Eminentoes

Obama, Noonan, and Blarney

Despite some misgivings about the president, the gifted Peggy Noonan cannot help but regard him as someone special.

By 4.9.09

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If the Wall Street Journal keeps to its usual schedule, the next column from Peggy Noonan will be published on Good Friday. I hope she takes advantage of that timing to offer one of the meditations on faith that she still writes better than almost everyone else, rather than another confused essay about President Obama.

When her subject is Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, or grace encountered on the streets of Manhattan or Washington, D.C., Noonan shines.

But Barack Obama frustrates her so much that even her occasional jabs at his opponents are poorly aimed. Last October, Noonan carelessly attributed a Southern accent and ignorance about firearms to Sarah Palin, the one governor in America least likely to say, "How do I reload this thang?"

Noonan now alternates between voicing misgivings about President Obama and explaining what makes him special.

Imagine a Blarney Castle guide distracted by a memory of visiting Hearst Castle: the contrast in climates occupied by those landmarks could strain the brain of anyone who knows both places. While Noonan strives to write as though she held the rain and rock in the palm of her hand, she cannot keep Ireland's "Stone of Eloquence" from competing with her memory of the Neptune Pool that William Randolph Hearst built for his sun-splashed estate.

In a January 16 column about how to enjoy the inauguration, Noonan borrowed from film studies to recommend that all who want to believe should "suspend disbelief." That may have sounded wise to her, but it placed the constitutional transfer of power on par with regime change in a banana republic, while backhanding an incoming president who had already been criticized for elevating style over substance.

A week later, Noonan praised President Obama's Inaugural Address as "serious," "solid," "moderate," "worthy," and "adult." She was impressed because he said that "In a time when all wonder if our nation's best days are behind us, we need to know that the answer is no. We continue. We go on. This is not journey's end."

Unfortunately, she could not leave well enough alone. Intending to applaud the new gravitas that the president had been test-driving, Noonan finished her column with an obscure reference to Obama as a "Young Sobersides." Virtually any compliment borrowed from Mark Twain or Charles Dickens would have been more up-to-date.

I've read Noonan closely enough to guess at her preferred writing method: She usually starts by emptying a single event into the coffee press of her socially-conscious conservatism. After adding her own thoughts and letting the resulting mixture steep until a theme brews itself, she uses a disarmingly conversational style to push controversies aside, and then pours a lightly-caffeinated essay into the plain white mug of her "Declarations" column.

Because that method relies more on observation than on research, it works best with her peers and with people who share the values they admire, such as the Marines whom she praised in the aftermath of a tragic jet crash for being even harder on themselves than they are on their foes.

The problem for Noonan is that Barack Obama claims to be non-ideological and interested only in what works. Evidence debunking these claims accumulates daily, but Noonan expects the people whom she writes about to use language as honestly as she does.

Polishing speeches for Ronald Reagan, Noonan learned to think about news made around her in an atmosphere of confidence and maturity. Her love for Pope John Paul II affirmed that approach.

It would be wrong to say that now that those men are gone, Barack Obama is unworthy of her steel, but only because steel is not what Noonan brings to the table. She looks for rainbows against the squall line of current events, and has a soft spot for Senator Ted Kennedy. Asking someone like that to come to grips with a president who strains even American military airlift capability by jetting off to Europe with no fewer than 4 speechwriters and 12 teleprompters in an entourage of 500 people is like asking a ballerina to dance after trading her toe shoes for swim fins.

In a classic bit of projection published last week, Noonan catalogued her thinly-disguised frustrations with President Obama to assert that "He is willowy when people yearn for solid, reed-like where they hope for substantial, a bright older brother when they want Papa, cool where they probably prefer warmth."

She may be right about all that, but these symptoms of buyer's remorse come from an essayist who had praised the president for appearing "fully in command" less than a month before.

So I am now in a pickle: As a junior member of the Irish-American Pundits Guild, it is not my place to suggest that well-placed cynicism could shield Noonan from future remorse. Fortunately, P.J. O'Rourke has already said much the same thing, and he writes with a muscular disdain foreign to her experience, as a comparison of similar passages in their respective essays makes clear.

While claiming that Obama had "donned the presidential cloak" near the end of a speech delivered February 24, Noonan wrote, "Every president has a moment when suddenly he becomes what he meant to be, or knows what he is, and those moments aren't always public." Her criticisms of the economic recovery plan were muted. President Obama was throwing everything he could against the wall to see what would stick, she noted, but it was hard to criticize him for reminding her of the spaghetti-cooking technique she claimed to have learned from an old Italian woman.

Well, I have Italian friends, too, and mine know that any spaghetti that sticks to the wall is overcooked. Is it churlish to say that to a woman whose writing evokes images of Anna Magdalena Bach at the harpsichord, all perfect posture and moderate volume while plinking skillfully at one of her husband's compositions, or is this another case of "many a thing you know you ought to tell her; many a thing she ought to understand"?

A few days after Ms. Noonan filed her "presidential epiphany" column, Mr. O'Rourke also wrote about Obama, but he bypassed Bach to thunder like Beethoven at a grand piano: "When a Democratic president goes from being wrong to being damn wrong is always an interesting moment," he wrote. "Barack Obama condemned himself (and a number of human embryos to be determined at a later date) on March 9 when he signed an executive order reversing the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research."

As the jury foreman for this study in contrast, I think a harder tone is more appropriate than a softer one. While Noonan described Obama as showing "welcome modesty" at the G20 summit, I heard our president congratulate himself for "not having to drag the French kicking and screaming into Afghanistan."

Frankly, from where I sit, it looks like the First, Second, Tenth, and Twenty-Second Amendments are being undermined by initiatives from a president who thinks pulling other countries into conflicts is an American prerogative. Whether Peggy Noonan sees the same thing would be hard say. But God bless us, every one. God help us and forgive us, too. 

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.