Meeting Peggy Noonan


September 1, 2004

It is the beginning of the week America buried Ronald Reagan. Peggy Noonan is in Washington to attend his funeral, to visit with old friends and colleagues, to wander among the notable and the unknown. In the days ahead, she will chronicle this week of national mourning in the Wall Street Journal, and the millions who know that Noonan penned many of Reagan’s most memorable public words wait for her to tell them what she saw and heard and felt and remembered.

Two days after his death, Noonan began. “He was dying for years and the day came and somehow it came as a blow. Not a loss but a blow,” she wrote. “This was a life with size. It had heft, and meaning…. He wanted to be a great actor, but it never happened…. He volunteered for action in World War II, and was turned away…. He out-argued communism and refused to accept its claim of moral superiority…. Ronald Reagan told the truth to a world made weary by lies.”

And of his funeral, at the National Cathedral: “It was so silent that all you could hear was the metal point of the vicar’s staff hitting the marble floor as he progressed down the aisle. Oh what a sound. It sounded like tradition. Majesty.”

Effusive responses to her columns poured in from around the country. “I read this with tears in my eyes as you have captured the spirit of President Reagan.” “Thanks Ms. Noonan, for loving him and honoring him so well.” “Thank you Peggy Noonan for continuing to give voice to Reagan even now that [he] is silenced on this side of eternity.” “Ms. Noonan, from the moment my nine kids and I heard about the death of the president, we waited with eagerness for your words, checking all weekend. You did not disappoint.”

No, Peggy Noonan does not disappoint.

It has been a busy month for her. Following the funeral she flew to London for a vacation, returning home by the Fourth of July to the brick house in Brooklyn Heights that she shares with her 17-year-old son and two cats. The structure was built in 1840, “which means someone was living here the morning the Brooklyn Eagle came out with a headline saying ‘President Lincoln is Shot,'” Noonan muses. “Someone walked these old boards thinking, ‘Oh, no, the great tragedy of the age.’”

The neighborhood was once a hotbed of abolitionist fervor and a station on the Underground Railroad. Things are a bit quieter these days. Step outside, and you find yourself in a neighborhood alive with restaurants and shops, street vendors and assorted humanity. Just three blocks west of Noonan’s house is the Promenade, which overlooks the East River and offers a spectacular view of Manhattan. To the north is the Brooklyn Bridge, upon which Noonan walks nearly every day.

Noonan’s front door opens to a large space—a combination living and dining room—filled with books: histories, biographies, and poetry. A battered copy of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson sits on the coffee table. The walls are covered with art and mementoes of her White House days—photographs of Noonan with President Reagan and the first President Bush, framed White House Christmas cards, an autographed photo of Margaret Thatcher. There is a gavel made from the Reagan inaugural platform; on a table Noonan keeps a yellowed inspection card worn by her great-aunt Jane Jane when she arrived at Ellis island a hundred years ago (it recorded the ship surgeon’s daily check for typhus, smallpox, and tuberculosis). A vase of roses sits in a sunny window, and family photographs are scattered everywhere else—pictures of Noonan’s son as a baby, her six siblings, aunts, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

Noonan’s favorite decorating accessories are the teen-age boys often slung around the living room sofa and chairs. “I kind of gambled that if I moved close to my son’s school, eventually my house would fill with kids. This happened, and it makes me very happy. I like to hear them laughing and teasing each other,” she says.

Down the hall is her bedroom, where she has stacked the galleys from her latest book on the greatness of Pope John Paul II. In her home office, where Noonan writes her best-sellers and newspaper columns, built-in bookshelves groan under the weight of hundreds of volumes. Above her cluttered desk is a framed photograph sent to Noonan by the first President Bush, for whom she wrote speeches when he campaigned in 1988. It shows the former president and his wife, Barbara, slumped over in their seats on Air Force One, half asleep; on the table between them is a pile of papers. Bush has scribbled across the picture: “Dear Peggy—Your draft excites us.”

As she writes, Noonan glances out the window now and then to watch passersby stop and speak to a statue of the Blessed Virgin, which stands in front of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church, where Noonan attends Mass. The number of people who stop and talk are, she says, a kind of barometer measuring how anxious people are feeling.

