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Peggy Noonan is apparently freaking out. Somewhere (probably in her Upper East Side apartment, probably chewing a piece of Nicorette) she is sitting in front of a computer screen, staring into cyberspace, thinking she has done something catastrophic. And really it’s unfortunate, this dilemma she finds herself in, because she’d been on an uninterrupted tear of late.
This story first appeared in the June 20, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
This spring, her Wall Street Journal column, “Declarations,” has generated more Internet traffic for Rupert Murdoch than any other regularly scheduled feature in the paper. At the end of April, NBC anchor Brian Williams wrote on his blog that Noonan deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize for her musings on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The staff of The New York Times has been buzzing with speculation that she’s about to get a column there.
And the attention is nice, even if the rumor might not be true, even if a recent lunch with Times’ editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal was just that (lunch), and even if the job might not actually be in the offing. Certainly no one was talking about a Times column as a possibility for Noonan two years ago. Then, she was midheap in a pile of conservative pundits when patience with the breed was running thin among readers.
But now, right when things are looking up for her, Noonan claims to have made a mistake: She has given an interview. And for four weeks since the meeting, she has replayed each and every “silly” thing she said that day and wished she had declined the offer to be profiled.
But maybe it’s not too late. Maybe she can get the reporter to kill the piece.
And so she types a plaintive e-mail, attempting to extricate herself from this self-generated drama.
“Please don’t be mad at me. I don’t mean to show disrespect for your time, or for you. You are a doll. I have to admit to second thoughts, none of which are connected to you. What I have been thinking each day is this: I really want the column to speak for me. Because it’s better at speaking for me than I am. The thing about writing is that, as you of course know, it requires — and allows — reflection and consideration and figuring out what you really think, what you really want to say. And each week I try to get to that, sometimes getting there and sometimes not. But when I talk I find myself more inclined to pop off, or go for a joke, or attempt to entertain, or fill silence lest silence be misunderstood….In the weeks after we spoke I sort of winced at things I’d said. (That would be just about everything.) I feel I was babbly, nervous, and in general…wanting. And I felt, Oh, don’t be a noisy person, be quiet and write. (I was hoping you found me sufficiently boring not to go forward.) This is not in any way your fault as I’m sure you know or have a sense of, but mine. Could you allow this to just pass, and not do the piece? I would be so grateful.”
Finally, she clicks send and apparently hopes that’s it. Which it isn’t. Which she should have known, having been a member of the media for more than 30 years.
Ordinarily, Noonan loves giving interviews. She particularly loves boys with political roundtables, and boys with political roundtables love her back. George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews and the late Tim Russert have all invited Noonan on air repeatedly, partly because she is a good counterpoint to people on the left and partly because she is reliably theatrical and can be counted on to flatter her host. Nearly any time a question is directed at her, she will turn her head slightly, look off into the distance and do what might be described as a long-studied blink, followed by the signature Noonan double-nod of agreement. It’s a dramatic gesture that says that her host is so unbelievably smart he’s caused Noonan to consider, for the first time ever, something that is, in fact, her job to consider all day long. Then comes her response, which more often than not begins with a sigh and is then followed by a Dale Carnegie-esque incantation of the host’s name. Such as, “Here’s the thing, Chris” or “I’ll tell you the truth, George.” As if Noonan and he are best, best friends and she is going to tell him (and the whole audience) a big secret. “It’s full-body communicating,” says Stephanopoulos.
A few weeks back, Noonan and her TV-perfect auburn mane appeared on Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning show, “This Week,” where she had lots to say about the impending demise of Clinton’s presidential campaign. “Look,” she said, before giving a signature pause, and another glance beyond the horizon. “She’s got a new ad up now in — where the heck is it?”
“Oregon,” offered Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
“Oregon,” Noonan, continued. “Where Mrs. Clinton doesn’t even pretend that she’s fighting Obama. She’s fighting the press in the ad. She’s saying they weren’t nice to me. To my mind that is not talking to voters. What she’s doing is spinning why it’s over.”
