Peggy Noonan

In The Future Tense

VTR Date: May 5, 1990

Guest: Noonan, Peggy


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Peggy Noonan
Title: “…in the Future Tense”
VTR: 5/5/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…where it isn’t often that a guest says “yes” when invited only if I promise not to focus our discussion on his or her latest book in print. But it does happen, today delightfully enough in the matter of her bestseller.

For Ronald Reagan and George Bush’s now-famous speech-writer, Peggy Noonan, has by this time simply had it with other own extensive, coast-to-coast, several-month-long “author’s book tour” promoting her delightful and insightful What I Saw at the Revolution…A Political Life in the Reagan Era, published by Random House.

So that I got Ms. Noonan to join me here today only by promising not to elicit the same darn answers that she has heard herself repeat time after time after time to those same darn questions caught and canned by her publisher’s own publicity department for her own “author’s book tour”.

I promise not to ask Ms. Noonan question number four, for instance:

Noonan: (Laughter)

Heffner: “In 1984 you went from working for Dan Rather at CBS to writing speeches for Ronald Reagan…isn’t that unusual? How did some of the White House Staff react”? Or number five: “Describe the moment you turned to the Republican Party and a more Conservative
ideology”. Or question number seven: “How did you feel while watching George Bush give his speech at the Republican National Convention in 1988? Did you have any idea that ‘Read my lips’ and ‘Kinder, gentler nation’ were going to be immediate campaign slogans?”

So I promise not to ask those questions, and I do so willingly…for as much as I enjoyed reading What I Saw at the Revolution, that’s the past, and I’m much more interested in “Peggy Noonan – in the future tense”…even though I am intrigued by the mystery of the missing question: number nine. For the publishers’ list of “suggested interview questions for Peggy Noonan” quite literally goes from number one to number twelve…but somehow skips number nine. Maybe for a “wild card” Ms. Noonan could play on her own.

So, let me ask her first what today she would fill in as that mystery question, the missing number nine…and then we’ll just deep six (of deep twelve) the whole darn list. Ms. Noonan?

Noonan: Hello. Well, off the top of my head I would say maybe a good number nine might be “after having been asked the first eight questions 48 times in the past 20 days, when you give the answers, are you starting to feel that you are lying?” (Laughter)

Heffner: Are you?

Noonan: You know.

Heffner: Do you?

Noonan: No. But it’s the oddest thing. You, you know when you are asked the same question a number of times and you give the same, inevitably, sort of pre-canned answers, in a while you’ve made it sort of short and…after a while you make it short and succinct and pithy if you can. You almost press a button in your neck. The sound comes out, you give the answer and you start to feel that your answer is not true. You know. The twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth time you think, “That couldn’t be true, is it”? And your eyelids start to flutter. You look a little like Richard Nixon in a news conference in 1973. A friend of mine, who is a writer who is recently back from a book tour called my up when I was in the middle of mine and she said, “Are you starting to feel you’re lying?”, and I said “Yes”. And she said, “When that starts to happen, lie”. I said… (Laughter)…what can I say. She said, “I don’t know, say ‘I didn’t work with Bush on that speech, Ted Sorensen did’, and change the subject”. (Laughter)

Heffner: (Laughter)

Noonan: Said, “Just give yourself a break”.

Heffner: Okay, I’m not going to repeat those questions today I, I promise. But I wondered, in terms of what you’ve just said, isn’t that a function, this whole business of the same questions, and the canned answers, as well as questions, isn’t that a function of what American politics has become?

Noonan: Yes. I must tell you, after a book tour…I had never done TV before, and I had never done radio. I had always worked behind the scenes in campaigns and seen the candidate out front…answering the same questions, “What is your position on abortion”, “What should our stance be toward the Soviets after the events of 1989?”…I had a kind of fascination with the way candidates would sit and give the same rote answer. And it seemed, somehow it seemed to me from behind the scenes that this has not really helped the process…the, the…in a way the “mediaization” of politics, the fact that we do tend to get our biggest political candidates through the tube and through radio. It’s added a sort of inauthenticity, I think particularly for the candidates. But, at any rate, when I was on the book tour I got a new sympathy for them, you know. You do, you get asked the same question, and it is somehow a strain to come up with a new and interesting answer. And yet to…and also to co me up with a new and interesting answer maybe to do an injustice to what your real answer is, which is an old answer that you’re very comfortable with, happy with and that has the added benefit of being true about how you feel.

