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What I Saw at the Revolution.

The top speechwriter for Reagan and Bush

takes you behind her lines.

Peggy Noonan is a terrific speechwriter, as she showed most convincingly with George Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 1988. This book shows that she is also a skillful raconteur. What I Saw at the Revolution is a memoir that goes lightly over her pre-political experiences and then concentrates on the two-plus years she spent working at the White House for Reagan and her later experiences with Bush.

The book has the right mix of gossip, score-settling, and story-telling, and it is usually quite funny. (A warrior from the Afghan Mujahedeen resistance comes to the White House for meetings to raise support. Noonan takes him to the White House Mess for lunch. "The polite, attentive Filipino steward approaches and holds out his pad, his pencil poised in the air. The Mujahedeen warrior turns his turbaned head. 'I will have meat,' he says.") There are enough delicious moments in this book to earn it a place with Donald Regan's For the Record and Christopher Buckley's hilarious novel, The White House Mess, on the short list of Reagan-era memoirs that are well worth reading as well as enormous fun to read.

Noonan is wholeheartedly on the side of Reaganism and of Ronald Reagan, but she does not make Reagan out to be some kind of mental giant or perfect man. Near the end of his term, she says, "I knew he was one of the great men of our time ... |but~ when I thought of him in those days, it was as a gigantic heroic balloon floating in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, right up there between Superman and Big Bird."

Having come to Washington in her mid-30s, after growing up and working in New York, Noonan usually remains skeptical of the classic Washington vanities. After she's called in for a meeting with Reagan, she leaves thinking, "I would be able to say, Well, I was meeting with the President the other day, and he says ' for weeks." When she learns that Bud McFarlane has tried to kill himself, because of his humiliation in the Iran-contra business, she says: "In Washington in the eighties a man would attempt suicide when he thought his career was over, and later he would say, 'I did it because I had failed my country, and failure and defeat are difficult for someone with my admittedly achieving nature to countenance.'...not 'I did it because my anguish is so huge, so ineradicable that to remove it I had to try to remove myself.' and not, "Because I'll never be president,' which is what he wanted, I think, because he'd been in that Oval Office.

"It never occurred to him that he didn't have to make a statement."

A Buster Keaton-like comic pathos is built into the speechwriter's condition, and Noonan evokes it very well. If a speech succeeds, the writer feels underappreciated. (Noonan recounts a wonderful anecdote about Dwight Eisenhower, who was sitting with his own speechwriters, having won every honor his nation could offer, when suddenly he turned resentful. "You probably think Doug MacArthur was the great silver-tongued orator of the army. Well, who do you think his speechwriter was? It was me!") If a speech fails, the writer takes the blame, although he's usually fought a losing battle against the policy nerds who've gummed and sucked at the draft until it turned to mush. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Noonan says, she dashed off a statement for Reagan to read. "It went almost as written. The staffing process had no time to make it bad." Her draft contained a quote from the wartime poem about aviators who slipped the surly bonds of Earth" to "touch the face of God": "The worst edit ... I received in all my time in the White House-was from a pudgy young NSC mover who told me to change the quote at the end from 'touch the face of God' to 'reach out and touch someone-touch the face of God.' He felt this was eloquent. He'd heard it in a commercial. I took it to Ben Elliot, |head of the speech writing office~ and said, I'll kill, I'll kill, I'll kill him if this gets through. Ben, alarmed, assured me that he would explain if pressed that you don't really change a quotation from a poem in this manner."

Considering the generally high regard for herself that comes through this book, it is nice that Noonan also makes gentle fun of the tics she introduced into Bush's convention speech: the bizarre subject-less sentences in which Bush recounted, "Moved to Texas, joined the Republican party, raised a family," and so on. Noonan says dryly of this style:

"Had the benefit of sounding natural and relaxed, the drawback of sometimes being hard to pull off. Imagined him raising his hand on the Capitol steps-'do solemnly swear, will preserve and protect . . . . "'

Can such an entertaining book, which is so often insightful about people other than the author, have any defects? Unfortunately it can. There are three significant problems with this book, which actually seem to be traits of character that come through in the writing.

First, even by the standards of Reagan-era memoirists and of speechwriters as a class, Noonan seems remarkably full of herself. Life somehow has never taught her that, if you can't be genuinely modest, even the semblance of modesty is a plus. She gives phrase-by-phrase accounts of how she drafted her speeches, in a tone that would be appropriate for barby-bar recollections by Mozart. She says that, after she finished hammering out a draft, the speech writing process would typically !) go like this: "I would get it back from Ben. He would not have changed it much, but he would have written little exclamation points along the margins, and sometimes on some sections he would write, Excellent!' And I would be shocked that Ben's critical faculties had failed him. Then I would read over the speech and realize for the first time that it was actually pretty brilliant, so delicate and yet so vital, so vital and yet so tender." My sympathies are entirely with Noonan as she fights against the policy nerds, but it's easy to imagine them grinding their teeth about her "delicate yet vital" prose.

