Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Presidents Reagan and Bush from 1984 to 1989, is hardly the first of her breed to publish a memoir, or a best-selling one at that. Yet there is a surprise here: unlike other speechwriters remembering their White House days, Noonan does not offer comprehensive discussions of policies and politics. Nor can her book be classified as an effort to get even; though she does some skewering, her targets often go unnamed. Noonan’s purpose is less to write history or to seek revenge than to observe herself (a large task, for her ego is large) and her environs.
What I Saw at the Revolution has its serious moments and its serious implications, of which more below, but the book has generally been lauded by reviewers for the undeniable fun it is to read. It is saucy, even hilarious in places, written in a style that is most definitely not government-issue. Too, there is a mischievous quality to the book, as in Noonan’s long chapter titled “I Am a Camera,” a series of snapshots about Washington in the 80’s inspired by a similar device in John Dos Passos’s The Big Money; the winking Noonan drops a clue to her purposes here by making up a story about a figure named “John Hadley Dos Passos Fitzgerald Smith.”
For better or worse, Noonan’s accomplishment is to have created a new genre of White House book, a kind of nonfictional novel of manners starring Peggy Noonan. She begins by recounting her working-class upbringing in Brooklyn, where she was born in 1950 to a Democratic, Irish-Catholic family “in love with the Kennedys.” After high school Noonan worked as a waitress and went to college at night, graduating with a degree in English. She became a journalist, writing for radio, first in Boston and then in New York, and for Dan Rather at CBS. But at some point she discovered that she was less a journalist than a partisan, in fact a Reagan partisan, who had to go to Washington to assist the Revolution by writing his speeches. “We came to Washington because of him. He moved us. We loved him.” In terms of her class, her age group, her family history, Noonan was almost the perfect example of the Reagan realignment in American politics.
In Washington, Noonan gradually discovered that Reagan himself generally did not give back in kind; he did not “love” in return. Her first speech was actually a set of remarks for a Rose Garden ceremony. The President did not change a word—“to my pride and disappointment.” Many speeches later, she finally got a response. “Very Good,” wrote the President in the upper right-hand corner of the cover page. “I stared at it,” recalls Noonan:
Then I took a pair of scissors and cut it off and taped it to my blouse, like a second-grader with a star. All day people would notice it and look at me; I would beam back in a quietly idiotic manner.
Noonan, who dressed down, chain-smoked, and sneaked wine into the White House mess, was a unique figure among Reagan aides.
Much of the book deals with speechwriting, and as a sometime practitioner of the craft (in the Reagan Justice Department), I can testify that Noonan captures the life as well as anyone. She has a sharp eye for the ridiculous moments that often occur in any administration in behind-the-scenes infighting between the writers and the non-writers who think they are writers. Thus, in the memorable speech she wrote for Reagan after the Challenger disaster, Noonan ended by quoting from a wartime poem:
We will never forget [the Challenger crew] nor the last time we saw them—this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
A “pudgy young NSC mover” told Noonan to change the quotation from “touch the face of God” to “reach out and touch someone—touch the face of God”:
I took [this] to Ben [Elliott, head of speechwriting] and said, I’ll kill, I’ll kill, I’ll kill him if this gets through. Ben, alarmed, assured me he would explain if pressed that you don’t really change a quotation from a poem in this manner.
Reagan gave Noonan’s speech.
During her time in Washington Noonan got married and later had a son. In Reagan’s second term, under the Donald Regan regime, she felt that she was “on the periphery of a void,” and when she was passed over for the head of speechwriting she finally departed, although she stayed in Washington to help Bush in the 1988 campaign and to work with Reagan on his farewell address. Her story ends with her recognition that she is no longer a “partisan” but a writer who has no “side” but “the side of your work.” But while she is gone from politics, she remains proud to have served, and so sentimental about the experience that she cannot quit without striking a final Reaganesque note:
I often think of something a British writer said. . . . “In America they call waiters sir.” Yes, we do. This is the fairest place there ever was, it’s wide open, and no one has cause for bitterness.
In the course of telling her story Noonan proves herself an acute observer of various social ecologies. For example, she correctly sizes up her peers at CBS. They
thought of themselves as modern people trying to be fair. There are conservatives over here and wild lefties over there—and us, the sane people, in the middle. If you made up a list of political questions—should we raise taxes to narrow the deficit; should abortion be banned; should a morning prayer be allowed in schools; should arms control be our first foreign-policy priority?—most of them would vote yes, no, no, yes. And they would see these not as liberal positions but as decent intelligent positions.
This observation fairly applies to probably a majority of journalists at mainstream organizations.
