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Jeane Kirkpatrick: An American Girlhood By: Peter Collier and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick
Weekly Standard | Friday, February 02, 2007

EDITORIAL NOTE: Around the time I was starting Encounter Books in 1997, I mentioned to my friend Jim Denton that I thought a memoir by Jeane Kirkpatrick would be an important book. Jim knew Jeane, and he brought the two of us together at a New York restaurant to talk about it.

Jeane listened to my pitch and then said noncommittally that she had considered doing such a book, but didn't have time now because she was just starting a work on foreign policy that might take a while. (It took longer than that: It is only now being published posthumously as Making War to Keep Peace.) Fearful that the memoir would wind up in the literary boneyard where good ideas go to die, I argued that it was possible to do both projects at once. I would interview her every so often over the next couple of years while she was completing the other work, and then we would move ahead on the memoir using the syllabus of material I had developed. She examined her fingernails for a long time: one of those gestures that had become iconic on Sunday morning talk shows when she was ambassador to the United Nations in the early '80s. Then, surprisingly, she looked up and said, "Why not?"

So began an odd enterprise, which, although it sometimes resembled stalking on my part and a game of hide-and-seek on hers, eventually resulted in dozens of hours of taped conversations--and the piece that follows, which I drafted a couple of years after we began in order to prove that all the talk would lead somewhere. Many of our chats took place in her office at the American Enterprise Institute. But most of the interviews took place during the summers of 1998 and 1999 at the elegant place Jeane and her late husband Evron Kirkpatrick had reconstructed near the historic town of Les Baux in the south of France.

Perhaps eventually someone will use this rich material to help write the full-dress formal biography Jeane deserves. Until then, we have the following memoir, which would have been the first chapter of the book Jeane and I never completed, and which was seen and approved by the subject herself. Since her death, it has been read by her brother Jerry Jordan and her sons John and Stuart--who also made available the family photographs--and it is published here with their blessing.

--Peter Collier

I keep some of the plaques and awards I've received over the years on the windowsill of my office at the American Enterprise Institute. I know some of them are only casual symbols of the gratitude that flows as a matter of course to people who have spent some time in public service, but they all have meaning for me. One of them I particularly like is a small bronze statuette of Will Rogers set in a base of polished stone given to me by the state of Oklahoma for being a "favorite daughter." There is something about the posture of the figure--feet anchored firmly in the ground, hips thrust forward, chin tucked down in a way that gives the face a "show me" look--that calls up for me a sense of place and belonging. I look at it now and again while I'm writing or talking on the phone and think again how lucky I am to have been born an American, in the heartland of this country, at a time when we had no doubts about our national greatness or our mission.

My father and mother were both Texans whose own parents had farms in the Dallas area. But when my parents came of age, farming was a hard life that was getting harder. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of my father's father, Frank Jordan, shaking his head in that exasperated and pessimistic way of farmers, and saying that if the boll weevils didn't get his cotton, the Johnson grass surely would. It was in part to escape an indenture to the land that my father entered the oil business in Duncan, a small Oklahoma town with a western feel, 90 miles south of Oklahoma City and 40 miles north of the Red River. The great Oil Dorado that had once made for boom times and extravagant living in Oklahoma had already peaked, but my father managed to establish himself in the business. Twenty-seven years old when I was born in 1926, he had made his way from roughneck to driller to drilling contractor. The secret of this success was no secret at all. He worked hard, saved his money, and married a good woman.

When I was growing up in Oklahoma, Texas was still our other home--the place we came from and would always be tied to wherever we happened to go. My earliest memories of Texas are Depression memories. Both sides of the family were broke, and it showed, even to a child. Yet the Jordan farm in particular conveyed a sense of plenty in the midst of want. There was always crusty hot bread freshly baked in a big wood stove in the kitchen, sweet butter that had just been churned, fried chicken, tart plum jelly my grandmother had put up the previous summer, and homemade ice cream she turned on the back porch. There was a quilting frame where she worked like Penelope every night. There was sometimes a horse my grandfather let me ride. There were cows, pigs, and chickens running wild. There was church on Sunday at which half the congregation was introduced to me as cousins--second, third, fourth cousins; cousins twice removed; cousins resulting from a variety of matches and mismatches; southern-style cousins.

