Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, 80; first American woman to serve as U.N. ambassador

Times Staff Writer

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a staunch Reagan-era anti-Communist who infused American foreign policy with firm conviction as the first woman to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has died. She was 80.

Kirkpatrick died in her sleep late Thursday at her home in Bethesda, Md., according to an announcement Friday on the website of the American Enterprise Institute. The conservative think tank, where Kirkpatrick worked for several decades, called her “a great patriot and champion of freedom.”

The Associated Press quoted Kirkpatrick’s assistant there as saying she had heart disease, though no cause of death was announced.

At the U.S. mission at the United Nations in New York, Ambassador John Bolton announced the news at a senior staff meeting, requesting a moment of silence in her memory. “It really is very sad for America,” he said. “She will be greatly missed.”


At the White House, President Bush said Kirkpatrick “influenced the thinking of generations of Americans on the importance of American leadership in advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the globe.”

And on Capitol Hill, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) called her “a patriot and a class act ... who almost single-handedly broke the glass ceiling for women in foreign policy.” Lantos added that Kirkpatrick’s “key role in beating back the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution in the General Assembly saved the United Nations from itself and will be long remembered.”

After Kirkpatrick gained entry into the male purview of foreign policy, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice followed in her footsteps. Among other high-profile national security positions for both, Albright was secretary of state in the Clinton administration and Rice serves in the same post today. Rice on Friday called Kirkpatrick a role model, “an academic who brought great intellectual power to her work.”

A political scientist who received a doctorate from Columbia University and studied at the Institut de Sciences Politiques in Paris, Kirkpatrick came to the attention of Ronald Reagan after writing an article for the neo-conservative journal Commentary in 1979.


Called “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” the piece argued that utopian thinking (under the Carter administration) had moved U.S. foreign policy to destabilize friendly anti-Communist regimes, including Anastasio Somoza’s in Nicaragua and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s of Iran, only to find them replaced by unfriendly totalitarian ones.

“Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies,” she wrote.

The article caught the attention of Richard V. Allen, one of Reagan’s foreign policy advisors. He sent the piece along to Reagan, who called Kirkpatrick, a lifelong Democrat, for a meeting. Hesitant to take a job in a Republican administration, Kirkpatrick was swayed by Reagan’s commitment and his remark, “I was a Democrat once, you know.”

In February 1981, she went to New York as Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, an institution she had little use for and compared to “death and taxes.”


Eager to restore U.S. prowess in the wake of defeat in Vietnam and the capture of American diplomats as hostages in Iran, she vowed to do battle against Marxists, Communists and anyone else who mistook U.S. policy mistakes for weakness.

“We were concerned about the weakening of Western will,” she later told an interviewer. “We advocated rebuilding Western strength, and we did that with Ronald Reagan, if I may say so.”

Reagan thought so too, once telling her, “You’re taking off that big sign that we used to wear that said ‘Kick Me.’ ”

When nations opposed U.S. policy, she made sure Congress -- with its power of the purse to underwrite the U.N. budget -- knew their names.


She argued for El Salvador’s right-wing junta and against Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government. She defended Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Perhaps her most dramatic moment at the United Nations came in 1983, when she presented a film of the Soviet downing of a South Korean passenger plane, KAL 007, that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers and crew, including a U.S. congressman, were killed.

An icon to many conservatives, Kirkpatrick was for most of her life a Democrat. Her husband Evron Kirkpatrick, head of the American Political Science Assn., was an advisor to liberal Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.). But she said later that they were “chronically dismayed” by the party’s drift toward the left after 1972. A “serious Christian,” she also talked over the years about her discomfort with the left’s counterculture and with same-sex marriages.

Though she did not officially change parties until 1985, Kirkpatrick had lasting impact on the political labeling of Democrats as weak on foreign policy.


In 1984, Democrats held their convention in San Francisco, nominating former Vice President Walter Mondale. At the subsequent Republican Convention in Dallas, where Reagan was renominated, Kirkpatrick blasted the “San Francisco Democrats” she said had driven her away from her party.

“When Marxist dictators shoot their way into power in Central America, the San Francisco Democrats don’t blame the guerrillas and their Soviet allies,” she said. “They blame United States policies of 100 years ago. But then they always blame America first.”

Kirkpatrick, as intellectual as she was polished, often surprised those who thought they knew her.

“She didn’t worry about whether her argument was fashionable or not,” said Richard Perle, former Pentagon advisor who worked with her at American Enterprise Institute as well as on the board of the Jackson Foundation, named for the conservative Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson.


When Britain battled Argentina to keep the Falkland Islands in British hands, Reagan wanted to support Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Kirkpatrick demurred. “It was very much a minority view in the Reagan administration, but she believed our support for Britain in the Falklands War placed U.S. interests in Latin America at risk,” Perle said.

Unlike many officials in both parties in recent years, Kirkpatrick “fought loyally and quietly,” Perle said, voicing dissent privately but publicly supporting Reagan when he opted to back Britain.

In another private decision-making meeting, Kirkpatrick supported the Iran-Contra initiative, in which funds from Iranian purchases of weapons were diverted to help Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Secretary of State George Shultz argued that the program was “an impeachable offense.” Along with CIA Director William Casey and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Kirkpatrick countered, “We should make the maximum effort to find the money.”

After she resigned the U.N. post and left government in 1985, Kirkpatrick wrote widely and became a draw on the lecture circuit, earning enough to buy a house in France, where she enjoyed cooking, according to Perle.


New York Times columnist William Safire in 1983 called her “the hottest hawk on the Republican lecture trail, the most respected neoconservative voice on the Sunday panel shows and the only woman who could today be considered as a serious possibility for president.”

She considered running for president in 1988, the year that George H.W. Bush was elected, but she quit the process early, saying she would accept the vice presidential slot if asked. She was not -- Bush picked Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle -- and she returned to academics and think tanks, spending the rest of her career commenting on policy rather than directing it.

Jeane Duane Jordan was born in Duncan, Okla., an oil wildcatter’s town about 160 miles from Dallas. She attended Stephens College in Missouri, then transferred to Barnard College in New York. Later she got a master’s and doctorate from Columbia, where her dissertation was on the rise of fascism in Britain.

Even before completing her doctorate, she was appointed associate professor at Georgetown University, teaching European government, French politics and political theory.


In an interview with the Washington Times last May, she called President Bush’s foreign policy “a little too interventionist for my taste, frankly,” urging skepticism about any foreign campaign that turns into nation-building. “It is extremely difficult for one nation to seriously remake another nation,” she said, adding that she was “very much in favor of his actions in Afghanistan and have not opposed them in Iraq.”

Asked about her legacy, she said she hoped she had brought about a realignment in American politics and a renewed respect for the United States in U.N. corridors. “I wanted to make it clear we were there to stand up for U.S. interests and principles,” she said.

She is survived by two sons. A third, Douglas, died earlier this year, according to the Associated Press. Her husband of 40 years, known as “Kirk,” died in 1995. Perle said they were “a very good love story” and that Jeane Kirkpatrick was “never the same” after his death.