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

December 09, 2006|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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