It would be hard to underestimate the enjoyment Noonan has taken in Clinton’s downfall. Eight years ago, the former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan penned “The Case Against Hillary,” a 181-page polemic against Clinton’s bid for the Senate and attacking her character, as well. As Noonan saw it, the former first lady and her husband were responsible for the coarsening of American culture, the quintessential example of a generation who’d put ambition ahead of principles. “Together they stand for one thing: maximum and uninterrupted power for the Clintons….America is the platform for the Clintons’ ambitions, not the focus of them,” she wrote.
Though “The Case Against Hillary” made The New York Times Best-Seller List, it was largely received as a sermon to the Republican base, delivered by the woman who’d written George Bush the elder’s “thousand points of light” speech. Of course she would oppose Hillary’s candidacy. Nothing much new there.
But in 2005, Noonan broke with President George W. Bush’s administration over the Iraq war, among other things, and it gave her an air of cross-partisan credibility going into the current presidential season. Then, as Clinton stumbled in the Democratic primaries, Noonan found herself being embraced by an unlikely coalition of Obama supporters and disaffected Republicans to whom she was no longer a boilerplate conservative, but an iconoclast who’d turned on President Bush and been vindicated by anti-Clinton sentiment that was growing among Democrats. What’s more, being a woman gave Noonan a freedom to write critically about Clinton with little risk of being labeled sexist by the senator’s supporters.
“With Peggy Noonan, not only did I share many of her views about the election, I felt she was coming at it in a fair-minded way,” says New York Magazine columnist and Obama supporter Kurt Andersen. “It wasn’t like Bill Kristol, who you know what he’s going to say before he says it.”
“This moment was made for her,” Stephanopoulos says by phone. “She has a special feel for Hillary, though I’m sure it’s not one Clinton supporters always appreciate. And she’s had tremendous insight into what has been a troubled period for the Republican party. It gave her an opportunity to show some independence.”
Or, as William Greider of the left-wing staple The Nation puts it: “She’s come face-to-face with what happened to the Republican party and acknowledged it rather than pretending it’s not so or blaming the Democrats. I think she’s terrific.”
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a sizeable chunk of the left eventually fell in love with (or at least got a crush on) Noonan. As she notes, no one ever expected her to become a conservative Republican.
It’s earlier this spring and Noonan is sitting in Sfoglia, a trendy restaurant on the Upper East Side, near the apartment she shares with her Obama-supporting, 20-year-old son, Will, when he’s not off at college. (In another piece of the puzzle that makes up the former speechwriter’s life, she is a devout Catholic with traditional views on “family values” who is in fact divorced.) Noonan is 57, and her natural good looks remain. She is wearing a simple long-sleeve T-shirt and a prairie skirt, her feet inside a pair of bright red cowboy boots she bought in Texas in 1985, just after she’d gone to work as a speechwriter in the Reagan White House.
“My parents were ancestral Democrats,” she says, chewing a piece of Nicorette gum as she waits for her salad to arrive. “They were working-class folk. It would never have occurred to my grandmother to vote for a thing called a Republican. I’m not sure she ever met a Republican.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Noonan was the third of seven children. Her father was a merchant seaman and then a furniture salesman. Her mother was a housewife. When Noonan was five, the family moved to Massapequa, N.Y. As a child, Noonan and her siblings rode around the neighborhood on cheap bikes and spent their summers frolicking in a neighbor’s 3-foot pool. Everyone worshipped the Kennedys.
Finally, the family wound up in Rutherford, N.J., where Noonan graduated from high school. She took a job waitressing and enrolled in night school at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., where she studied for two years before being admitted full-time. Occasionally, Noonan attended anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, one of which featured a speaker who asserted disdainfully that the United States’ greatest accomplishment was exporting Coca-Cola. “I couldn’t get into the spirit,” Noonan later wrote. “There was contempt for the 19-year-old boys who were carrying guns in the war or in the [National] Guard….There was contempt for America.” The experience was transformative for Noonan. These were not her people.