My mother's side of the family had been in Texas long enough to get tenure. But they were not quite as genetically southern as the Jordans. I knew this because of a photo my maternal grandmother kept of her grandfather, Colonel John Lott of the Indiana Regulars, who had fought for the Union and then migrated to Texas. This grandmother was a tall, straight, strong-bodied woman whom I am said to resemble. I still remember the distinctively tragic look on her face when my grandfather died. I was five and we drove from Duncan to Fort Worth for the funeral, mingling there with all those crying cousins. My grandmother carried on with the fortitude expected of a young widow in those days. And when her other daughter, my mother's sister, died, she took responsibility for raising five grandchildren from ages two to twelve. She was one of those women an extended family learns is wholly dependable and then counts on the rest of her life. When my mother developed rheumatism just after my brother was born, my grandmother came to take her, the new baby, and me to Mineral Wells, Texas, so that my mother could "take the baths." Like my father's mother, she was a great cook and a wonderful seamstress. I have beautiful quilts made by both of my grandmothers--an hourglass, a lone star, a wedding ring, a flower garden, and a Dutch doll quilt that I have given to my first granddaughter.

My grandparents on both sides were sincere Protestants who read the Bible for information on how to conduct their daily lives and did not drink alcoholic beverages, smoke, or play cards. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, there were two major congregations--Southern Baptists and Southern Methodists. In Texas there was a third, the Christian Church, which was the church of Lyndon Johnson and my grandparents.

They were all Democrats, of course. Not just Democrats, but southern Democrats of the yellow dog variety, although my mother modified the old saying ("I'd vote for a yellow dog if he was the Democrat") into something more dignified: She'd vote for the Democrat, she said, unless he was a convicted felon. Frank Jordan, my father's father, had strayed from this commitment as a young man, although it was not much discussed in our family circle. Fearing the economic power of the big banks and the railroads, he had been active as a young man in both the Populist and Socialist parties. But the New Deal had reeled him back in. FDR cemented the allegiance of everyone in my family to the Democrats. As the Depression unleashed economic forces beyond their control, they came to regard programs like the Rural Electrification Program, the CCC, Social Security, and the TVA as godsends and Roosevelt himself as the savior.

As I look back on these forbears of mine, I see them almost cinematically--the passions and turmoil of their individual lives taking place inside the framework of a big country of rangeland and prairie. Indeed, there was one romantic episode in our past that seemed to come right out of the movies. The reason we were in Oklahoma rather than Texas was that my grandfather Frank Jordan had fallen in love with my grandmother when they were teenagers. But her father, a man named Levi Bolles, had already picked out someone else for her, so they had to elope. The night of the elopement, my grandfather brought two horses, but one was a buggy horse my grandmother couldn't ride. So they exchanged it for a saddle horse in Levi Bolles's stable. The next day he accused Frank Jordan of being a horse thief, which was a capital crime in Texas in those days. So Frank and my grandmother kept on going, leaving Kaufman County to ford the Red River and homestead beyond the long arm of the law in what was still Indian Territory. After the first of their eight sons, my father's elder brother, was born, Levi Bolles dropped the charges and became interested in a rapprochement. Family diplomacy led the newlyweds to make a cautious return to the scene of their amorous crime. It was during a visit to show off their first baby, in fact, that my father was born in Texas.

My father, Welcher F. Jordan, grew up wrestling with Indian boys who lived near the family homestead. (He was named after the last Indian agent in the Territory, a friend of his father's.) Like all of his seven brothers, he was rangy and strong, with some of those qualities I now see in the figure of Will Rogers on my office windowsill. He was a gentleman and a gentle man. Yet there was strength in him that others didn't venture to test. One of the stories I heard from my grandmother about his growing up involved an event in the little one-room schoolhouse near the farm that all the Jordan boys attended. When my father's younger brother Bud was seven or eight years old, the teacher decided Bud needed to be punished for some misdeed. The teacher called him to the front of the schoolroom, turned him over on his knee, and began to hit him hard with a hickory switch. My father's little brother was a strong, stubborn boy, and did not cry. This incensed the teacher, who commanded, "Cry! I'll make you cry!" He administered more and harder licks. The blood began to stipple the backs of Bud's legs, although he still didn't cry.

