Peggy Noonan is retiring. Maybe not this year, or the next, or even in five years. But she is retiring, and her latest collection of columns, titled The Time of Our Lives, arcs beautifully in 430 pages. Not arranged in strict chronological order, it nevertheless traces a clear path from her time at CBS to the White House to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Lady knows a thing or two, and she wants to bequeath those things to the next generation.
Yet she conveys the lessons she’s learned and the experiences she’s had with such tough-minded humility and ineffable humor that it’s easy to forget that she told a president what she thought, and he actually listened. Even when she was disagreeing with others, she maintains intellectual charity in her writing that’s largely extinct from public discourse. Noonan senses this void, and many of her columns communicate an urgency to get the message of the importance of civility in controversy out there.
The Time of Our Lives is her greatest hits album, a parting gift to Millennials, showing us how the old timers did it back before they tweeted. She chides her colleagues for unceremoniously retiring: “I think, as I see my generation take the buyout, no, no you must stay, you’ve got to teach the 27-year-olds what you know!” (Noonan, xxxvii) Pay close attention to the introduction: my instinct with most non-fiction books is to breeze past introductions, as most of them are ghost-written by celebrities that amount to: “So-and-so is a good friend of mine whom I have known for many years. I am sure you will love her book.” If you want to know how a working-class Irish girl rose from the homes of great aunts with barren front yards to the Oval Office, watch how Noonan wields her pen. It’s all in the introduction.
It’s important to note that The Time of Our Lives is first and foremost a collection of good writing. We live in an age where anyone with a blog and a reaction is a pundit, and columnists pontificate in op-eds weighed down with jargon, cynical of both the leadership they criticize and the readership who places their words on the kitchen table. More variety does not always guarantee better quality. Noonan, however, internalized Strunk and White’s Elements of Style when she was a young writer and never forgot it. (She also breaks the first rule of Internet writing by reading the comments on her pieces, and she sticks by that too). Strunk’s Golden Rule — “vigorous writing is concise” — pervades Noonan’s columns, lending them authenticity and freshness. She wasn’t ever a goody-two-shoes looking for an A in her features writing class; she’s a seasoned professional who has mastered the basics. Each word is deliberate, every paragraph intent on persuading. You find yourself nodding along with her words even if you disagree with her ideas.
Noonan loves America, and her patriotism moves her to influence the politics that shape its destiny. But such an attitude can only be cultivated at the feet of those who defined the journalistic profession. Speaking of her time at CBS, Noonan writes, “They were men who, with Edward R. Murrow, invented broadcast news … Some of them literally had been through the war with Murrow.” (Noonan, xxxvii) If you know your great journalists of yore — Nock, Mencken, and their broadcast news descendants — then you’ll hear in Noonan’s writing an echo of the old-fashioned newspaper business: an elegant succinctness that is unswerving in its sense of purpose to both enlighten and convict. These qualities are almost impossible to find individually in the writing of the sea of would-be journalists, let alone within the same 2,000 word column.
The Time of Our Lives begins at the end, with an obituary section called “People I Miss.” It’s a chronicle of colorful and controversial characters — Joan Rivers, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. Most of the deceased were well-known conservatives, but Noonan wrote of former First Lady Jaqueline Onassis’ passing with such tenderness the two could have been close friends. No matter what political party her honorees belonged to, no matter whether they were close friends or acquaintances, Noonan’s magnanimity shines through, and sets up her generosity towards those she admires and those she disagrees with — even vigorously — throughout The Time of Our Lives.
She dives unflinchingly into the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church, and treats the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with equal vigor and sensitivity. These two events have had enormous political consequences and are well serviced in the hands of a political writer, but Noonan steers away from traditional point-scoring, noting correctly that in times of chaos, the soul craves air and light. She turns to poetry, another surprising move, comparing the heroic effort of the three hundred firefighters to that of the six hundred British soldiers who perished in the Crimean war, immortalized in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” She is absolutely right to do so. Journalists these days are exhorted to use data and graphs to give weight to their arguments, but sometimes the practice just makes a writer appear anxious, as though she already knows the readers won’t believe her and so she inundates them with numbers as a last resort. Poetry is much more difficult to argue with. Disagreeing with Tennyson is a bit like arguing with a painting. If you were in New York on 9/11, I dare you to get through Noonan’s columns eulogizing my beautiful city with dry eyes.