In 1972, she graduated with a degree in English literature and a minor in journalism. Without any connections to speak of, she took a job at CBS’ all-news radio station in Boston, where she shared an apartment with Lisa Schwarzbaum, the future film critic of Entertainment Weekly. Though they’d met before Noonan “switched teams,” as Schwarzbaum puts it in an e-mail, they never stopped being friends. “The thing about Peggy is, she’s got a lot of friends who aren’t on her team. (Because, really, oy, what a team.) And still we love her, because she can be so warm, so silly, so charming, so compassionate. (Well, except about Hillary, her ‘Moby Dick.’)”
At CBS Radio, Noonan did well and was transferred to New York in 1977, where she became a producer for Dan Rather. He says her politics were never an issue to him. “I didn’t think of her as a conservative. I didn’t think of her as anything but a fiercely independent reporter. She’s a very good writer and thinker.”
Rather at times would ask Noonan to moonlight as his speechwriter and she was good at that, too.
By 1984, she was itching to work for Reagan. So she did two things. First, she prayed. Then, she sought advice from Joe Sobran of the National Review. He didn’t have a way into the White House, but a fellow editor at his publication did. As it turned out, Ben Elliott, head of the president’s speechwriters, had an open slot.
When Noonan made it onto the mother ship, she was 33, a young woman in a department of older men. Perhaps predictably, the job had its pitfalls. She was pressured to write speeches for Nancy Reagan, which she did not want to do. The president himself turned out to be aloof. Inside the White House, there was a cold war being waged by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford loyalists who opposed Reagan’s economic policies and wanted détente with the Soviet Union.
“The White House I lived through was an abattoir,” Noonan says, taking a sip of water. “There was blood on the floors. Everybody fought. They undercut each other, they tried to remove each other from the meeting. But the argument was held every day, and it went to the president every day, and things got adjudicated. That’s the way it ought to be if you’re serious. One of the things I have not liked in the past two administrations is this extraordinary inner-house awe for their president. You know, I loved Reagan, but he was a man and he was flawed and I wrote about that in my first book. I am astonished that the Bush people are so robotic. I am astonished that if you ever criticize your guy, he will banish you from the kingdom.”
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that most of Noonan’s “fights” at the White House were not with her “guy,” but with the holdovers from the previous two administrations. Noonan not only agreed with the president on the economy and the Soviet Union, she shared in his predilection for rhetoric that connected the administration’s policies to the will of God. And she, like Reagan, believed in strange, mystical things.
When Noonan was in high school, she had a dream the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As she wrote in her 1990 memoir, “Things I Saw at the Revolution”: “I saw Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. He was sitting in a box and suddenly a shadow came from behind and Lincoln turned to look and there was a sharp retort and he slumped in his chair. But the moment before he was shot, I saw his face and he was black.”
Shortly thereafter came another foreboding premonition about the murder of Bobby Kennedy.
“Whether those stories are real or not, she and Reagan both had an affinity for right-wing new age-ry,” says Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. “Even though she didn’t know Reagan that well, her fantasy of herself tracked with his fantasy of himself. The most famous passages of the speeches she did were pure Hollywood.”
On June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Reagan delivered Noonan’s first speech, in which the only thing missing was a John Williams score. “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent.”
It was a smash hit, as was an admiring tribute to John F. Kennedy that Reagan delivered at a fund-raiser for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.
By 1986, however, the writing was on the wall. Noonan’s boss, Elliott, had been removed from his post as the head of speech-writing, and it was seen around the office as the triumph of the pragmatists over the idealists. She’d recently married Richard Rahn, who was then the chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (they divorced in 1990). She had quit smoking and it left her exhausted. She also wanted to have a baby. “Time to go,” she thought.
So Noonan resigned in a letter to Reagan, and signed it with x’s for kisses. “My secretary said, ‘No, they won’t like it,’ so I sent a plain one, got mad, and sent the kisses,” Noonan later recalled.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush drafted her to work on his presidential campaign, where she was responsible for thinking up his famous “Read my lips: No new taxes” pronouncement. “It was a reminder to beware of sound bites that come back to bite you,” says Aram Bakshian, the first head of Reagan’s speech-writing department. “It was clever, but foolish.”
Happily, politics is one of the few businesses in which leaving (or losing) the best jobs is often the best that can happen: book deals, op-ed columns, consultancies at think tanks and lucrative speaking engagements on the lecture circuit. All of which Noonan has enjoyed since returning to New York nearly two decades ago.
