Skip to comments.Understanding Peggy Noonan
Posted on 11/11/2008 6:31:00 PM PST by Irish Rose
Understanding Peggy Noonan
I read the other day that Peggy Noonan voted for John McCain. What's news is that that is news.
You would think that we could assume a leading conservative writer didn't vote for Barack Obama, but Peggy Noonan has given us reason to wonder. After Peggy declared that Palin's Failin', the notion was taken up far and wide that she wandered from the conservative fold. Peggy, we hardly knew ye has become a refrain among on-line conservatives.
But her wanderings didn't begin with that op-ed. I have read all of Peggy Noonan's books and followed her column faithfully for years; I can tell you that there has been a shift in her since 2005. A veritable Bush Bot during the first Bush administration, she has since gotten to the point of interrupting a column about Pope Benedict to make a snarky aside about President Bush. His offense? Meeting with the pope at the White House. This is a dramatic change. To get an idea of how dramatic, read Peggy Noonan's "The Crying Room", and then "American Grit".
We all know what Peggy had to say about Sarah Palin. There have been other things in her writing that you would not expect from a conservative. One is a certain softness about Barack Obama. Another is increasingly left-leaning views on Iraq - belief that the invasion was wrong from the beginning, opposition to the Surge, support for the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, the statement that Joe Biden has, for five years running, been more right on Iraq than the Bush administration.
I have watched this change in Peggy Noonan with fascination that has been morbid only some of the time. On a purely human level, it's a very interesting thing. Other people have noticed it too, and for years I have read with interest their theories. Now I would like to offer my own.
The first thing I would like to say is this: There have been many suggestions, going back to January 2005, that Peggy Noonan's judgments of President Bush, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin have been motivated by jealousy, elitism, financial gain, personal problems, and what is delicately termed a "change of life". I think all these should be put aside. As things stand now, there is little evidence for or against such explanations, making the discussion purely speculative and largely uncharitable.
Peggy Noonan's turning point has been identified as "Too Much God" - her column critical of President Bush's Second Inaugural Address. This is accurate: That is the time when the change was first noticed. But I would like to propose a different date as to when it began: June 9, 2004.
Don't bother thinking that long about it: I'm not referring to any momentous national event. More like a momentous personal event. June 9, 2004 was the day Peggy Noonan was in the Capitol, for a gathering of old Reagan hands. An alarm was sounded, the Capitol was evacuated, and as Peggy looked back toward the building, she saw the wheelchair-bound Oatsie Williams stuck at the top of the steps. Two policemen took hold of the wheelchair and carried the woman down, and, as Peggy writes in Patriotic Grace:
But something happened as I watched Oatsie being carried down the Capitol steps. A thought had come with the force of an intuition, though it was not that. Just a thought, barely carried in words. In time it sank in, and did not leave me for months, and then years.
Before this is over we'll all be helping each other down the stairs...
It came to be for me a reordering thought. I'd felt a version if this sentiment since 9/11, and maybe you did too. But in some new way, for me, it...broke through. And stayed with me, coming to reshape or reorient my thinking, my attitude, about many things.
I came to think this: the old ways are over, the old politics are over. The weary going through the motions as each side brutalizes the other: over. A new time has begun, or must begin. We have to sober up, we have to change, the stakes are that high. This is a time for seriousness, for high-mindedness, forbearance, and reason. We have to try to sort of shake our heads and see each other new, and the landscape new.
What conservative would deny the stakes are high? What human being would say that any time is not a time for seriousness, high-mindedness, and reason? As for forbearance - well, there are no exceptions to the Golden Rule. If you love your country you should care about your fellow countrymen; hopefully they aren't your enemies. And if they are - well, Christ said to love your enemies.
So all this is very well as far as it goes. But how far does Peggy go? This we find out a few pages later:
All this came to change the way I do my work, which is writing about politics. It left me - it is a little embarrassing to say this, because it admits and acknowledges a previous lack - open in some new way to, and eager to hear, the stands and suggestions of those I'd previously seen as generally unhelpful (that would be liberals) and sometimes newly protesting of some of the actions of those whose views I'd previously found congenial.
That would be conservatives, I guess. So there we have it: Peggy Noonan is now more open to liberals' ideas and more hostile to conservatives' actions. Well. At least bipartisan still means that Democrats win.