Class act

Second, there is a peculiar class dynamic underway in the book. Noonan grew up in a working class Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where most children of her generation (she is in her late 30s) were the first in their families to go to college. She understands exactly why the hereditary Democrats of her neighborhood, who viewed John Kennedy as their hero and savior in 1960, came to see Ronald Reagan the same way 20 years later. We all bear the marks of our upbringings, and even though Noonan has spent the last 15 years doing professional-class jobs in Cambridge, Manhattan, and Washington, she may feel that her soul is still in Brooklyn. But in this book she hauls out her working-class credentials so often and so showily that she seems to be using them to mau-mau the "nice young men in blue suits from Brooks" she fought against in the White House. They couldn't possibly understand the emotions of the real America (she would tell them), because unlike her, they weren't from Brooklyn and hadn't ever worked in a diner. There's something to this point, but not as much as Noonan makes of it here. When she's not talking about her humble roots, Noonan drops allusions to the world of academics and aesthetes-the Deconstructionists, Gerald Murphy-that seem a little far-fetched. I could be reading it wrong, but it looks as if she is using these signals to show that she has it both ways: she's a woman of the people, but she knows as much as the pointy-heads. To be clear about this point, there is nothing wrong with being a woman of the people or with knowing a lot about history or art. The problem is that both these parts of Noonan's identity in the book seem forced rather than natural, as if they say more about the way Noonan wants to be seen than about what she really is.

Better said than read

Finally there is the question of "writing for the ear." Before she joined the Reagan staff, Noonan had spent several years as a writer for Dan Rather. Her speciality was scripts for his five-minute radio commentaries. She presents it as a kind of delicious irony that she could have spanned the gulf between Rather and Reagan. But by the time a reader finishes this book, the irony or mystery will have disappeared. In both jobs, Noonan was doing essentially the same thing-writing words that would be listened to, rather than read on a page. Probably without meaning to, she uses the same approach in much of this book, and in so doing she demonstrates that the way she writes matters more than what she says: The structural similarity between Rather's broadcasts and Reagan's speeches matters more than the supposed differences in their political points of view.

"Writing for the ear," as Noonan describes her specialty, and writing for the eye are different skills. Some people are good at both: William Safire, Pat Buchanan, Charles McCarry, and Hendrik Hertzberg, to choose a varied list, were all effective White House speechwriters, and all have been at least as effective writing books, articles, or columns designed to be read. But people who can write the one way often can't write the other, since the demands of the two styles are surprisingly different. Writing for the ear has to convey its meaning more concisely, with images, touching the emotions as well as the mind. In its ideal form, it is poetry. In return it's able to shuck some of the burden of logic and argumentation that writing for the page is supposed to bear. It's almost always disappointing to read the script of a broadcast that sounded powerful and moving when you heard it. The holes in the argument are so much more obvious; what sounded eloquent often looks trite.

Peggy Noonan has a true gift for ear writing, but this book suggests that she can't really go both ways. One indication is a stylistic peculiarity. The book is dotted with the kind of "transition" that works in a broadcast, with a pause at either end, or as the voice-over for a video shot that implies the transition by itself as the images change. In print, however, these transitions "And there was another thing:" "There was this about Washington:"-look like ways to avoid thinking out the real connection between ideas.

The more serious indication is that the book as a whole has the strengths and weaknesses of a speech by Reagan or a commentary by Rather: it is vivid, engaging, moving, and often poetic, but it doesn't stay with anything that might turn out to be very complicated. For instance, Noonan mentions out of the blue that she has run into liberals who've criticized the young Reagan appointees: If they're so devoted to the family, why aren't any of them married? If they're so high on patriotism, why didn't any of them go to Vietnam? If they're so eager to support religion, why aren't they ever in church? "If they're so interested in traditional values, how come half of them are faggots?" Noonan spends half a page presenting the scenes where people challenged her with these questions ... and that's it! She never mentions any of the points again, and to all appearances never thinks about them.

Once over lightly

In a radio broadcast, this would be Ok-the emotional chord would have been sounded, the narrator would not be expected to act as a debater and deal with every idea that is introduced. It's different in a book. Noonan quotes, with understandable pride, a radio commentary she did for Rather after John Hinckley was sent to a mental hospital for shooting Reagan and maiming Jim Brady-while poor people guilty of much less heinous crimes were left to rot in jail. The commentary was built around a refrain, a kind of chant: "Something is wrong here." It is easy to imagine how powerful it must have been over the air. On the page, the repeated refrain looks a little bit stupid-of course "something is wrong," we know that already; tell us exactly what the problem is and what we can do about it. So too with Noonan's brief mention of the fervent conservatives who don't practice what they preach. If you're going to write about the "revolutionaries" who served Reagan, you can't just skate past questions of this sort.

At a dozen other crucial points, Noonan gives a Dan Rather commentary about an idea, rather than writing about it. To give just one other example, she assures us that: "Someone once said the most important word in We the people' is We.' |This, by the way, is a for-the-ear-only sentence if ever there was one. Can't you just hear Reagan, or for that matter Rather, saying it?~ Reagan knew this in his bones. He represented the idea that all of us together, the American people, 'hold these truths'-that all men are created equal, that democracy is better than dictatorship, that justice is a standard we must each seek to meet. He brought back the We. "'

Whoa there! The chapter ends, Noonan moves on, and she wastes no time defending an assertion that, to put it charitably, not all her readers will find instantly convincing. It would, however, have been perfect in a speech.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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