My father, then in the eighth grade, was sitting near the front of the room. When he felt the punishment had gone on too long, he called out to the teacher, "That's enough!" The teacher hit Bud twice more, and the blood flowed down his legs. "I said that's enough!" My father stood. The teacher hit Bud again. My father, who was already tall and strong, threw a thick U.S. history book as hard as he could at the teacher's head, hitting him hard enough to knock him backwards. My father then took Bud home. He was suspended from school but eventually readmitted through the intervention of my grandfather, who was a member of the school board and who, if he hadn't been, probably would have found another nonbureaucratic way of making things right.

My father was an outstanding athlete and got an athletic scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he planned to study law. But he broke his leg in a preseason scrimmage. Without football, there was no scholarship, and as money became tight he dropped out and went to work as a laborer in the oil fields.

He met my mother in Fort Worth where she had gone to live with a married sister and to learn shorthand, typing, and bookkeeping. By the time she and my father got together, she was working as a private secretary, an independent woman in the flapper era. They were both 25 when they married. They moved around from one boom town to another in the time before I was born, as my father followed the work. He worked a 12-hour day, seven days a week, a schedule that was common in the oil fields of that period, and he drove an hour each way to work. Obviously, it didn't leave much time for social life, which was concentrated around our family and my father's brothers, who were also working as roughnecks. My mother spent most of her time making good lunches he would carry with him, cooking dinner, and laundering his khaki pants and shirts so they'd be fresh the next day. The oil fields were as wild and woolly as Hollywood depicted them. Against my father's advice, she went with one of his brothers to a local movie house one afternoon and had to hit the floor when two men in the audience decided to shoot it out--there and then.

I never experienced this excitement because by the time I was born, my parents had settled in Duncan, where we lived until I was 12 years old. Duncan was neither wild nor woolly. It had good public schools--and an active public spirit. I inferred a sense of order and of the overwhelming rightness of things from its civic rhythms.

Apparently, I was drawn to books from my earliest years. The first birthday present I remember was a set of nine books, large, well illustrated like an encyclopedia, but containing moral tales and poems for older children. I read these books until they came apart. I wanted more. My mother always said I was intensely disappointed when I was only four and not old enough to start school with the older boy next door, and so to stop me from moping around the house, she hired a local woman to give me "expression" lessons. I memorized poems and performed at local affairs. I was teaching myself to read by that time, too, but my happiest memories were of sitting with my mother as she read to me. I learned the Lord's Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the alphabet forwards and backwards, thus establishing myself beyond question as a promising child. I went to Sunday School at the First Baptist Church from the time I could walk, and accumulated stick-on stars for perfect attendance.

When I was seven, I began piano lessons with Mrs. Thompson. She was a serious woman whose husband, an Indian, didn't like living in town and eventually abandoned her to go back to the reservation. I joined the Schubert Music Club, where we dressed up, studied the lives of composers, and performed for one another. Like all the other piano pupils in Duncan, we played Schubert's "Happy Farmer" as our first recital piece.

I had good friends in the neighborhood and at the school. I think I was a happy child. I know I loved school from the very beginning. I did well and received good grades. My family and teachers alike seemed always to require that I do well but not to make too much of it. It was expected that we should all be "well-rounded," to use a common term of the day, and to be smart without losing ourselves in books. At this last injunction I failed miserably, reading everything I could get my hands on and losing myself in books for weeks on end.

There were many more boys than girls in the neighborhood where we lived. They were my friends. I climbed trees with them, played softball and touch football. Such activities were frowned upon in Duncan for girls. Even as a child, I suppose, I was already engaged in unconventional role behavior.

Indians were important in my childhood, as they had been for my father when he was a boy. (The largest Indian reservation in Oklahoma was only 20 miles away from us.) They were exotic and seemed romantic--symbols of the Vanishing America, which has vanished even more in the years since I was a child. There were always Indians in my classes at school. I collected arrowheads, feathers, and Indian lore, made bows and arrows and beaded things, and imagined myself an Indian girl with shiny black braided hair.

