Peggy Noonan seems up for a dare. On a recent episode of the delightful Real Clear Politics video blog "Changing Lanes" (bit.ly/1HU3nME), the Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan discussed politics, writing, and her new book of essays,
The Time of Our Lives
, while driving around with journalist Carl M. Cannon. She seemed to be having so much fun I apologized that we couldn't do our own interview while driving around.
The essays in her new book include memories of working in the Reagan White House, particularly the speech after the Challenger space shuttle exploded. It also includes details about her rise from a newsgatherer to WSJ columnist, and her disappointment with political candidates from Mitt Romney to Bill Clinton to Jeb Bush. Noonan will speak at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia on Tuesday.
"There's something about riding around in a car that encourages conversation," Noonan said. "The scenery is going by, and you feel like you're chatting with a friend." She said she'd like to try doing an interview on a motorcycle sometime. No chance of that this time, but, by phone from her home in New York, Noonan discussed whether the "Noonan voice" has changed over time, why a little chaos and fighting is a good thing for the Republican Party, and why we should all sit down, have a Coke, and just take a moment.
The "Peggy Noonan" voice is direct, with a side of disapproval, whether writing about Bill Clinton or Jeb Bush or the Catholic Church.
My thought is that you think in your voice and you write in your voice. My voice works for me if I am just telling you what I think and why I think it. There's a level of candor about my thoughts.
That voice seems to have been getting a little angrier, a little more frustrated, over time. A "let's get it together already" kind of frustration.
[After a pause.] That's the sound of me thinking. I don't feel that anger is the word. I'm not angry. But I probably let my indignation come through, and I write with bluntness about what I'm seeing. That may be true.
[The thinking continues. Then:]
I'm thinking about what you said about anger. As I grew older, I became less shy about criticism. When you're younger, you're not sure that what your eyes are seeing is correct, is fair. When you're older, you have enough experience to know that "this thing I'm seeing is not good, and I'm just going to say it." Could turn out I'm wrong, but I think I'm less shy and more confident about criticism.
You write about working your way up to being a reporter, becoming a speechwriter, and then being offered a column. That's not how it works anymore.
The whole world has changed in terms of journalism. I had sheer luck, entering the profession in the '70s and '80s, when journalism was viewed very much as a career. Great institutions like CBS News, you joined them and people stayed with them for 30 to 40 years. They had an institutional memory, and part of your job was teaching the young ones coming up. My work was corrected by people who knew what they were doing. One of my worries for the young people coming up is that there are so many places to start out, so many radio shows, blogs, news sites.
However, a lot of the great organizations in the past 10 to 20 years have destabilized because they're not sure where the money streams are coming from. The older folks are taking buyouts, and I fear for the younger people because they are not learning from more experienced and seasoned people, because they're no longer in the newsroom. However, it is a fabulous profession - writing is a gift of a thing to do.
You write about a moment during Mitt Romney's candidacy when it seemed he had the edge, and the Republican Party was, for a time, "happy and optimistic." What happened to the party?
When Reagan launched, it was about "Will the Republican Party be conservative, or is it going to be a moderately liberal Republican Party?" That's what the fight with [Gerald] Ford was about. It settled down for a while, and then it started to blow open again in the 2000s, and it's blowing open now, and the whole party is fighting over "What does it mean to be conservative?"
So if you look at 2016 through that prism, Donald Trump has a lot of support because his conservatives feel free to be ideologically varied, and you could say that social conservatives are looking to Ben Carson. Part of the uncertainty about "what is conservative?" is kind of exciting. I don't mind a little fighting in politics.
In "The Time of Our Lives," you write about being American and becoming American. Has being American changed as the world has changed?
I'm not sure the world has changed too much, but it's very important for our political leaders to recognize the tensions and anxieties of a moment. It's important to prioritize and not get distracted. In America for the past week[s], we've been arguing about Syrian refugees, and what we should be arguing about is "how does the civilized world respond in a lethal and effective way to ISIS, who are busy attacking us as we speak?" As far as the refugees, there are legitimate reasons to take a pause, including the fact that ISIS has stated that certain refugees going to Europe have been infiltrated by the jihadists. Do we think that's a lot? No, probably not. But it's reasonable to say, "Let's hold up and get a sense of what's going on. If you're a peaceable person, come on in, it's a big country." For 20 years, we've made fun of the word prudence, but it's a good thing. Sometimes I think, "Could we all just sit down and have a Coke?" I'm very pro-immigration and pro-legal-immigration, with love and warmth and sympathy toward immigrants. I'm surprised at how much that ripples through my work.
Do you feel hopeful about America?
There's a lot of polling on that - the "are we on the right track/wrong track" number. I can see us going off on a lot of wrong tracks. But I'm always impressed by America's vibrant independence. Americans are very cool.
We're cool? Really?
Americans are very cool. You go to Venice Beach and everyone is acting out in their various cool ways. I recently had a cup of coffee with a guy from India who is doing business in New York. He said that Americans are so funny because he reads all the time about how we complain about how lazy we are, but if he goes to a coffee shop for breakfast at 8:30 a.m., all he sees are people hard at work.
An Evening with Peggy Noonan: Tuesday at the Courtyard Downtown Philadelphia,
21 N. Juniper St.