Critics of Noonan may suggest that much of the book is a love letter to Reagan, and she anticipates this. In her column “Why We Talk About Reagan,” she observes the double standard she is held to for expressing admiration of her former boss: “When I talk about Mr. Reagan, media people often preface my remarks, or close them, with words like this: ‘You adore him.’ … These are not unfriendly words, but they’re a warning to the viewer: Take what you hear with a grain of salt. Needless to say the grain-of-salt warning doesn’t come when the subject is, say, JFK, or FDR or Martin Luther King, all of whom had friends, supporters, and biographers who have spent decades advancing their careers with affection and respect.” (Noonan, 298)
She did work for Reagan, and he was a larger-than-life presence both in the White House and beyond it, thanks to his first career in Hollywood. But her admiration of him is tempered with the knowledge that all human beings, however great, are flawed. She dismisses the sentimental query “What would Reagan do?” in the face of a post Soviet-Union world. Reagan was a man of his time, she snaps back. He’s not here; we are. She doesn’t long for Reagan when subsequent Republican leaders disappoint her — she wants them to take up the mantle and do their job. To Noonan, it’s not about filling someone’s shoes, it’s about fulfilling your role to the best of your ability. Both President Bushes and Romney failed to understand this in her eyes, grasping instead for political expedience rooted in antiquated strategies. The one bright spot is McCain, who possesses virtue in spades but is dwarfed by the podium in both a literal and figurative sense. “…[McCain] should have nailed the prompter by now. Such things show a certain competence.” (Noonan, 328) He loses to Obama in 2008, and we know what comes next.
One salient subject that puts Noonan out of sorts is the Obama administration. Noonan allows, grudgingly, for one column faintly praising Obama about a week before he was elected before skewering him. “The past few months as the campaign unfolded, I listened for Mr. Obama to speak thoughtfully about the life issues, including abortion … For Mr. Obama, whose mind tends, as intellectuals’ do, towards the abstract, it all seems so … abstract. And cold.” (Noonan, 380) It’s not praise so much as optimistic anticipation, but she’s resigned to the new incoming liberal regime.
It’s clear during the campaign and the early days of Obama’s administration that she dislikes him: she is unimpressed with the much-loved storyline of turning down a lucrative job at a law firm to do community organizing at the South Side of Chicago. She does not see such a move as a sacrifice so much as it strategic political jockeying. “Most of [Obama’s] adult life has been a smooth glide. He had family challenges and an unusual childhood, but as an adult and a professional he never faced fierce, concentrated resistance…He doesn’t know how to struggle to his feet and regain his balance.” Noonan, 348) Her opinion of him sours steadily in the rollout of Obamacare, which she calls a “disaster”. “In terms of policy, [Obama’s] essential mistake was to choose health care expansion over health care reform.” (Noonan, 352) A good columnist praises the good and chides the bad while never ceasing to analyze. Noonan extols the great and castigates the mediocre. And Noonan makes no bones about shredding Obama’s policies in fierce, unambiguous language.
The other sour note in Noonan’s book is her stance on immigration, an issue she grapples with near the end of The Time of Our Lives. She is steadfastly against illegal immigration, to the point that she favors a wall — a position that puts her uncomfortably close to Trump. To support her point, she cites her grandmother, who had to book passage on an ocean liner, prove she was disease free and pass the rigorous checks at Ellis Island. “[Immigrants] had to get through Ellis Island … get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge, and get the nod to take their first step on American soil.” (Noonan, 390).
All this is fine if you happen to be so lucky. Many illegal immigrants do not have the money, connections or the time to assemble the necessary paperwork to walk in the front door. Many are fleeing with the clothes on their backs and little else. Her most persuasive point is that one’s first act in a new nation should not be breaking its laws. A solid point, but assuming that most of the immigrants who come here are not otherwise criminals, it may be easier to change the law than to expect millions of desperate people to suddenly present meticulous dossiers to border officials.
We often don’t think of legacy as something associated with women. Men are the ones obsessed with their legacy, so the stereotype goes. The urge to pass on titles and institutions to firstborn sons, to achieve, to have experiences and wisdom that is hard-won. But Noonan is conscious about how her writing and she herself will be perceived, and concern about this is not hubris. It is responsibility and civic duty of the highest degree, and something worth emulating.
A personal anecdote. I met Peggy Noonan about a year ago, at an event honoring Rand Paul at the Center for National Interest. Our lives have some overlap; I was a couple of years behind her son at the same secondary school. I was astonished that this small, unassuming woman had carved out a name for herself not just in politics but history. I’d seen her name flash across the closing credits of The West Wing as a high school student. She’d influenced American culture with her ideas. She was Somebody. When I stuck out my hand, I mentioned that I had gone to the same school as her son, and her face lit up. He’s home now, she said. Is Noonan a brilliant writer? No question. But in that moment, she was a woman who was happy her son was home. I think that is the most important legacy she wants to leave behind. Noonan wrote about columnist Dorothy Thompson who shaped the world with her words but forgot her son while doing so, something for which Noonan never forgave Thompson, which she took care to avoid herself. “[Thompson’s] only child, a son with Sinclair Lewis, got lost in the shuffle. While saving the world she forgot to save him.” (Noonan, xvii) Not everyone gets to have a fancy career, but we cannot, and must not, pass by the opportunity to be human, to connect fully in the moment with those around us.
To do so, according to Noonan, is to be truly American.