Jews were even more exotic in our town because they were far more rare. There were two Jewish families in Duncan. I have forgotten the name of one of them, a Russian Jewish family whose members had a perpetually worried look on their faces and kept to themselves. But I was close to the Pandries, German Jews who lived across the street from us. Dave Pandrie and I were school and after-school friends. I still remember the day he went to Oklahoma City to be bar mitzvahed. I remember too that his mother made wonderful butter cookies and, in keeping with the stereotype, soothing chicken soup when we were sick.

Blacks were quite another matter. It is conventional to describe the pattern of race relations that existed in Oklahoma as "racial segregation." But the races weren't separated at all. Blacks did live in white neighborhoods--as servants--and took part in almost all aspects of white family life--as servants. The culture that was otherwise democratic, egalitarian, and libertarian was saturated with prejudice against blacks. Words like "nigger-shooter" (for sling-shot) and "nigger toes" (for Brazil nuts) were considered perfectly ordinary, conventional language, like all the other names of things.

I was a child, not a social scientist. I was part of a system of race discrimination without being aware of it. But once I began to see the nature of this system, I understood immediately that it was unfair. That segregation and discrimination violated our basic values was clear to me long before I read Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma.

Rejecting southern racial practices never led me--as it led some transplanted southerners--to reject southern society and my southern roots. I think southern culture is rich and often textured with a warmth and grace that are absent in the North. Oklahoma, Texas, the Southwest--where my own roots are deep--had in my childhood the strengths of the frontier, which is to say, the strengths of America itself.

A frontier society is open in special ways. It is new--so there was unusual opportunity for individuals to break free of invisible chains and define themselves and make their way. It is mobile--no one was frozen into a role, anyone could be anything they were able to be. It is inclusive--anyone could come. The most remarkable fact about American frontier societies, surely, was that people who found themselves in the same area found it natural to govern themselves by democratic means, by getting together, talking things over, choosing leaders, and working together to provide basic community services.

The creation of small self-governing towns on the frontier was a kind of social miracle re-created every time a new group gathered in a new place and planted a community. In this repeated story was manifest that distinctively American "art of association" which so amazed Tocqueville.

When I spoke at the Oklahoma University commencement in June 1983 about the United Nations and the intensifying contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, the young man who was class president said to me after I finished, "Mrs. Kirkpatrick, keep up that good Oklahoma way of thinking." I didn't have to ask him what he meant. It was confidence in the American experience and the American approach: standing tall, talking straight, treating others with respect, and accepting nothing less from them. Confronting problems with optimism, initiative, and determination. Accepting a share of responsibility and never, ever, blaming America first.

Two highly dramatic events punctuated my childhood. The first was the birth of a brother when I was eight. It occurred on Thanksgiving Day. My mother was in the hospital, my father at a football game. The aunt who had come to stay with me was in bed with the flu. I celebrated with a ham sandwich at Randall's Drug Store. I was desolate. Who needed a brother anyway? As it turned out, I did. I soon loved this baby very much.

"We are just a family of four," our father used to say, "and we must take care of each other." For us, family loyalty was unquestioning, absolute: It came first. Family loyalty was the first duty; church, community, and country came next. We agreed wholeheartedly with Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

My father's creed of family first, last, always, without question or equivocation, did not seem to him incompatible with working a 15-hour day or seven days a week. But this had gradually become impossible in Oklahoma, where the oil fields had been tapped out. There was little or no new exploration or drilling. But there had been a major discovery of oil in southern Illinois, in what came to be known as the tristate field (southern Illinois, Kentucky, and Indiana). The Carter Oil Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of Indiana, encouraged my father to buy new drilling rigs suitable for the terrain there. It meant going into debt, which he hated, and leaving Oklahoma, which he dreaded. He hesitated, but, encouraged by my mother, made the decision to go.

Moving from Duncan was the second great event of my youth. I thought I would die. I felt great sadness at the thought of leaving my friends, my school, my piano teacher, my life. I was inconsolable. The assurance of my mother that I would make new friends seemed empty.

We went first to the small town of Vandalia located on the Kaskaskia River. The initial unhappiness and isolation associated with being a new girl in a new town led me to rely even more on books for companions. In my memory, the Vandalia Public Library looms as a wonderful haven. It was there I stumbled onto classics: Dickens, Thackeray, Dumas, Victor Hugo, George Eliot, Jane Austen. It was there, too, that I stumbled onto contemporaries: especially Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Saroyan.

