WASHINGTON -- Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a political science professor whose support for President Reagan's conservatism catapulted her into the post of US ambassador to the United Nations, has died at 80. She was the first woman to hold the post.
Initially a liberal Democrat, Mrs. Kirkpatrick championed human rights, opposed Soviet communism, and supported Israel.
"She defended the cause of freedom at a pivotal time in world history," President Bush said yesterday. "Jeane's powerful intellect helped America win the Cold War."
Mrs. Kirkpatrick's son, Stuart, said she died Thursday at her home in Bethesda, Md., where she was under hospice care. The cause of death was not immediately known. UN Ambassador John R. Bolton asked for a moment of silence for her at a meeting of the US delegation to the UN in New York.
Secretary General Kofi Annan praised "her commitment to an effective United Nations" and said Mrs. Kirkpatrick was "always ardent and often provocative."
Mrs. Kirkpatrick's health had been in decline recently, her assistant, Andrea Harrington said, adding that she had been going to work about once a week "and then less and less."
Tributes flowed in.
"America has lost one of its preeminent statesmen," said Senator Charles T. Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.
"Our country has lost a patriot and a class act," said Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.
"America has lost a clarion voice for freedom," said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick "helped change the course of history and bring down the Soviet Union," former representative Jack Kemp, a New York Republican, said on CNN.
"She was a great believer in civil rights," Kemp said. "She was a great fan of Dr. Martin Luther King."
Named to the UN post by President Reagan in 1981, Mrs. Kirkpatrick was known as a blunt advocate. She remained involved in public issues after leaving the government two decades ago.
She joined seven other former UN ambassadors in a letter advising Congress that a plan to withhold US dues to force an overhaul at the UN was misguided and would "create resentment, build animosity, and actually strengthen opponents of reform."
Mrs. Kirkpatrick was a political science professor at Georgetown University from 1957 until her appointment as UN ambassador.
In a pivotal article in Commentary Magazine, she sought to draw a distinction between authoritarian governments and more extreme violators of human rights such as the Soviet Union. She acknowledged that authoritarian states did not meet democratic standards but wrote that they were far preferable to totalitarian regimes.
In the Reagan years, she played a quiet role in cutting off US aid to a leftist government in Nicaragua and supporting a military junta in El Salvador.
One of her more riveting moments at the UN occurred in September 1983, when she commissioned an audiovisual presentation of the Soviet downing of a South Korean passenger plane, KAL007, that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 persons aboard died.
Alvin A. Snyder, producer of the video, disclosed in 1996 that unedited versions of the tape showed that the Soviets thought the aircraft was an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick's support for Israel, particularly at the UN where the Jewish state often is denounced, was steadfast.
In 2002, at a seminar in Washington sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America, Mrs. Kirkpatrick said a Palestinian state would be "a catastrophic mistake" and a danger to Israel. It would be appeasement, Mrs. Kirkpatrick argued, and a step backward from the US fight against terrorism.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick helped found the Center for a Free Cuba in 1997. The group issued a statement yesterday paying tribute to her efforts to promote human rights and democracy on the island.
She also was a longtime member of the Freedom House board of trustees. "Her strong support for Freedom House and its mission reflected her fundamental commitment to the rights of men and women everywhere," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of the pro-democracy group.
William Bennett, secretary of education in the Reagan administration, said the Iraq Study Group "would have been better with Jeane Kirkpatrick on it."
"She had no patience with tyrannies, said they had to be confronted, you couldn't deal with tyrannies, that there were some people you could work with -- these people you couldn't," Bennett said.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick once referred to herself as a "lifelong Democrat."
She became a registered Republican in early 1985, four years after Reagan sent her to New York for the UN job. She took with her a reputation as a hard-liner on foreign policy. Because of this, she often was a lightning rod for the opposition.
In some respects, she shared Bolton's controversial profile. Bolton recently said he would resign when it became clear the Senate would not approve him full-time as UN ambassador.
Describing his work with Mrs. Kirkpatrick at the American Enterprise Institute, where she had been a senior fellow, Bolton said yesterday: "When I was at AEI in the late '90s, for most of that time our offices were right next to each other and . . ."
His voice then broke, and, near tears, he closed his eyes briefly, cleared his throat and continued in a quavering voice: "I benefited very greatly. It really is very sad for America, but she will be greatly missed."
In a speech to the Republican National Convention that nominated Reagan for a second term in 1984, Mrs. Kirkpatrick castigated the Democrats as not blaming guerrillas and their Soviet allies "when Marxist dictators shoot their way into power in Central America."
"They always blame America first," she said.
Born Jeane Duane Jordan in Duncan, Okla., she was graduated from Barnard College in New York in 1948 and then received her master's degree and doctorate from Columbia.
During her early academic career she was a Marxist and joined the youth section of the Socialist Party of America.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick considered seeking the Republican presidential nomination that went to George H.W. Bush in 1988. She stopped that process short, however, retreating to the position that she would accept the number two slot if asked.
She leaves two sons, Stuart, a Buddhist minister in Ann Arbor, Mich., and John, a lawyer in Miami. A third son, Douglas, died this year. Her husband of 40 years, Evron, died in 1995.