what will become the criteria for understanding [Jeane’s] life publicly for readers and political scientists who will be interested in this book to some degree. So you have to get it right. And I did try to get it right. I did a lot of crosschecking. ... I did want to get it right not only for the sake of truth with a capital “T,” but because I also felt Jeane looking over my shoulder, and she could be a severe critic of people who took shortcuts and who were lazy in any respect. I think it was born out of a sense of wanting to honor her exacting standards, [rather] than some abstract idea that what I was doing was establishing her record.  

Q: Was it a different experience to be writing a biography of someone you knew personally?

A: It is in a way. I was close to her personally, but in a way no more and probably less than quite a number of people. She had a wide circle of friends, and her friends are incredibly loyal to her, which I guess has to be said as the first sign that somebody was a good person. Just really fanatically loyal to her and protective of her. ... I’ve always specialized in family biographies and trying to understand the dynamics of the difference between generations, particularly as the DNA spindles down through history. Here it was a narrower focus. It was a life that had antecedents and had children and all of that. But it was mainly a political life. So it was different from anything I had ever done. And I think writing about a single individual as opposed to writing about different people inside a family ... it is more Jamesian of a pursuit and less Balzacian. 

Q: In researching and writing the book, what was the most surprising thing you learned, either about Kirkpatrick or the politics that she found herself surrounded by?

A: On the whole, I think of it as an attempt of an homage to this extraordinary woman who should have been seen by other women as ... a groundbreaker. But because she chose to be involved in the Reagan administration, she was scorned by other women, particularly feminists. She should have been seen as a feminist avatar, but she was seen as an enemy by feminists, and that was really a tragedy. She was bitter about it. Even though, on the other hand, she attacked the radical feminists for being rude and narcissistic. But nevertheless this was a woman who was one of the first to get a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia, one of the first tenured political scientists at Georgetown, the first woman U.N. ambassador to have Cabinet rank, and to have people like Gloria Steinem call her a female impersonator, which is what Jeane claims she did, or Naomi Wolf, who at that time had no children, to have said, according to Jeane, that [Jeane] was a woman without a uterus when Jeane had three children, these were gratuitous slurs that show a kind of tunnel vision because this woman did something for all women. And that’s one of the biggest takeaways — and it’s a very minor one in a funny sort of way given the big themes of her life involving the Cold War, driving a stake through the heart of the Soviet Union — but it is true that Jeane was a pioneering woman, but because of the animosity toward her by the ... feminists, she will never get the recognition she deserves.