Heffner: Yeah, but look, I enjoyed very much What I Saw at the Revolution, but let’s, let’s admit whether it’s this book or any number of other very significant volumes, they don’t rank in importance with what our Chiefs of State or their lower echelon representatives say and yet, for the book tour, and for American politics, we’re getting further and further involved in this trivialization and I wonder what the implications are going to be for American politics. What you see, you’ve been there.

Noonan: Hmmm. I don’t know. I was telling you before, before the show began that I did a satellite tour yesterday…

Heffner: Yes.

Noonan: …which involved sitting in a studio in New York and you sit there for two and half hours, and you talk by satellite, one after another with 15, 18 television stations throughout the country, each of which has booked about ten minutes on the satellite, so they’ll interview your for ten minutes, sometimes live for their morning news show. Sometimes they will tape it and use it later that evening as a feature in some news show…I was told that Mike Dukakis spent a heck of a lot of time in 1988 sitting on a chair in a studio doing that, you know, telling America who he was by sitting here and having the satellite up and having everybody, in a way, get ten minutes of him. I don’t k now what it does…it…in the old days before TV, a hundred years ago, or more, you got your Presidential candidates through the media…but through newspapers, through the great American newspapers, I don’t remember that they did great long interviews with Abe Lincoln, but they printed his speech…his speeches at length. They also even sometimes re-wrote the speeches of Presidential candidates and mad them a little bit better, and shoved them in the newspaper on the front page. Maybe that isn’t such an authentic way to get your candidates for the presidency, either…

Heffner: But at least we had speeches…we had lengthy orations…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …we had explorations of ideas…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: And, I …I was concerned…I read something here from Time magazine, a couple of years ago, and I wanted to ask you what the implications are for our country’s future that you were quoted as saying that “government is worlds”. Now, what in the world does that mean? What does it mean for our future…if government is words? You didn’t say, “Government is actions”, “government is thoughts”…what does it mean to say “it’s words”?

Noonan: Well, it was probably an overstatement…you know what I was trying to do, I was trying to explain how really so much more in a place like a White House, so much of government is words. It’s the words that form the communiqué after the big summit. It’s the words in a speech in which the candidate or the President tells you what he feels, why he feels that way, why you should agree with him and follow him and write to your Congressman saying that he, the President, is right. It is statements issued in response to everything from national tragedies to the deaths of movie starts. It is the words in the treaty. You know so much of government comes down literally to words on paper which gives a certain significance to those in government, who in various capacities help put the words on the paper.

Heffner: But words that represent ideas and deliver truths or words that tend to avoid…

Noonan: Sure.

Heffner: …to avoid the truth?

Noonan: Well, politics being politics sometimes they are words that avoid the truth. But I wasn’t thinking in terms of “government is only words and you can twist the words and make it all disingenuous”. I was really thinking of “look it’s the words themselves”. We always have a big feeling about government. We think government is Napoleon moving armies, but so much more often, in modern life, government is really marshalling the use of words, and getting words out there through various pronouncements. And ideally, they ought to be aimed at…the words ought to be aimed at communicating a truth in a very clear way, a very persuasive way.

Heffner: Do you think they generally…

Noonan: Sometimes it works that way.

Heffner: Okay, you answered my question by saying “sometimes it works that way”. What we’re getting to be so expert at using, it seems to me, and this the question I’m putting to you…does it seem to you that we’re getting to be so expert at using words that they become abuses of ideas? Abuses of reality?

Noonan: I don’t know. Give me an example of what you mean. Because in a way what you’re talking about may be so big that I’m not quite getting my hands around it.

Heffner: I guess what I’m talking about is the, is the use of metaphor, the use of…well, in the ’88 campaign, the words that accompanied the pictures and words and pictures here of a prisoner symbolizing…calling up in our minds so many stereotypes, using words and pictures, not to explore ideas, but rather to stimulate angers, good feelings, bad feelings without getting to the thoughtfulness that you, yourself, have said used to characterize American public life.

