Jeane J. Kirkpatrick’s eyes twinkle at the mention of that August 1984 night at the Republican National Convention in Dallas when she eviscerated liberal Democrats as the “blame America first crowd.”
“When Marxist dictators shoot their way into power in Central America, the San Francisco Democrats don’t blame the guerrillas and their Soviet allies,” Mrs. Kirkpatrick said of her party, which had just had its national convention in San Francisco. “They blame United States policies of 100 years ago. But then they always blame America first.”
With those words, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — a long-time Democrat — described the difference between President Reagan’s determination to defeat communism and Democratic Party leaders’ inclination to accommodate communism everywhere.
She accused Democrats of abandoning the anti-communism of liberals like Harry S. Truman, Hubert H. Humphrey and Henry “Scoop” Jackson for the accommodative tack of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and the “new liberals” she tagged as the “San Francisco Democrats.”
Mr. Reagan liked the “blame America first” refrain so much he used it against Democrats in his speeches in the fall 1984 campaign, winning a landslide victory.
“I worked very hard on that Dallas speech, and I believe the charges I made were defensible and that I could document them,” Mrs. Kirkpatrick, 79, says as she sorts through old manuscripts in the living room of her Bethesda home. “At that time, there really were very widespread attacks on Ronald Reagan and the Reagan administration. I thought they were unreasonably harsh, and that’s what I was referring to.”
While foreign policy led her away from her former party, Mrs. Kirkpatrick also had domestic policy differences with Democrats.
“Democrat welfare policy not only was not working but was damaging to the people who were the supposed beneficiaries,” she says. “I believe in self-reliance.”
Her own current foreign policy views seem not quite to match either party’s talking points.
“I don’t think we have an obligation to engage in a new imperialism,” says Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who adds that she is “skeptical of nation-building. It is extremely difficult for one nation to seriously remake another nation.”
She calls President Bush’s foreign policy “a little too interventionist for my taste, frankly — but not across the board. I am very much in favor of his actions in Afghanistan and have not opposed them in Iraq.”
Like other conservative intellectuals torn between their sense of moral propriety and their rejection of meddling government, Mr. Kirkpatrick is conflicted about a constitutional ban on homosexual “marriage.”
“Look, I am a serious Christian. I attend a conservative Presbyterian Church,” she says. “I was raised as a Baptist. No, I don’t favor the constitutional amendment. On the other hand, I don’t want to promote same-sex ‘marriage.’”
An icon to many conservatives for the past 25 years, she has her own way of describing how the world works. Over the history of the republic, she says, government has done more to protect and enhance freedom than to restrict it.
“Wherever there is a choice of leaving opportunities and tasks to the individual rather than government, it is desirable to do that,” she says. “But where it is not possible or feasible, there is a legitimate role for government.”
“I have no doubt that we needed … an active government role to break some of the barriers of segregation and discrimination — and we still do, somewhat,” she says.
She also sees a government role in dealing with disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf coast last year: “Some devastation is so terrible, so deep, that it requires major effort that government is more able to mount than individuals. I have never changed my views about these issues.”
The write stuff
Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s road to becoming the most visible Democrat in a conservative Republican administration began with a pair of articles by her that riveted the attention of two different audiences in the fall of 1979.
“Why we don’t become Republicans,” appeared in the Republican National Committee magazine Common Sense. In it, she said Democrats like her and her husband, Evron “Kirk” Kirkpatrick — adviser to liberal Minnesota Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey — were “chronically dismayed” by their party’s leftward foreign-policy drift since 1972 under the “new liberals.”
Yet, the GOP didn’t seem an acceptable alternative because it retained a “brand” image associated with country-club snobbery and an indifference to problems of race and poverty.
Her breakthrough 1979 foreign-policy article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” appeared in Commentary — which became famous as a “neo-conservative” journal under editor Norman Podhoretz.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick argued that America’s “posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate” and concluded that the McGovern-Carter crowd had confused “liberal idealism … with masochism.”
The Commentary article “changed my life, actually,” she says.
“Dictatorships and Double Standards” caught the eye of Richard Allen, who would become Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser. Mr. Allen gave a copy to Mr. Reagan, saying, “Here, read this — I promise you’ll like it.”
Later, she recalls, “I was sitting in my office minding my own business when I got a call from Bill Casey,” the Reagan campaign manager and future CIA director, as well as a call from another Reagan emissary. She agreed to meet with Mr. Reagan and his top advisers the next Friday.
“I hung up, and the phone rang again. The voice said, ‘This is the White House.’ It was Bernie Aronson, Jimmy Carter’s top adviser on Latin America.”
Mrs. Kirkpatrick had helped found the neo-conservative Coalition for a Democratic Majority, and Mr. Aronson said President Carter wanted the CDM’s perspective “adequately represented” at the Democratic Platform Hearings in Baltimore. The president had hoped to get Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to testify, but that fell through, and now he wanted Mrs. Kirkpatrick.
“I said, ‘Bernie, thanks so much, but I think it’s too late,’” she recalls, adding that it “was one of the real turning points in my life. It was well known by then that neo-conservatives” — disaffected liberal Democrats in search of a party — “were growing, that I was one of them and that we were unhappy with our Democratic president and our Democratic candidate.”
Mrs. Kirkpatrick, joined the Reagan 1980 campaign team as foreign-policy adviser. After the election, she was in Miami addressing a Hebrew University fundraiser when he telephoned. “How are you, Mr. President-elect?” she said, to which he replied, “I’d be a lot better if you’d agree to go to New York and be my ambassador to the United Nations — and a member of my Cabinet.”
Republicans concluded that no one in either party could articulate Mr. Reagan’s foreign policy better than Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a former foreign-intelligence researcher and a confirmed Francophile who wrote her doctoral dissertation while bringing up three sons and who consulted her political-science professor husband on all matters of import.
She became the most visible, highly placed Reagan Democrat in the administration, signaling millions of others that it was all right to vote for a conservative Republican and eventually, to follow her lead and change her registration to Republican — as she did after leaving government in 1985.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick says her legacy has been to help bring about a realignment in American politics and to radically change the atmosphere at the United Nations: “I wanted to make it clear we were there to stand up for U.S. interests and principles.”