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My life as a White House speechwriter.

Introduction: Peggy Noonan, the speechwriter who so cleverly put words into the mouths of presidents Reagan and Bush, has as cleverly put words into What I Saw at the Revolution, to be published in February by Random House, about her days at the White House.

Asked by a presidential staff member why she had left CBS, where she worked for Dan Rather's award-winning show, Noonan impudently replied, "Because I'm stupid and I had no future at CBS." The real reason remained to be offered by a White House aide: "She likes Reagan."

Liking the President was one thing, getting to meet him quite another. She did, she writes, finally see his foot through an open door, and she describes the scene in detail. Upon asking a fellow writer how long since he had met with Reagan, she got the answer, "More than a year.... We see him all the time. And we wave to him."

Noonan takes us into her small office with its hissing radiator, its broken chair, its bookcase with water stains in the Executive Office Building. Here she prepares for her assignment as woman speechwriter for the President by reviewing speeches of presidents past-concentrating on FDR: "All those head-wagging sentences, rounded, declarative, naturally written and naturally voiced ... discoursing on the world, spinning the globe in his mind, putting a finger on the spot and looking down ...... That, she decides, is the way Reagan should sound.

Upon settling in, Noonan found herself in a place where it was hard to make friends. It proved much easier to make enemies and bad impressions on important people. Maureen Reagan, for one. Noonan was criticized for her clothes, "long black skirts and soft black boots." For her hair, "long, free flowing." For drinking wine. For tardiness.

But not to feel sorry for this stranger from New York facing the wilds of Washington, D.C., where, after work, people go home and fall asleep at 11:03 and get up at 5:45 and go jogging and then they eat cereal with the kids and correct their homework at the table and come in at 7:15 with their briefcase and say, Good morning, what can we do to advance traditional values today?' "

At the time, she writes, she was getting used to "the authentic sound of the Reagan Revolution buzzing around me. It was music to my ears. All those intelligent, well-motivated people talking about important things and trying to understand America. It was music."

One sour note, however, came from the East Wing of the White House, occupied by the staff of the First Lady. Would Peggy Noonan come over and work on a speech for her? Against her will but with the promise it would be a one-time assignment, "I wrote a nice bad speech," in her words, "so sugary she'd have to lick her fingers afterwards: My life didn't begin until I met Ronnie.' 'I can tell you as a mother that nothing, nothing is as important as the welfare of a child.' " The kid didn't miss a cliche. Threatening to go back to CBS finally got her off the hook.

Noonan's hilarious account of her first speech for the President is alone worth the price of purchase. It was for a Rose Garden appearance in which Reagan would announce the teacher of the year. (Rose Garden Rubbish, former speechwriters have called it, she later learned.)

"You would think this would be easy," she writes: praise teaching, announce the winner, praise her, and that's it, neat, nice, five minutes. But it was my first speech, so I included a defense of the West and an analysis of Bloomsbury's contribution to Keynesian notions of expediency as illustrated by the famous 'in the long run we're all dead.' It ran a little long."

On one speech returned from the President, she found, in addition to the usual RR initials confirming he had read the speech), a faint very good." After staring at it for some time, she cut it out and taped it to her blouse, "like a second grader with a star."

After the much-lauded speech she wrote for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Noonan was finally invited to meet the President, "a big tall radiant man, impeccably tailored, his skin soft pink and smooth." She would have us know that "it is not possible to be nervous in his presence."

If you would like just once to look in and listen in on the people who live in the White House and the daily sojoumers who come in with their briefcases at 7:15, it's all here in What I Saw at the Revolution, with no details spared.

Imagine a president with no personal enemies. This has never happened before. Imagine a man nobody hates, or no one who knows him. He was never dark or mean, never waited for the sound of the door closing to say, "What a fool," didn't seethe, had no malice. People could tell he trusted their motives. That trust brought out the best in the best of them, who acted better for the compliment, and the worst in the worst of them: they nodded with mild surprise when they saw his trust, looked into his eyes, and saw-nothing. They thought he was an empty house, and they were second-story men.

I'll tell you something surprising: this sunny man touched so many Americans in part because they perceived his pain. They saw beyond the TV image, they saw the flesh and blood, they felt those wounds, they caught that poignancy.