Noonan: I don’t know. Maybe in a way part of what you’re talking about is campaign mischief, you know. People who do campaigns are looking to win…mischief always happens. I don’t…if I understood you correctly you were referring to Willie Horton…the Willie Horton commercials. I…I must say I disagree with the common wisdom on that. I thought Willie Horton, which is to say, how a governor runs his furlough system in his prison system was a thoroughly legitimate area of exploration. When you, when you reduce a big thing, a big topic like that to sixty seconds in a commercial, do you lose something of nuance? Yes, you do. But that’s politics and I…that makes me think of the whole issue of negative campaigning which I…which I, in a way I think is a…not a real issue.

Heffner: What do you mean “it’s not a real issue”?

Noonan: Well, I’ll tell you. You know politics is a body contact sport and that’s okay with me. You’re fighting over big things, big ideas…you’re fighting over who’s going to govern this country, then you’re going to have a pretty rough fight. That’s alright. You’ll probably say some pretty rough things. We have a great, rambunctious and disputatious political history in this country. We have really happily insulted the political candidates of the other side, old negative campaigning used to be “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? He’s gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha”. I mean that’s mean. Although they thought at the time it was pertinent, and perhaps it was. I don’t…I don’t happen to think modern – quote – negative campaigning which comes down to “Gee, this guy running for Governor of New Jersey used a kinda unfair television spot”…taking a kind a cheap shot, drawing a Pinocchio nose on his opponent, having some fun with him, accusing the guy of backing some bills that the guy later says, “Hey, I didn’t really back that, he really backed it” and you know, all that stuff. It just doesn’t bother me very much. I almost think there ought to be more vigor, more fun, more throwing around of ideas, more rambunctiousness…

Heffner: You know…

Noonan: …in commercials and on the campaign trail.

Heffner: Now wait a minute, throwing around ideas, rambunctiousness…those are very positive words, and you’re a wonderful user of words, but I don’t think that the objection to what has happened to campaigns recently, now “Ma, Ma, where’s Pa? Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha”…okay, Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate child, and that was supposed to symbolize…what was it that was said in that campaign with James G. Blaine?

Noonan: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine”…

Heffner: And then…

Noonan: (Laughter) We just insulted each other back and forth across the country.

Heffner: And then they said if Blaine led such an exemplary private life…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …and Cleveland such an exemplary public life, but wasn’t so good privately, let’s remand Cleveland to the White House and send Blaine back to where he came from. And that’s precisely what we did.

Noonan: It was also “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”…

Heffner: Right.

Noonan: …I believe…that campaign. That was one of the great ones. But Thomas Jefferson was involved in very mean ones, God knows Andrew Jackson was, you know.

Heffner: Jefferson and…

Noonan: Yeah.

Heffner: …Jackson…

Noonan: Yeah.

Heffner: And so you’re saying “Well, this is, this is…the way it’s been.

Noonan: I think politics is a body contact sport and you know why negative campaigning doesn’t bother me all that much? Because if a guy who’s a candidate or a woman who’s a candidate gets really out of line, gets really low, the voters who are smart and sophisticated people will say, “Oh, ick, I don’t like him, he’s a slob” and they won’t vote for him. You know there’s a sort of…you can get mischievous, you can have fun, but there’s sort of an area in which you can operate and if you go below this line and reveal yourself to be a creep and a jerk, the voters will discover it and you will not win. So it’s sort of self-correcting in a way. That’s why I don’t worry about it too much.

Heffner: So this is a free marketplace of politics.

Noonan: Maybe, sure. Everybody should relax and…

Heffner: And just…

Noonan: …have fun.

Heffner: …and just go to war.

Noonan: Well, you know, there are big things to fight about. Why not?

Heffner: In politics, and yet you say, and I said I wasn’t going to ask the usual questions, but I didn’t say that I wouldn’t refer to your book…

Noonan: Okay. (Laughter)

Heffner: …you say here in your second farewell, your second epilogue, you say…it’s really fascinating, you say “Some things I want to warn you about…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …”don’t fall in love with politicians. They’re all a disappointment. They can’t help it, they just are”.

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: That’s fascinating. Aren’t you saying in a sense “a curse on all of you”?

