Editorial: Are we still blaming America first?

The sting might have lessened some, especially now that The City’s own representative will soon commence her reign over Capitol Hill. But 22 years ago, a caricature of “San Francisco Democrats” entered the nation’s consciousness as political jiu-jitsu. The wordsmith was Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who died last week at 80.

She spoke, this first woman ambassador from the United States to the United Nations, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, where President Ronald Reagan was launching his campaign for a second term. She looked for a verbal counter-punch to the Democrats, who had just nominated Walter Mondale at their convention in San Francisco.

The world was then, unbeknownst to anyone except the visionary president and his closest advisers, entering the last phases of the Cold War. Kirkpatrick reasoned that this ideological competition for the world, then in its fourth decade, would have dragged on perpetually unless America stood firm for freedom and democracy. A distinguished scholar and still a Democrat, she watched as the party of Roosevelt and Truman lost confidence in those values.

She handed the electorate a golden insight: “They always,” she lamented, speaking of the San Francisco Democrats, “blame America first.” Yes, it was a caricature, but caricatures enlarge real features; they’re not false. And, yes, the tendency to blame U.S. policy for all the world’s ills — which is false — has come to grip the political left just as tightly as some of the most fevered conspiracy theories once held the far right.

An Oklahoma native, Kirkpatrick’s common sense shunned such unproductive agitation. A Barnard graduate, her nuanced scholarship enabled her to make useful distinctions between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The former, she famously concluded, could be accommodated in the longer struggle with the latter, which could not be appeased.

Such thinking won the Cold War. The current struggle, between modern and primitive civilizations, will need such intellectual contributions. Perhaps they’re stirring right now — even in San Francisco.

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