The reporters and correspondents and smart guys, they missed it. But the people saw. They thought: Look at the courage it took at his age to be shot in the chest by a kid with a gun and go through healing and therapy and go out there again and continue being President, continue waving at the crowds as he walks to the car. Think of the courage that old man had ! Remember those stories in the early years that Ronald Reagan didn't know where his own top aides' offices were? When I first got to the White House I thought it was untrue. Then a top aide told me, "Look, he would have had a general sense of where Baker's office was and where Meese's was because he saw them walking away. He knew they were down the hall because they never said, When I was upstairs in my office.' But why should he know where their offices were? Everyone comes to him."

"But it's not normal," I said. "It's normal to walk around the physical plant and see who's where and what it's like." LBJ went on walks, Kennedy did, Nixon. Johnson would have been checking to see whether the chief of staff has better furniture; Kennedy would have been finding out who's got a pretty secretary.

But Reagan withdrew from the White House, staying hermetically sealed in the Oval Office and the residence and pretty much ignoring the fact that he worked where Lincoln trod and Jefferson dined. He never took the dimensions of the place, and so he avoided taking possession of it.

He also took refuge in the mail, in writing letters to children who loved him and old ladies who needed him. Ann Higgins, the woman who ran the President's mail operation, used to send him 50 or so letters a week from the 200,000 a week he'd receive in that time, and sometimes-and it wasn't all that rare-he'd call and ask for more.

I think he saw that people pour out their hearts to presidents and that in a democracy, particularly a modem democracy, it's important that they know they have at least a chance to make it through to the top guy. He knew this naturally. He answered letters from citizens with the same kind of care and respect that he gave to a letter from Thatcher or Kohl.

People thought he was their friend. They would send him pictures of themselves and their families. The original letters would come back to Ann, but she noticed he often removed the pictures. They started showing up in the pockets of his jackets and coats and in the drawers of the lamp tables.

He wrote about ten letters a day, not counting those he wrote to personal friends who contacted him at his special post office box. He had a name-card file of people he'd been writing to for half a century, and when he was President he was still writing to them.

When he had surgery, many people wrote in and told him of their own ailments. "There's something in Americans that makes them describe their sicknesses in loving detail. We know the country's temperature-literally!" Higgins said.

He wrote regularly to two old ladies who live by the side of the road in Sacramento. Twenty years earlier, when he was the governor of California, he met Miss Jane and Miss Sally, who lived with their brother and made beautiful leather goods, saddles and belts and things you keep a knife in. Every Christmas they would send him a present. It was a tradition. When he was President they would write him in the autumn and say, "Don't forget to tell us what you want," and he would tell them, sometimes drawing it out on a pad.

And what they got in return, aside from hundreds of letters from Ronald Reagan over the years, is that every time their horse got sick and had to be treated they'd ask the President to drop the vet a line to thank him. That's how they paid their bills, with the letters. Everyone knew this, including Reagan, who laughed and kept on writing, "Dear Doctor Smith, How nice to hear you were able to help Dassy-doo when he stopped eating

Once he got a letter from a little girl upset because her father wouldn't let her keep her horse at their home in the suburbs. She poured out her heart to him because, she said, she could tell from all the pictures she'd seen that he really loved horses too. And he wrote back by hand a long letter telling her of his sympathy. And then he said, "But a horse needs space and sun-they need to run free." He told her: "It will help you, maybe, if you could try these things: work part-time at the nearest stable and rent a horse on Saturdays, and read books about horses and write to trainers and riders and ask them about how they do their jobs

His aides were always getting calls from weekly newspapers out in the hills asking: "Did you know the President has promised to look into Mrs. Elma Fogelby's Social Security problem and also invited her to the White House for a cup of coffee, and are you guys always that nice?"

The press aide would sigh, get the Social Security straightened out, and make sure she got in when she came.

Citizens sent him gifts and he used them. When schoolchildren in Arlington, Connecticut, sent him a bunch of yellow notepads with From the Desk of President Reagan" stamped on top-it was cheap yellow stock, it looked like something they'd done in shop-he used it for years.

A citizen sent him stationery that had a nerd with a long nose peeking over a wall and the saying No More Mr. Nice Guy! " He sent notes to George Schultz on that paper. At times he sent money to strangers and friends. Once he wrote somebody a check for $100 and they couldn't cash it because of the signature Ronald Reagan." The cashier at the bank said that was worth more than the amount. Ronald Reagan had to call the bank and arrange for them to give the money. This happened a number of times.