When it comes to Reagan himself, Noonan offers little that is new, but her portrait of him as a political figure is quite deft. “For modern conservatism,” she writes,
Reagan was the big strong elephant that trampled down the high grass and flattened the bushes to ease the way for the younger, quicker animals. If he was slow he was also strong, and without him the gazelles and leopards wouldn’t have had a path that had been broken, and made safe.
The gazelles and leopards she has in mind, incidentally, and over whom she fairly gushes, include Richard Darman, William J. Bennett, and Patrick Buchanan.
Reagan’s was obviously a “rhetorical presidency,” as Noonan observes. As she does not discuss, the Reagan presidency also represented a new evolution of the type.
The rhetorical presidency was not something envisioned by the founding generation but was conceived over a century later by Woodrow Wilson. The rhetorical President is supposed to supply, through popular speeches, the kind of leadership that can tap public feelings and rally support for needed legislative initiatives. In Wilsonian theory, such a presidency is the institution best suited to take us into the future.
As it happens, down through the years the rhetorical presidency has had more legislative failures than successes. Yet it has decisively influenced the way political elites on both the Right and the Left, and in the media, have come to regard the office of the chief executive. For these elites, speaking is governing—and so, for that matter, is campaigning, which explains why so many in politics regard the two as synonymous. (Said the pollster Pat Caddell to Jimmy Carter at the start of his term: “[G]overning with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”) Even if they have nothing to say, Presidents are now expected to say something—anything—to get the nation (or their campaigns) moving. In the summer of 1979, when Jimmy Carter faced new lows in approval ratings, a Washington Post headline solemnly stated: “Carter Seeking Oratory to Move an Entire Nation.”
It was not hard for Reagan to be a rhetorical President. He was a well-practiced public speaker, and his politics were so well-grounded in his convictions that he did not have to “seek” oratory when he arrived in Washington. Moreover, at the moment of his arrival the nation was at one of those rare political junctures when a President could speak with a reasonable expectation of being heard.
The Reagan incumbency represented a further development in the rhetorical presidency, however, one that involved television. In the 80’s television became omnipresent in Washington, with cameras everywhere, or trying to be everywhere, and media personalities assuming the status of celebrities. The Reagan White House was more than ready for this. Reagan himself was effective on television, having just the right kind of conversational style, first learned as a radio broadcaster in the 1930’s. (Peggy Noonan was a good fit for Reagan if for no other reason than that she had written for radio.) I once researched the question, and discovered that Reagan gave more speeches than any President ever; and the seeing eye was there almost every time, feeding off of Reagan and being fed by him (and his speechwriters).
In the 80’s the rhetorical presidency and television hooked up in a symbiotic relationship; everyone was a star. Was this, is this, good for the political life of the nation? It is not good if a President has little to say, and yet, with the encouragement of television, believes that what he says is all there is to governing. It is not good if a President, again with television’s help, tries to work the nation into a “crisis” in order to solve some routine political matter. “Some President is going to put TV in its place,” writes Noonan:
Someday a smart man or woman will come in and say, I don’t exist to feed that thing. Get it back in its cage-I have a country to govern. It will be an interesting presidency. (It may be Bush’s.)
It may be. Bush eschews television speeches and has little use for the rhetorical presidency. So far, deeds have seemed for him more important than words. Bush’s most significant contribution to governing may lie in his refusal routinely to employ the devices of the rhetorical presidency, and in his workmanlike reliance on the powers entrusted to him by the Constitution. In this regard it is noteworthy that in the Bush White House the speechwriting unit has much less status than it enjoyed under Reagan. Bush employed Peggy Noonan when he needed superlative instances of the rhetorical presidency, but he apparently believes that as a general matter he does not need her now. Nor can one imagine a speechwriter in Bush’s steady employ willing to take public credit for drafting a presidential speech, as Noonan often did, or writing a memoir like this.
The two phenomena are related: Bush’s is an administrative presidency, and such a presidency prizes unity in the ranks, which is to say circumspection, even secrecy, about one’s own contribution. Otherwise a President loses the ability to be the President, institutionally; and when he does speak, he loses the ability to be perceived as actually speaking his own mind.
To the degree that Bush does not emphasize the rhetorical presidency, the press will also be less likely to want to find out who wrote what. The source-reporter relationships among speechwriters and journalists will attenuate. Whether kinder or gentler, Bush’s presidency is duller than Reagan’s because it is less talky, and not a bad thing for that.
“This book is an attempt to catch and freeze an era before it fully receded,” writes Peggy Noonan. She catches the flavor of it well, and it is receding fast.