So. You’ve dreamed up “a kinder, gender nation,” “a thousand points of light,” and “a shining City on a Hill”; written a wry memoir of your days as a Reagan/Bush speechwriter, with just enough skewering of the easy targets (Nancy, Don Regan) and ironic detachment to convince critics and other leftwing members of the “Western literary herd” (as your buddy Pat Buchanan likes to call them) that you’re “refreshing”; you’ve “fought the good fight” (to use one of your favorite phrases), and managed to cleverly jump the Bush/Quayle ship just before it … well, you know. Now what do you do?
Apparently, you choose a lifestyle in New York that is the antithesis of nearly everything you profess; think deep thoughts and go to parties—lots of parties. There you play the role of the Writer and discuss your crushing sense of baby-boomer angst (while carefully measuring the fame and fortune of everyone who comes through the door). More important, this being the land of opportunity, where, as everyone knows, success merely requires hard work and a bit of pluck, you land another book contract, which enables you to “try to locate something that is true and real.”
What can you say? God Bless America.
Her marketing strategy was to appeal to both her core constituents and the high priests of cultureburg.
Peggy Noonan has had a lot going for her. Widely recognized for her speechwriting contributions to presidents Reagan and Bush, she penned a behind-the-scenes memoir of her White House days that became a runaway best-seller—and she managed, for the most part, to hit just the right notes and have something for everyone. Many critics on the left, charmed by her phrasemaking, seemed to simply disassociate her from her views; others, in a triumph of tolerance over judgment, were willing to admire her contrarian tenaciousness. Meanwhile, those on the right recognized her sophisticated, baby-boomer poster-girl potential: here at last was an antidote to images of nerdy Young Republicans with bad haircuts, glassy-eyed bible-belters, and greedy big-businessmen. Peggy Noonan was conservatism with a pretty face, the golden-girl-next-door of the Republican Party. She went from backstage wordsmith to celebrity journalist, writing for Mirabella, Time, Vanity Fair, and even those dire bastions of the liberal East Coast media establishment, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
And she was good, very good, at Playing the Game. Her marketing strategy was to appeal to both her core constituents and the high priests of cultureburg—to be the cosmopolitan conservative; or, as New York magazine cheekily hailed her in a gushing puff piece, “The Glamorous Dork.” (“Dork” becomes remarkably playful when it headlines a Grace Kellyesque photo of the subject, who is registering all the sultrier aspects of intellectualism.) Noonan was always careful to convey that while she might have worked in the White House, survived the internecine battles of Washington politics, frolicked with the charismatic and the powerful, and chatted with presidents, she was still just Our Peg of Massapequa and Farleigh Dickinson, a red-white-and-blue-blooded American gal who couldn’t quite believe where she was—or the size of the egos around her. As befitting a speechwriter for the first Hollywood president, she told her story in the classic Frank Capra vein: casting herself as the idealistic heroine, filled with patriotic zeal to work for her country, who comes to Washington only to get burned by bureaucrats—but who manages nonetheless to score a few points for democracy, truth, and the American way. And it was all done with a dash of sophistication and verve that Marilyn Quayle can only dream about.
Noonan continues the Game—much less successfully—in her new book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. She begins in a beauty parlor, “the kind of salon where the women look beautiful and perfect even before they get their haircut. They glide in … good suit, short skirt, Stairmastered legs.” Our Peg is, of course, unaccustomed to all this opulence: “I am new here, do not know these people,” “We are high above the avenues of Manhattan, in midtown, in the heart of the gold souk, and I am sockless in my sneakers feeling strange.” She launches into a reverie in which she free-associates with abandon, toying with her vision of “the old and the new America,” cultural malaise, boomer mid-life crises, motherhood, and so-called family values, all the while having her hair shampooed by the obsequious staff. While so drifting, she runs the gamut of thought from platitude to cliché, “we’ll never go back to the old way again, ever”; pronounces commonplace insights with an air of great profundity, “my generation, we believe in work,” indulges in some dreadful alliterative descriptions, “the spray sound somehow surprises” (the reader retches remarkably rapidly); strikes a tradition-lovin’ Luddite pose (she announces that she asked for things to be mailed rather than faxed, which has the effect, Our Peg says, of engendering an “air of discovery” in the sender); and most of all, longs for the good ol’ days, the “hungry years,” of her parents’ generation (don’t expect an acknowledgment that the values she celebrates didn’t include luxuriating in ultra-chic salons). And she actually seems to expect us to believe in her big metaphorical denouement, in which one of the perfect women in the salon freaks out and runs into the street, with aluminum foils still adorning her hair. This convenient nervous breakdown allows Noonan to opine that the woman is “an emblem for modern life. I mean postmodern life. In the new America.” (Hmmm. I’m not really sure what that’s all supposed to mean, though I guess it has something to do with Bill Clinton). Throughout her opening epiphany, Noonan consistently mistakes words for thoughts and musings for arguments. And she’s only just begun.