And he met with the people he wrote to. Once Ann Higgins asked him to call the Rossow family of Connecticut to congratulate them on their fine family. At the time, Mr. and Mrs. Rossow had 14 children, most adopted and many handicapped. The President not only called but, typically, asked to speak to everyone in the family, including the youngest, a little boy named Benjamin who was born with only a brain stem. The President not only spoke to them, he invited them to visit as well. A few weeks later two vans drove up and deposited the 16 Rossows at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They stayed with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who made waffles in their happy kitchen.

These kinds of things happened all the time in Reagan's White House. You'd walk by the Oval Office and there was a family full of people with no legs nodding hello to a dwarf who was bringing a message from the doorman at the Mayflower, who'd get a reply. No one else ran a White House like this, none of the modem presidents.

Ronald Reagan was genuinely kind and utterly egalitarian. He never thought he was stooping to these people, he didn't think he was better, and he was possessed of an intuitive sense of the purpose of royalty. He would have instinctively understood Oliver Goldsmith's exclamation of the common man's love for the King: "I flee from petty tyrants to the throne!"

There was too much deference in him. He was too deferential to the more sophisticated, too-assertive people with impressive degrees. He even deferred to his secretary, writing his letters in longhand, neatly printing out the entire name and address on the top of the page so she wouldn't have to look it up. Sometimes he didn't have the zip and he'd be apologetic and ask if she could please look it up if she had a minute.

I guess the most special thing of all was the humor. It was like Lincoln: those who knew him and were asked what he was like would start to smile and the smile was because of th( funny thing he'd told them that they couldn't forget.

He loved stories and one-liners loved to do accents; his humor was sometimes racy, but never around ladies. And there was a knowing quality an edge.

The day before he went into th( hospital for an operation, he met with the Vice President for their weekly lunch. The doctors would, the next day, insert tubes into various parts of his body to make sure everything looked as it should. This caused an unusual problem for the networks. The President's organs of reproduction were involved in the procedure-should the be portrayed in the graphics? Drawn or not? And yes, well ... well, as a producer said at one of the evening news planning se, sions, proportion become an issue. Presidential size full view? If it's not big, in that an editorial statement An unintended slight, yet more proof of liberal bias

Each news show handle the problem in its one way. Most used a variation on a drawing of an adult male's intestines, and tube being sneaked into the lower intestine from-well from somewhere into something.

But one news show use a drawing that was some what more realistic, showing the tube running through what it would really run through. To avoid the question of proportion, not to mention taste, they drew only a small portion of the organ.

It happened that the President saw the graphic on television. Later, at their weekly lunch, he mentioned it to the Vice President and deadpanned, "Gee, George, they didn't tell me they were going to cut it off-maybe I better think twice." Bush started laughing and couldn't stop. The rest of the day he'd chuckle at odd moments, and when pressed he'd say, Reagan," and laugh more. He loved Reagan. Like Lincoln, Reagan was occasionally reviled for his penchant for jokes and stories, but only by the intelligentsia. Normal people liked it fine. Newspapers and magazines ran his joke of the week; the Washington Post had a Reagan joke file. It was like the profusion of paper booklets produced when Lincoln was President, with such titles as "Abe's Jokes-Fresh from Abraham's Bosom" and "Old Abe's Jokes, or, Wit and Wisdom at the White House." Because Ronald Reagan was so open and sweet-tempered, people tended to expect his humor to be broad and sweet, and since that's what @hey expected that's what they saw. But there was a genial blackness to his humor. He always liked those stories about the guy who says to his friend, "I'm sorry to hear your wife ran off with the gardener," and the friend says, "That's all right, I was going to fire him anyway." He used humor to illustrate a point, refuse a moment, clinch a deal. Once a Republican senator, who was trying to convince the President of his loyalty in spite of his refusal to back the White House on a difficult vote, said, Sir, I'd jump out of a plane without a parachute if you said jump, but-" and Reagan leaned forward and said, 'Jump! The senator changed his vote. A
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Title Annotation:Peggy Noonan
Author:Noonan, Peggy
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:2850
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