Peggy Noonan, of course, needs no introduction. She’s a former Reagan speechwriter and the author of a much-talked-about Wall Street Journal column, as well as a new book, called Patriotic Grace. Her openness to — rather than outright opposition to — Barack Obama has not sat well with many on the Right. About the book, the openness, and this “beautiful election,” as Noonan referred to this presidential race, she recently took questions from National Review Online. — KJL Lopez:
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is this Patriotic Grace you write about?
Peggy Noonan: It is knowing what time it is and acting accordingly. In my book I tell the story of a dramatic terror alert at the U.S. Capitol during the events surrounding the funeral of Ronald Reagan. I was in a ceremonial room in the Senate, part of a delegation asked to receive back the president’s body from California, where he had died, for the lying in state. A plane had entered Capitol air space, was headed toward the Capitol, was presumed to be weaponized. All were told, literally, to run for their lives — “Incoming aircraft, one minute out!” Quite a scene. As I walked I saw a great lady, a close friend of the Reagans, and before them of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, a great bipartisan figure of the old Washington — the easier, slower, more humanly textured, even to some degree more affectionate Washington that in our time has been replaced by “The Senator will be in the gym from 4 to 5, has a 5:16 hit on Hardball, then three fundraisers from 6 to 8:45, and contributor calls from 9 to 10” — be carried down the Capitol steps in her wheelchair, as all around her fled. She held her cane in her hand, like the brave little prow of a ship. And as I turned and saw her a thought came with the force of an intuition, though it was not that, just a thought: Before this is over we’ll all be helping each other down the stairs. Before the age we live in is over we will all live through a great crisis, a 9/11 times ten, or more, and we must know this, and act accordingly. We must become more serious in the way we practice our politics, more equal to the moment. We need to take the long view; in the age of chatter we need forbearance, maturity, and grace.
Where does it come from?
Noonan: Your brain, your heart, your guts, your soul.
Lopez: Who has it?
Noonan: That’s a bit like asking “Who has courage?” Everyone does at some moments, and some do at many moments. We are in a brute political clash, a national one, right now, and few people are experiencing their best moments, or rather few activists and politically passionate people are having their best moments. One of the things I say in the book is keep your eyes on the horizon: we are going to wind up fighting for our country, and we’re going to have to do it all of us together.
Lopez: Sarah Palin is a mom with spunk and executive experience. Does she not demonstrate some patriotic grace?
Noonan: Well Kathryn, we have disagreed on the meaning and implications of Mr. McCain’s choice of Mrs. Palin. Here are some cool words from a cool head, George Will, who saw early on what a number of us came to see, and who said better what I would try to say later. “The man who would be the oldest to embark on a first presidential term has chosen as his possible successor a person of negligible experience. Any cook can run the state, said Lenin, who was wrong about that, too. America’s gentle populists and other sentimental egalitarians postulate that wisdom is easily acquired and hence broadly diffused; therefore anyone with a good heart can deliver good government, which is whatever the public desires. . . . John McCain’s opponent is by far the least experienced person to receive a presidential nomination in the 75 years since the federal government became a comprehensively intrusive regulatory state and modern weaponry annihilated the protection the nation derived from time and distance. Which is why McCain’s case for his candidacy could, until last Friday, be distilled into two words: Experience matters.” Kathryn, Will wrote those words shortly after the choice was announced. In retrospect his judgment seems to me not only correct, but somewhat prescient.
Lopez: Do you have any guilt/worry that you might be playing a not-so-minor role in the election of Barack Obama with some of your columns, and this book?
Noonan: My first thought is that any columnist who thought he was playing a major or minor role in people’s political decisions would be mildly delusional. Columnists tend not to have that power, nor deserve it. But my second is of course I try to think about the implications, if any, of what I write. But where I come down is this: I am a columnist, and my job is to try, within the limits of my abilities, to tell my readers what I think is happening, and what it means. I have to say what I believe to be true or I don’t deserve to write for the Wall Street Journal. I also try to look ahead. No election is the end of the world. That will come later.
Lopez: I know you’ve had a deep respect for John McCain in the past. Is that a thing of the past?