I mentioned earlier Peggy's softness on Barack Obama. I would like to present the idea that her treatment of Obama is a prime example of her new thinking. In all fairness, she responded toughly to Obama's assertion that the question of when human life begins is above his pay grade. Two early articles on Barack Obama - "The Man From Nowhere" and "The Conceit of Government" - were very creditable also. But after Barack Obama became a serious contender, a curious feature emerged of Peggy Noonan's writings about him: She almost never addressed his policies or principles. His persona, his temperament, his eloquence, his blackness - but not what he believed or wanted to do. Here are some of her later comments:
Obama [is] worthy in his own way of admiration... [He does not] seem by nature inclined toward brute, gut-player politics. ... [Obama] seems temperamentally not inclined to be a killer, to encourage the dark side of politics. Patriotic Grace
Barack Obama has a great thinking look. I mean the look he gets on his face when he's thinking, not the look he presents in debate... I mean the look he gets in an interview or conversation when he's listening and not conscious of his expression. It's a very present look. He seems more in the moment than handling the moment. "The Trance"
[Obama] has impressed people, and not with money, résumé or clout but something rarer, natural gifts. That's not nothing. Big talent is rare, and deserves consideration. "The Trance"
Yes, I think [Barack Obama is reasonable]. ... Mr. Obama is thoughtful, and it would be a pleasure to have a president who is highly literate and a writer of books. "Be Reasonable"
The Obama campaign has been one of real dignity and cool, and in this it reflected its candidate. "Why It's Getting Mean"
[H]e gave me a keen look. "Who are you for, the election? I guess the Republicans." I paused. "I haven't had to decide yet," I said. "I'm just watching and trying to figure it out. But I'll tell you, it would be a delight to me if Mr. Obama shows himself to be deep enough, sturdy and sophisticated enough that one could vote for him in good conscience." Patriotic Grace
The only thing any principled conservative ever needed to decide in the 2008 election is: McCain or third party? That is not because conservatives are close-minded, not because they lack grace or anything else. It is because they have set philosophical principles; they know what they believe and they know what Obama believes. Once you have decided a candidate's principles are wrong and his policies are disastrous, you don't care if he has "natural gifts". You don't care if he is dignified or cool or sturdy. You don't care how sophisticated he is. You don't even care if he has a great thinking expression.
To reject a candidate because of his principles is an act of clarity and rationality. It cuts to the heart of the matter, to the root and substance of things. To borrow one of Peggy's favored words, it is high-minded, and you don't get any higher.
By contrast, does anyone else notice how fundamentally unserious some of Peggy's remarks on Obama have been? He's literate! He writes books! Way to call 'em! Reading Shakespeare and Hemingway is a prime qualification for running the country. And when we look at dark times and rough waters ahead - I say, let's put a writer in the Oval Office!
In Patriotic Grace, Peggy Noonan calls herself a political conservative. To this day she has written much that shows - and nothing that contradicts - that she is pro-life and believes in limited government. Now consider the fact that Barack Obama is rated the most liberal member of the Senate. He voted four times against the Infants Born Alive Protection Act; he said that he didn't want his daughters "punished with a baby" - thus supporting not only abortion, but the abortion of his own grandchildren. He opposed the Surge and once said that we should negotiate with Iran without preconditions. He believes that health insurance is a right and should be provided by the federal government. And I haven't even mentioned the company he keeps.
I know all this, and politics is only my hobby. Politics is Peggy's profession; she must know all this too. So what are we to make of this: Peggy Noonan sees a presidential candidate who thinks we should socialize health care and let babies die, and she wonders: Is this man deep enough to be president?
Peggy's new aspiration to what she calls "grace" may have given her higher sentiments, but it has also lowered her considerations. Her evaluation of Barack Obama indicates a severe loss of either seriousness, or perspective, or principle. She has put more importance on Barack Obama's sophistication than his beliefs - and I can't express what an appalling, what an extraordinary failure of judgment that is.
Perhaps it is a boggling failure of judgment; perhaps Peggy has, to some extent, become philosophically unmoored, and she's drifting left. I don't know. But it isn't good.
That is one revelation I experienced while reading Patriotic Grace. I had another. I'm happy I read that book - I'm finally cracking some nuts.
There has been a viewpoint - a recurring theme - in Peggy's writings that has puzzled me. Here are some examples:
[The Bush administration] had brutish impulses when opposed. Patriotic Grace
That is the authentic sound of the aggression...of the Bush White House. "Palin and Populism"
[If Scott McClellan had resigned from principle, the administration] would have beaten him to a pulp...as a lesson: This is what happens when you leave and talk. "But Is It True?"
The deeper story is not that those who've been silenced [by the Bush White House] have often come forward to speak in harsh terms. The deeper story is that the Bush White House hurt itself by using muscle to squelch alternative thinking--creative thinking, independent judgments... It was this tendency that led to the administration's gym-rat reputation, all muscle and no brains. "Now He Tells Us"
This complaint is actually somewhat unique - at least for conservatives. Most conservatives don't think the Bush White House has been too aggressive in dealing with critics; what they usually say is that it has not been anything like aggressive enough.
How many examples of the Bush White House's brutal aggression against its opponents can be named? Where have President Bush's "brutish" instincts been in evidence? George W. Bush may be the most insulted man in the world; he has been called everything from Hitler to a chimp, from a war criminal to a retard. Now, sit down to compose a list of the ten nastiest things he has said in response, and see what you come up with.
