Another Perspective

Gone Wobbly

Peggy Noonan is still looking for her lost mojo.

By 1.27.05

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Because her idiosyncratic take on George W. Bush's Second Inaugural Address did not go unnoticed, Peggy Noonan decided she had some splainin' to do. Okay by me. But then she went and threw a press conference. For herself. Asking and answering her own questions. If that isn't a symptom of Olympian presumption, I'm not sure what is.

Fans of her writing may remember that Noonan is the columnist who three months ago told fellow conservatives not to rock the boat over Arlen Specter's elevation to chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee (even though she's Catholic and Specter has been hostile to pro-life nominees for positions on the federal bench). Back then, she described "Ssssshhhhhhhh" as both a "wonderful sound" and "good advice for our country" -- something to keep in mind while we breathe deeply and "build a great silence" on issues that matter.

I hate to start thinking of her as Peggy "turn down the volume" Noonan, but her newfound enthusiasm for quietude at any cost would explain her adverse reaction to GWB's second inaugural. She wants oboes and clarinets. The guy in Air Force One whom she voted for prefers trumpets and cymbals.

"Life is layered, complex, not always most needful of political action. For many people in the world the most important extrafamilial relationship is not with the state but with the God," Noonan writes.

That's blessedly true, as far as it goes, but borderline lunatic when used to criticize a head of state who can only meet the demands of his office by engaging in political action. While the presidential writ doesn't extend to priesthood (thank God!), and the troubles of this world will pass away, it's hard to fault GWB's ode to freedom as "perplexing and disturbing," the way Noonan does.

In a crowning irony, Noonan gives thanks for the fact that timid staffers in the Reagan White House could not prevent Mr. Reagan from saying "tear down this wall," and calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Four administrations and one Laura Ingraham-style "but monkey" later, however, Noonan laments the lack of defensive thinking that in her youth she would have eviscerated.

Here's the relevant excerpt, from saddest paragraph in her sad column:

In other White Houses there were always too many people eager to show their worth by removing the meaning of the speech, or warning the president that such and such shouldn't be said. I get the impression no one in this White House wants to be the person in the speechwriter's memoir who tried to remove "Tear down this wall" or "evil empire." So often such people are defensive, anxious, unhelpful. They often lost the battle in the Reagan White House, to the benefit of history. But for this speech there seemed no one who wanted to think defensively and wield the editing stick. Which is bad, because such people are actually needed. Like dead wood in a forest; they add to the ecology; they have their purpose.

Had I been the one wielding the editing stick, I'd have struck GWB's gratuitous and wholly unnecessary reference to the Koran as one of several influences on the development of American principles. But Noonan was disturbed by the overall boldness of the inaugural address, not by its feckless nod to political correctness. She pines for dead wood (and I crack myself up).

Insofar as Noonan's lament is environmentally-tinged shorthand for the message of the Byrds and the Book of Ecclesiastes that "to everything, there is a season," I agree. Balance is not to be sneered at. But as an effective chief executive, GWB did right to focus the eyes of the world on "the fire of freedom" rather than the dead wood that could well find its purpose as fuel for that fire.

Robust restatement of American principle anchored in Natural Law didn't go over with Noonan, and she's said why in her elegant way twice now. My guess is that in addition to her stated reasons (which I believe), she writes so much from the heart that she's let her mind atrophy. It ought to give her pause that none other than Jordanian dung heap Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's rant against the "evil principle of democracy" stands as perverse confirmation of the wisdom of playing to American strengths. Sadly, it does not.

I like Peggy Noonan, but I think it's time for an intervention.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.