Here she is at a Washington party, after her lunch partner, new to the scene, confesses his intimidation. Our Peg admits a teensy-weensy bit of awe, too (although she’s careful to squeal, “and I’ve been here before!”). She points out the attendant luminaries (suddenly becoming the unwowed insider): “Ah. Well, that is Charles Krauthammer the incisive columnist, and that’s Hugh Sidey, we read him as kids in Time. Great writer, and a great man. There are the Schulzes … He’s proud of his new book, and should be if for no other reason than the size … Katherine Graham of the Post, great lady of journalism, Walter Pincus of that paper. Maureen Dowd of the Times, who in the eighties changed political reporting in America, broadened the parameters, allowed sensibility in. Alan Greenspan, who runs the Fed, as you know … Andrea Mitchell of NBC, who made herself into a correspondent with real will and grit … ” Noonan’s absurdly transparent attempt to be blasé is the perfect crystallization of her theme: I am just like you, dear reader—only cooler, and much smarter. Let me explain it all for you. “I’ve been here before!”
Noonan is most irritating, if not downright bizarre, when it comes to women’s issues.
It’s all fairly desperate (how long can a former speechwriter cash in?) and would be laughable if it weren’t so insidious. For, casting about for something to do, Noonan has decided to become a pundit—and she’s actually being taken seriously. So of course, as one of the few conservatives who cares enough to schmooze with the “cultural elite” (keep an eye on the “pet conservative” market niche!) Noonan goes to and describes the Renaissance Weekend, that yearly, mostly liberal gathering of the self-consciously smug “correct thinkers.” However—Playing the Game as always—she’s aware enough of the bad press and mockery the event has evoked not to ever specifically refer to it by name. There she delivers a speech on “Sailing Uncharted Seas,” which resembles nothing so much as a high-school valedictory address: “I go to the aquarium … and stare at the fish … And it seems to me that they are like metaphors for man, for our virtues and failings … The squid who rustles things up and then shoots ink to cover his escape; the kindly, intelligent porpoise; the stingray, elegant and sleek … ”
Noonan is most irritating, if not downright bizarre, when it comes to women’s issues. In a lament for our country’s children, she hearkens to the days when mothers never left the home. A friend is offered a White House job, and Noonan, of all people, tries to talk her out of taking it: “When will you get the house all settled in after the move?” “If you don’t need money and you don’t have a compulsion … you can stay home and be a good mother who is actually there, you can have time for Dan when he comes home … you can be a part of the kids’ schools, and you can give the best, most fun, most relaxing dinner parties in town.” Gee. Another friend, a network correspondent, is cited as the exemplification of the overextended career woman: “She hates to leave her children in the morning, hates it when they twine themselves around her legs and say ‘Don’t leave,’ hates it when she gets home late or travels.” Apparently, among her vast circle of friends and connections, Noonan has yet to find a happy working mother. And why does the evidently universal stress-ridden-career vs. unlimited-domestic-delight problem make an exception for Our Peg? She touches on this very dangerous subject only briefly, stating that she works to support herself and her son and because (and this should come as no surprise) she must: “I want to be immersed in life and name what I see.” So there.
The unctuous perkiness and good-ol’-gal-cum-wordly-intellectual pose cannot hide the essential fraudulence of Noonan’s message. If she ever discussed how she has bridged the schism between her beliefs and her experience as a single mother, she might indeed have written an original, insightful book on life in the “new America.” What she has created instead is an exercise in hypocrisy, a marketing tool, a 255-page job application.
And, unfortunately, it cannot be dismissed. There may well be room for Noonan in the Gingrichian era, for Newt and Co’s contract with America could be just the ticket to pluck Our Peg out of that expensive hair salon and back to honest work, churning out “the vision thing” in no time. Moreover, despite lukewarm to hostile reviews for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, Noonan seems to have recovered. The book faded away and Noonan emerged from its shadow—with celebrity intact, and then some. Her quotes at New York dinners get picked up by the newservices, she’s been hired to write a documentary series on values for public television (now that’s puttin’ that federal funding to some good use!), and, in perhaps the most noticeable illustration of the chattering set’s inability to distinguish status from importance, Newsweek put her on their cover (along with Hillary Rodham Clinton and William Bennett) for a story about the renewal of interest in virtue. Evidently just writing about virtue is now tantamount to symbolizing it. Perhaps Noonan’s standing shouldn’t come as a surprise in an age when Charles Murray is seen by many as a bona-fide intellectual, but it is annoying nonetheless. Her half-baked ideas, dripping with gooey metaphor and reinforced by her carefully packaged image, are accepted, not for their intrinsic worth, but because she is well known; she is a celebrity writer lauded not for her words, but for being recognizable. She “could be a kind of Katherine Hepburn of public television,” says the head of PBS. What on earth does he mean? Who knows? Who cares? It sounds good, and in the Noonan world, that’s enough.
It can’t be long until the Annie Leibowitz portrait.