Jeane Kirkpatrick and the Great Democratic Defection

By Richard V. Allen, national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/12/06):

IN the days since Jeane Kirkpatrick’s death, much has been written about her tenure at the United Nations, her foreign policy outlook and her indelible personality. But not a lot has been said about Jeane Kirkpatrick, ardent Democrat — and what that meant to the success of Ronald Reagan in international affairs.

Let me take you back to early 1980. Jeane Kirkpatrick and I were on our way to an appointment at the Madison Hotel in Washington. Before we entered the building, Ms. Kirkpatrick paused, grasped my arm and said, warily but sternly, “Listen, Dick, I am an A.F.L.-C.I.O. Democrat and I am quite concerned that my meeting Ronald Reagan on any basis will be misunderstood.”

Mr. Reagan, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, was in town, and as his chief foreign policy adviser I had been trying to get Ms. Kirkpatrick and him together.

A few months before the meeting, I had read Ms. Kirkpatrick’s article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” in Commentary magazine, and gave a copy to Reagan for his flight from Washington to Los Angeles. Reagan called me immediately upon reaching home. “What you gave me to read was extraordinary!” he said. “Who is this guy Jeane Kirkpatrick?”

We had a laugh about “this guy,” then discussed the article. At the end of the call, I asked if he would like to meet with the “guy” on his next visit to Washington. “Yes,” he said, and instructed me to leave enough time for a private session.

It wasn’t easy. Initially, Ms. Kirkpatrick was indifferent, hesitant, dubious. As a former Democrat himself, Mr. Reagan could sympathize. The moment they met, he went to work putting her at ease. He opened that first meeting by telling Ms. Kirkpatrick that he considered it a private conversation for informational purposes, not a “political” one.

He then brought up her article, saying that it helped him see the differences among undemocratic regimes, but that he believed leftist regimes were more deeply rooted and therefore harder to topple than their rightist counterparts.

Noting that unspeakable atrocities had occurred under rightist regimes in Spain and Germany, Ms. Kirkpatrick warned him not to read too much into that belief. Still, she generally agreed that Mr. Reagan’s assessment was correct when it came to communism.

After that, the conversation flowed smoothly, and she spoke extensively about Cuba and Latin America, with Mr. Reagan asking specific questions. She visibly relaxed. Clearly, they liked each other.

A couple of months later, at their second private meeting, the two went right to work with no preliminaries, covering the Helsinki Accords, détente, human rights, NATO, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Mr. Reagan had been thinking about Ms. Kirkpatrick’s distinctions about dictatorships, and they discussed how different regimes should be treated. This time, Ms. Kirkpatrick seemed eager to find out more about Mr. Reagan’s thinking, though she did not hesitate to argue with him or to correct anything she thought too simply put.

A third meeting followed not long after. As I was escorting her down to the hotel lobby after an hour of discussion, she turned and said, “Dick, I am ready to endorse this man for president.” She expected nothing in return. Mr. Reagan was not asking for an endorsement, I said, and suggested that it might be best simply to wait for the results of the November election. But I did inform Mr. Reagan, who was quite pleased.

He had reason to be. Finding common ground with Democrats on foreign policy was a crucial element of Mr. Reagan’s wider strategy. In the main, Democrats with expertise in foreign affairs were dismissive of Mr. Reagan as unschooled and unserious. Fortunately, that would change with time.

One important bridge between Ronald Reagan and Democrats like Ms. Kirkpatrick was an organization called the Committee on the Present Danger, of which she and I were among the founders in late 1976. The aim of the group was to make Americans aware of the growth of Soviet military power and the risks posed by the SALT II treaty.

Over the course of the campaign, many Democrats on the committee met with Mr. Reagan. These off-the-record briefings in California and Washington dealt for the most part with arms control, a favorite subject for Mr. Reagan, who did not believe in merely limiting the rate of growth of weapons of mass destruction, but was instead looking for ways to reduce their numbers and eventually do away with them altogether.

Mr. Reagan went into the sessions with an open mind, speaking with members of another political party just as he would with his own circle of advisers. The meetings did much to sharpen his thinking and help him find effective ways to present his views — as his position was not well understood by his opponents or by the press, and was often depicted as uninformed right-wing opposition to arms control agreements of any type.

It soon became apparent that Democratic foreign policy experts like Ms. Kirkpatrick, Paul Nitze, Eugene V. Rostow, Henry Fowler and Charles Tyroler (the committee’s director) — individuals deeply dissatisfied with the soft approach Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and now Jimmy Carter had taken toward the Soviets — found in Mr. Reagan a willing listener and a suitable discussion partner. They preferred anonymity, which we provided. And Mr. Reagan was happy to have them; not just for their wisdom but because their presence likely meant that they would not be talking with Mr. Carter’s team. (Presuming Mr. Carter’s team would have wanted to talk to them.) In this, the Carter campaign squandered a huge potential asset that became Mr. Reagan’s for the taking.

After his victory in November, Mr. Reagan and his inner circle turned to staffing the new administration. My close colleague Fred C. Ikle and I concluded that Ms. Kirkpatrick would be superb for the United Nations role envisioned by Mr. Reagan. When her name came up before the president-elect, he declared it an “ideal” appointment.

Jeane Kirkpatrick had, in a real sense, cleared the way for Democrats to cross the bridge to the Reagan administration. Mr. Rostow became the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Paul Nitze was appointed Mr. Reagan’s chief arms negotiator. Myer Rashish became under secretary of state; Charles Tyroler served on the Intelligence Oversight Board; Lane Kirkland, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., joined the National Endowment for Democracy; and Edward Bennett Williams, the prominent Washington lawyer, became a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Max Kampelman was re-appointed ambassador to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Bipartisanship personified.

Others followed, of course. And all of them played a role in sending communism over the edge. But Jeane Kirkpatrick, as she was in so many ways, was the first.