First up was her memoir, “What I Saw at the Revolution.” It was a bestseller, though reviews were mixed and former White House colleagues such as Pat Buchanan claimed not to recall having had conversations that appeared in it. Similarly, Rather felt Noonan’s characterization of CBS as overly liberal served her outsider-ish narrative, but not necessarily the truth. “She described CBS in a way that didn’t match my memory,” he says. “There were many people there who were Republicans and wanted Reagan to win.”
Six more books followed, including a treatise on how to be a more eloquent you, encomiums to Pope John Paul II and Reagan and the anti-Hillary book that came out in 2000, the same year she was given her weekly column in the Journal.
In 2005, after taking a leave from the Journal to campaign for Bush’s reelection, Noonan’s views began to shift. Increasingly, she came to believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. She also felt Bush’s spending was out of control, a common complaint from economic conservatives. Then came the President’s inaugural speech. “This was an American president saying, essentially, it is now the policy of the United States to eradicate evil from the world, and to be friends with those countries that are democracies and not friends with those that are not,” she says. “To me that’s so mad, it stopped me in my tracks and made me reconsider everything. It’s both utopian and aggressive. You cannot decide to tell the world how it will govern itself.”
And so that’s what she began to write, to the delight of people like Russert, who said just days before his death: “Peggy is someone who has been a traditional conservative writer and thinker, but if she finds shortcomings in a conservative or a liberal, she points them out. The only predictable thing about her column is its unpredictability.”
Adds Marie Brenner, one of Noonan’s closest friends and a self-described liberal: “She’s constantly thinking and reflecting. She’s not interested in living in an echo chamber.”
Noonan is cooperating with the profile again, but on her terms, which means e-mail only and thus little talk of herself.
At the moment, she is discussing the perception that Bill Clinton destroyed his wife’s campaign: “The scarlet-faced, finger-waving, reporter-lecturing manner and tone; the sly race-baiting; the insistent ego; the me, me, me. It made her look like she wasn’t in charge of her surrogates. It also left her looking like her spouse was a crazy person. He reminded people of what they didn’t like in the Clinton years, which was deadly. He didn’t make her lose, but he was part of the loss….This guy’s not a documentary, he’s an opera. Somebody should write it.”
Also earning her ire is the evangelical wing of the Republican party. “In 2008, we had Mike Huckabee going before voters in Iowa and saying, in essence, vote for me because I’m Christian. Catholics thought, huh? That’s not how we do it. Religion is part of the package in terms of leadership — it’s not the entire package. We had evangelicals rejecting Mitt Romney because he’s Mormon. Catholics are very sensitive to that kind of thing — we can remember, ‘I can’t vote for that guy because he’s a papist.'”
Some Democrats — noting the affectionate feelings she has expressed for Obama — have begun to wonder if Noonan might do a complete ideological flip, becoming this year’s Arianna Huffington.
This seems unlikely, however. Huffington is the woman who came to oppose the entire conservative agenda. She jumped ship and suggested that others do the same. Noonan’s the woman who stayed on the ship, organized a rebellion and suggested tossing the captain overboard. And on the most significant issues, she is still very much a conservative. She’s still pro-life, she still opposes gay marriage, she still believes in lower taxes and smaller government.
And, perhaps predictably, some of Noonan’s critics already are predicting the end of her comeback. Last week, the political blog Wonkette ran a post about her first post-primary election column, saying: “Our girlfriend Peggy Noonan has been more enjoyable than usual this year, as a tragically drawn-out Democratic primary battle provided her with endless opportunities to touch herself while Barack Obama spoke pretty things….Now, that tortured eloquence has vanished.”
Not so fast — though the Obama folks may have less in common with Noonan in the general election than they did in the primary.
“Jacob,” she says, incanting my name for what must be the dozenth time, “the past few years have left me understanding more than ever that I am a conservative, and a particular kind of one. The Republican party has been, in my lifetime, the conveyor of conservative ideas. That has ended the past eight years. We’ll see if it comes back. But conservatism is what engages my mind, and the U.S. is what engages my heart.”