Noonan: Oh, no, I’m really talking to people who will go into politics. Specifically, actually I was thinking of young people who think that they would like to go into politics, but not as candidates, as people who help candidates out or work for them. There is a tendency when you’re young and go to Washington to fall in love with the person you’re working for, to think that they are just the vessel, the repository of wonderful ideas, that they’re a very fine person, or…or you can look at them in serious ways like that…I was talking to someone who worked in politics years ago, who told me…a middle-aged woman now…who worked for one of the Kennedys and I said, “Well, God, didn’t you really believe in their ideas?”, and she said, “Actually, I thought they were cute”.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Noonan: You know what I mean, they were really cute and they were going to be President, so I wanted to work for them. Which I thought was a very honest thing to say. But, you know, you can’t help but think that these people, politicians, great political leaders, are bigger than life, you know, and have very special, huge virtues. And, indeed, sometimes they do. But more often than not, they’re just regular guys. They’re “just folks”, you know. You find out, one of the most surprising things about me working in…for me about working in Washington and seeing big Senators, you know, big, big Senators, like Majority Leaders and Members of the House, who you knew were going to run fro President in say ’84 or ’88 or ’92…you see then up close sometimes in a situation like this and you realize they’re really nervous. Or you see them before a speech and they’re really nervous. You see them having real attacks of inadequacy (laughter) sometimes, not knowing what to say or, or how to say it. And it’s good to see them up close because you get reminded that they’re just people, you know.

Heffner: I’m sure this question has been asked of you on these tours and in these satellite questions: Are you going to go into politics? You’ve been in politics, but are you going to go in as a candidate now?

Noonan: No. I think I’ll always stay sort of involved, you know. I’m a very political person. I love to think about politics and talk about politics, but I am also, as I decided at the end of the book, I’m a writer and I want to be a writer, and there’s no real place for writers in politics unless you stay as a speech-writer, an I didn’t want to, you know. Arthur Schlesinger says nobody should be a speech-writer over 40. It’s a kid’s game…and it is, you know. You should do it like when you’re young and still very excited…do it…have a ball and then leave. So, no, I want to be a writer. I want to write novels. I want to write columns, all sorts of stuff.

Heffner: you know, in…in what you’ve written you say…after saying “Don’t fall in love with politicians”, you say, “Beware the politically obsessed. They cannot engage…” and there’s something between, there are words between these two…

Noonan: Yeah.

Heffner: …expressions…”they cannot engage in honorable debate because they cannot see the honor on the other side”, and I guess that’s what I was referring to in this matter of what you seem to consider the nice rough and tumble of, of politics.

Noonan: Yeah.

Heffner: Because…

Noonan: …I know what you mean.

Heffner: …the, the, the wisdom of our times is, and you reject it, I understand…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …it’s a kind of serious, maybe overly serious notion…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …that Hell’s bells, we’ve gotten to the state now where we’re not listening to anybody else. We’re not accepting that the other guy has a good point, maybe in the desire only to win…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …but I’ve wondered whether we aren’t…look, I know from your interest in the past, you said your folks were FDR admirers…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …your grandparents and your parents…Jack Kennedy admirers. You have a feeling for American history. Don’t you think it’s changed a bit, that the climate has changed more than a bit in terms of this kind of obsession with winning? “They cannot engage in honorable debate because they cannot see the honor on the other side”.

Noonan: Sometimes I thought in the eighties in watching…this was kind of a sin of the eighties, maybe and I don’t know if its really gotten worse in our history, but you’d see Congressional debate and you know you could see Liberal Democrats attack Conservative Republicans as, as…sometimes rhetorically as if they had no respect for them, and you can see Conservative Republicans insult Liberal Democrats as if they had no respect for them. And there was not, according to me, there was not quite enough appreciation that you know we pretty much all want the same things, we just have different ideas about how to get them.

Heffner: You think that’s true?

Noonan: Oh, I think it is true of like…of a lot of people…it’s true, of some politicians. I think it’s true of a lot of Americans, you know. Talk to regular Americans who are not, who would not say that they’re highly, that their political consciousness is…talk to regular Americans who would not say that they’re highly political…you ask them the things that they want for their country and what, you know, what their idea of justice is. You could get a hundred Americans to agree, really easily on what they’d like for the country and what their idea of justice is, and it would just…they’d only start to break down when it came to “Well, how are we going to get this and how are we going to get that?”. So I think…yeah…actually I think a lot of people have good motives and good hopes for the country that they share in common.