It was in Vandalia that I had my first lesson in the sociology of knowledge. Abraham Lincoln had served in the state legislature there, and the town was filled with Civil War memories. (The junior high school I attended was housed in a building that had been a station on the Underground Railroad.) Previously I had studied the Civil War in Oklahoma, at that time the most segregated state in the union. Now I studied it again, and found that it was a different war, fought by different people, for different reasons, with a different outcome.

Seeing the difference between the southern and northern "histories" of this conflict was one of the eye-opening intellectual experiences of my life, and it put me on the road to seeing how important personal perspective is in human understanding, a subject I would continue to pursue throughout my later academic career. It did not lead me to relativism or to the view that no account could be any more accurate than any other, a fatuous cliché in the postmodern university of today. But I saw that perspective is a dimension of a true account and must always be taken into account.

We lived less than two years in Vandalia, which my parents felt lacked good schools and the community spirit of a town like Duncan. By the time we left, I had learned that I could survive in a new environment. I had made new friends just as my mother had predicted. I had found a new piano teacher and begun algebra, learned to dance, and had my first date.

Our next, and as it worked out our final, stop was Mount Vernon, a town of about 15,000 in the part of Illinois known as Little Egypt. It was a progressive town with a great school system overseen by a superintendent, J.L. Buford, who eventually became president of the National Education Association. The high school had a wonderful band and basketball teams and dedicated teachers. I thrived. The journalism teacher, L.R. DeWitt, taught us the fundamentals of writing clear prose and oversaw my work when I became editor of the school newspaper, a weekly called The Vernon News.

My parents lived in Mount Vernon until they died (my father in 1973, my mother in 1979). It was the town I went home to during my university years and for nearly 30 years afterwards, when I often took my husband and three sons back with me. I attended my 25th, 30th, and 40th class reunions in Mount Vernon. Every time I return, I feel glad to be there. Yet as a high school graduate I was ready to leave.

My first stop was Stephens College, a rather fashionable two-year college with some of the functions of a finishing school. An unlikely place for a would-be intellectual, Stephens turned out to be an important stepping stone for me. It provided a solid liberal arts base and allowed me to discover that there was a field of human endeavor called philosophy. I read Plato and Aristotle and Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, and I became a Utilitarian. I read Milton, Newman, and Chesterton and became a muscular Christian. I read Dostoyevsky, Woolf, Eliot, and Auden and became a modernist. I read Lippmann, Veblen, Strachey, the Coles, and Marx himself and became a socialist. I made a tenuous effort to take this last exercise in theory into the realm of practice one afternoon when I went with a girlfriend to a socialist picnic. But the day turned into a disaster when a young man who seemed to me to be filled with working-class authenticity took one look at us and asked us nastily if we were "slumming."

It was an exciting time for me. I attended my first ballet, saw my first professional theater, fell in love, fell out of love, recovered, and repeated the cycle. I felt an almost overwhelming sense of being alive, of starting to write the plot of my own life. I don't think I had ever consciously felt discriminated against as a girl in growing up, but I always felt that I had to claim vociferously the right to do some of the things I clearly was able to do. At Stephens, I read John Stuart Mill on the subjection of women and Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft. I was glad to discover there was a literature and a position to go with my vague feeling that the distribution of privileges and power between the sexes was not quite as symmetrical as it should be.

After my two years at Stephens, I applied to Barnard and was accepted, but without a fellowship, which my father regretted. I was accepted at the University of Chicago, with a fellowship, which pleased my father. So that became my next step. I was so excited that I couldn't wait until September to go there. So I went in June, thinking to enroll for the summer session and get a head start. But things went wrong in Chicago from the beginning. I had trouble getting a place to live, and my mother had to come and help me find a room. I couldn't register because my student file was lost, and naturally when they finally found it all the courses I wanted were filled. The last straw came one evening when I was at a bus stop near a park. Some gang members grabbed me and tried to drag me back

into the bushes, but I screamed bloody murder and they left. I decided on the spot that Chicago was not for me and that in any case New York was the right place to pursue the big ideas, as I then thought of them, and it was big ideas that I decided to aim for in my life.

Peter Collier co-authored seven books with CSPC president David Horowitz, including Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ‘60s. The late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was President Reagan's Ambassador to the United Nations.

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