Consider also the total decorum with which the president has treated his former subordinates - no matter what they did, no matter what he could have gained by speaking against them. He could have defended himself by attacking Donald Rumsfeld, or General Casey and General Abizaid. He could have bolstered his reputation at the expense of theirs, but he never put them down. Even when his subordinates turned out to be rats - such as Scott McClellan, Paul O'Neill, and even, to some extent, Colin Powell and Dick Armitage - President Bush has never treated them with anything but unfailing grace. This is the man whose administration would have beaten McClellan to a pulp.
But, thanks to Patriotic Grace, I now think I understand what Peggy Noonan is talking about when she explains that the Bush White House would have crushed Scott McClellan had he talked. Here is a quotation from that book:
I think the Bush White House made a mistake that has not been fully noted. ... I believe they mobilized the blogs, the cable shows, talk radio, the comment threads, and so on, to advance the administration policy and to take down those who disagreed with it.
This is what is known as a conspiracy theory - or as I like to think of them, "stories without a leg to stand on". It has no empirical evidence, it creates questions rather than answers them, and it appears to arise from existing belief rather than observed reality.
I know of no evidence for this assertion, and neither does Peggy Noonan. She offers not a scrap of fact to support it. But she just knows that Bush staffers have been anonymously waging war against administration opponents, and she really is unhappy with them about it. As she also writes in Patriotic Grace:
I had my own rounds in this arena [of right-wing Internet forums] when, after years of arguing in support of Mr. Bush and his policies in essays and columns in 2000 and after, and taking time off from The Wall Street Journal to volunteer for him during 2004, I...wrote a piece for the Journal declaring the address to be what I thought it was: wild in its ambitions, immature in its thinking, and deeply ahistorical. Now I was treated as the enemy, too.
Peggy Noonan believes the Bush White House mobilized the blogs and the comment threads to take down its opponents. It would seem logical to say she believes they mobilized them to take down her. Here, perhaps, we have at last insight into her animosity against President Bush. She argued in support of President Bush - she took off time from work to volunteer for him - and then she was treated as the enemy. The ingrates. The traitors.
But if Peggy is sour on President Bush these days, at least she's chipper about Barack Obama. As she writes in her post-election analysis:
Mr. Obama won [his mandate] the old-fashioned way: he earned it. He confounded history to get it. And because he replaces a president whose unpopularity has impeded his ability to govern, he is, in a way, president from day one.
What a thing this is going to be to see. What luck to observe it.
Well, what can a conservative say? Here I am, worried about the unborn and hoping America survives President Barack Obama, and she's feeling lucky to see him take the reins of state.
Come back, Peggy!
I lost all respect for Peggy Noonan when she said what she did about Palin when she thought the microphones were off.
No thanks. The smug, elitist ‘conservatives’ can take a hike.
Understanding Peggy Noonan.
Warning!! Does not compute! Do not attempt this!
Uppity Noonan just wants to be invitied to all her NY cocktail parties.
Stay away Peggy.
Peggy who-nan? buh bye
She is an idiot. Her columns in the now Fox-ized, Murdoch-ized, Obama-ized Wall Street Journal (WSJ) have been crap for the past 4 years. They became so bad a few years ago that I stopped reading them. Just garbage.
I think as she has gotten older she has become a more guilt-ridden Manhattan liberal Catholic. A Kennedy Catholic. A lot of them voted for O.
I will be cancelling the WSJ and will tell them why. IBD is so much better and a conservative paper.
Understanding Peggy Noonan is kind of like understanding al-Qaeda. Not in the sense that she’s a terrorist— but in the sense that, who gives a crap? Screw her.
Peggy has taken her marbles and gone home.
Pretty insightful until the last three words.
Peggy is a NY Republican (contadiction in terms) with Beltway Insider roots. She needs to get off Manhattan Isl. and live with American conservatives before I accept her being called a conservative.
time to hang it up
Peggy Noonan: thoroughly overrated, snooty, country club Republican who took repeated bows for the temporary residual glow she once featured having stood close to Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming brilliance for a short while.
Peggy Noonan is all about “intangibles” (speech-giving as “leadership”, vague notions about “character”), and has never cared too much about conservative policies.
She liked Reagan because he was a visionary leader who was also very articulate. She disliked the Clintons not for their liberal policies, but rather for their dishonesty and crassness. She was too good for the trailer-park Clintons.
But she is drawn to Obama’s messianic element, even if that means she is supporting socialism.
No, no you have it all wrong. Noonan can stay gone. Period.
I used to respect Peggy, years ago. Not for a long long time.
What Rintense said.
Well, I'll have to get completely crocked off my arse, but I'm willing to give it a try.
So, who's willing to sponsor my bar tab? It's going to take a lot of hard drinking to get into that psychotic b*tches head...
Still, anything for the cause!
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