Heffner: Well, there’s one question that I’ve taken to asking my guests, quite frequently, and I wonder what your answer would be and I wonder whether it doesn’t bring about a somewhat sharper division than you’ve just described. And that is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Because so much of what’s going on in our country seems to come down to that question and how it’s answered…am I my brother’s keeper?

Noonan: I guess the answer is “yes”, you know. We are pretty responsible for each other. I was thinking the other day, actually, that we do not quite, and I mean this very much of myself, also…I do not quite remember often enough that we are all God’s children. We forget it. It’s such a cliché to say it, but I mean…I mean it very seriously. There actually is a God and we are his children. Well, if we’re all his children then we’re all related and we all have a common stake in each other. But how you help each other is going to be a matter of political debate, you know.

Heffner: Do you think it is just a question of…if we take this governmental action, let’s say, we’re going to…let’s say in terms of taxes, if we have this tax policy, we’re going to increase productivity…take that tax policy we’re going to decrease productivity. Do you think it’s that, or how much of it, how much of these differences is “Damn it, I’m not my brother’s keeper. I don’t want these people on my back”. Now that’s the question. I mean you say you think most of us consider ourselves…

Noonan: Well, yes…I think yes…well, I think there’s…at least in this country there is now a kind of assumption that, that we do have responsibility to help the absolutely neediest and the most in trouble among us, you know. It’s just tradition by now to think that in America. Maybe it was tradition long ago when we were doing house raisings out in the west, when we were breaking through the West. Maybe it’s just a sort of an American attitude. Maybe it’s as a country how we survived. Now we ask government to do it which makes things sometimes more direct and sometimes more complex. But you k now you can think that you are your brother’s keeper and you can think that we’re all children of God and yet still say, “Hey buddy, don’t raise taxes too high. You’re going to hurt the economy. It’ll stop pumping out the jobs that are going to make the entry level positions for the new immigrants that are coming to this country”…you know there is…I think in government there’s a constant balancing act. But I…your question was, I guess, do we…do most of us in America think that we are our brother’s keeper? I think “yes”.

Heffner: So it’s not, it’s not whether we are, it’s how to achieve that…to meet that responsibility in your estimation.

Noonan: Yeah, sure. And that’s where push comes to shove. That’s where the hard decisions come in really.

Heffner: Do you think that feeling that that’s where push comes to shove is why you are willing to say, “Hey, not all’s fair in love and war and politics, but this is a rough and tumble business, so let’s get at it.”? You think that’s why you’re…you’re willing to say “We’ve always done this…more or less we’ve always done this, so let…got at it fellows.”?

Noonan: I’m not sure what your question is.

Heffner: Well, I wonder whether your sort of “delight”…you’re a person who takes delight in things, your “delight” in the rough and tumble of politics…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …stems from this nice notion that we’re all really basically thinking the same thing. We’re all…we all, most of us, at least, want the same good things and…

Noonan: Okay.

Heffner: …and it’s just a matter of how do we achieve it, so “go to it guys”.

Noonan: Maybe. And there’s also, I really do…you know I’ve lived in America for 39 years now. I know a lot of Americans. I think Americans are smart. I trust their judgment. They are not always…they are sometimes slow, but they’ll always, eventually, I think, get to right answers. And if you trust the people, then you can trust them to, to (laughter) see any sort of political charges or political mischief done in a campaign and they can separate the wheat from the chaff and make their own decisions. I just don’t worry about it.

Heffner: You don’t worry then about the future of American politics?

Noonan: American politics has a future as long as America’s here. It’s a highly political country. We make so many…politics decides so many things now so, well, American politics will always be here. Campaign consultants will always be here. The tube will always be here, you know…

Heffner: The tube seems to bother you, doesn’t it?

Noonan: It does. You know what bothers me about it…it’s…I can see the bad stuff it does and I don’t see any answers, you know. So I…so it irritates me.

Heffner: Now, somewhere in this book, and we’ve reached the end of our program, you say, “TV is such a liar”…

Noonan: Yes.

Heffner: …and maybe someday you’ll come back and we’ll talk about the beady red eye over there…

Noonan: It really can be.

Heffner: …how and why it is. Peggy Noonan, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Noonan: Thank you, Richard, very much.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s extraordinary guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.