As a political columnist, it has meant a lot to me — certainly more than it has to them — to meet the three best and most important political writers in America today: George Will, Charles Krauthammer and, most recently, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.
In recent years, I’ve had the chance to enjoy books by Will and Krauthammer; now it’s Noonan’s turn with the release of her ninth book, The Time of Our Lives, a thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually compelling compilation of her columns, essays, and speeches covering more than 30 years of writing and thinking.
My first reflection upon devouring Noonan’s oeuvre over the last few days is how many sentences I went back and read twice — or three times. Not because they were opaque or confusing but because Peggy Noonan’s writing is, perhaps alone among the political-social commentariat, a delicious combination of poignant and beautiful.
From writing about writing, to reflections on 9/11 or the state of modern American culture and politics, to thoughts about her friends and heroes including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (at the Iron Lady’s funeral, Ms. Noonan learned that Thatcher was an avid reader of her writing), Peggy Noonan’s prose is not simply, indeed not primarily, analytical but instead deeply insightful, plunging into complexities of the American psyche and the human condition.
While optimistic in a way that only conservatives truly are, Noonan is nobody’s Pollyanna. Consider these words from a 1992 essay for Forbes magazine, a piece which Noonan herself considers one of her best:
I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated — that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery — about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness — if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.
This perspective comes from Peggy Noonan’s background, about which you learn a good amount in the assembled writings: Coming from a recently American and devoutly Irish Catholic family, growing up in the 1950s, spending summers with taciturn ancient aunts with whom she hitchhiked into town to window-shop (not having the money for much real shopping, much less for a car), Noonan evolved into a journalistic pioneer as one of the first women in news reporting (for CBS News), presidential speech writing (for President Reagan; she wrote two of his most famous speeches), and then perhaps the first important columnist, male or female, primarily to distribute her writing online. But she has never forgotten where she came from — and it informs her every sentence. (The online-only presence has since changed with Peggy’s much-in-demand column now published in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal in addition to its online presence.)
Whatever the reason, there’s something about Peggy Noonan’s writing which, even when nominally about a specific person or event or moment, remains not just interesting but important, existential, fundamental years or decades later. One wonders whether the timelessness of her writing is hard-fought-for as she labors over each column or whether it comes naturally, whether it’s just who she is.
The Time of Our Lives is divided into chapters by subject matter, including memorials and memories, the Catholic Church, the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, the inherent wonderful diversity of American culture, and several on politics.
In each, the temporary informs the permanent: In a discussion of “the biggest scandal of the modern era… the S&L scandal,” Noonan suggests that “Watergate pales, Teapot Dome pales. It is what was behind the rise of Perot.” That was the news. The very next sentence brings the eternal lesson: “The voters think Washington is a whorehouse and every four years they get a chance to elect a new piano player. They would rather burn the whorehouse down.” While the S&L scandal may have faded into the background after jarring economic turmoil and seven years of a disastrous Obama presidency, you can’t read Noonan’s words, penned nearly a quarter-century ago, without marveling at their aptness for today, and for every day.
Continuing in politics, Peggy Noonan offers a look, perhaps as only a female writer can, at the political aspirations of one Hillary Clinton. It is replete with gems: “This is not a woman who has to prove she’s tough enough and mean enough; she is more like a bulldozer who has to prove she won’t always be in high gear and ready to flatten you.” And, “One senses not that she has become more authentic, but that she has gone beyond her own discomfort at her lack of authenticity. I am not saying she has learned to be herself.… [but that] she’s learned how not to be herself, how to comfortably adopt a skin and play a part.” And, “Her real self is a person who wants to run things, to assert authority, to create systems and have people conform to them. She is not a natural at the outsized warmth politics demands. But she is moving beyond — forgive me — the vacant eyes of the power zombie….”
And so it continues, with vivid and memorable insight perfectly describing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign so far in 2015. Except that Noonan wrote these words in 2007. While Peggy Noonan’s writings are political and social commentary, such a description is insufficient and implies too close a resemblance to other columnists of our day. Instead, she employs a certain x-ray vision while describing the soul of the nation and its citizens, politicians, and culture, each of which contains a range of strengths and flaws and quirks as wide as, or wider than, the human imagination.
A personal note: Noonan captures her subjects — people and society, moments and eras — with an excellence and durability to which I, as a writer, must aspire but know, deep down, I will rarely achieve. So for me, The Time of Our Lives offers a particular gift in addition to the beautiful and stirring and important anthology of a remarkable and continuing career: an introduction in which Peggy Noonan discusses her approach to writing.
Although it’s up to me to incorporate what she’s taught me — improvement does not happen without effort — I believe that a dozen pages of Noonan explaining her craft will allow me — and you, should you so choose — to be a better writer: “When you’re writing you give the creative part of your brain full sway, you let it dominate, you don’t let your critical side mug it or slow it down. Later, in editing, you bring your critical self to the fore, question the assertion, kill the aside. But the point is you give your writing everything you have at the moment you’re doing it and rethink when the page has cooled.”
For this columnist, it just doesn’t get any better than that.