Religion is something that took decades to catch up with Noonan. “My parents were not religious people,” she says. “On Sunday mornings they listened to Frank Sinatra.” What religious training she had came from her great-aunt Jane Jane who “used to take me to Mass when I was a little girl. I absorbed something from seeing her say her prayers on her knees at night, and seeing religious pictures in the mirrors in her bedroom. It just sort of suggested to me that all these things may be true. Eventually, by the time I was an adult and in my forties, I just knew I needed God in my life. I knew I needed faith very much. I set out to really feel it and to find it and to know it.”

Today, she says, “I love to go to Mass. It’s the happiest moment of my day, and if I’m home, I’m there.”

Her faith is part of what makes her writing unique, according to Bently Elliot, Noonan’s former boss at the White House and now vice-president of communications at the New York Stock Exchange. “She embraces God fervently, and helped the President articulate his own, deep faith.” Elliot hired Noonan on the recommendation of close friend Kevin Lynch, then the articles editor at National Review. At the time, Noonan was writing and producing Dan Rather’s daily CBS radio commentary. Lynch “sent me a collection of her material and it was immediately apparent that Peggy had succeeded in doing something no other mortal I knew had ever accomplished, let alone tried: She made Dan Rather sound almost like a conservative,” Elliot recalls. “I felt that anyone who could make CBS sound mainstream deserved a close look. When I met Peggy I just knew she would be fantastic and that was that.”

Today, Elliot says, “When one looks back at the sweep of Reagan’s presidency, there is no question that Peggy’s contribution was paramount. Her best efforts will always top the charts of Ronald Reagan’s Golden Oldies. Peggy infused everything she wrote with enormous passion and uncanny intuition. She could not only communicate the power of ideas, but do so with words that sang, in ways that stirred people’s hearts, and from a perspective that almost made you feel Reagan was inside the skin of that American in Kentucky, communicating the conscience of his community and his culture.”

Noonan was born in 1950 into a working class Brooklyn family that lived just two miles from her current home. They didn’t stay long. When Noonan was five the family moved to White Plains, where her father worked at Woolworths, then to Massapequa and Massapequa Park, where her father was a furniture salesman. “We moved a lot. My parents struggled,” Noonan says simply.

She finished high school in Rutherford, New Jersey, living over a candy store. “It was great to live over a candy store, because newspapers, stacks of them, were all there in the morning—the Daily News, the Post, the Mirror, the World Journal Tribune, and the Jersey papers, the Newark Star Ledger and the Bergen Record and the Herald News,” Noonan recalls in What I Saw at the Revolution. “I fell in love with reading in that apartment…but it was the newspapers that really gave me the world outside my room above the store.”

Noonan worked as a waitress and as a clerk in an insurance office while attending Fairleigh Dickenson University at night. She graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature and newly acquired conservative convictions— convictions that took shape when, as Elliot puts it, her patriotism was “offended by the ugly, anti-American nature of the self-described ‘peace’ movement in the 1970s.”

Noonan’s first job following college was working at a CBS all-news radio station in Boston, writing and broad-casting editorials and public affairs documentaries. Next came the jump to New York, writing for Dan Rather. And then, miraculously, the White House, writing speeches for the president she so admired: the Challenger speech (“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God!”), the D-Day anniversary speech (“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent.”) and many others.

In 1985, while still working for Reagan, Noonan married economist Richard Rahn. The marriage lasted just four years.

Now, 18 years after leaving the White House, her life is a bit less exciting but happier on a personal level. On a typical day, when she’s home, she gets her son off to school, has breakfast, surfs the Internet, makes calls, returns e-mail, thinks, reads, and writes. In the afternoon she welcomes home her son and his friends, who grab something to eat and watch television together. On school nights Noonan and her son eat dinner at home together and watch a rerun of Law & Order. And on weekends, she goes out with friends to dinner, a film, or a show.

Motherhood, Noonan says, “has been the making of me as a human being. One of the things I’ve spent a lot of the last 17 years doing is learning how to be a mother. That’s a hard thing to do. If you have received from your parents certain things by habit and by unconscious assimilation, you will absorb them and you will know they are appropriate when you have a child and you will apply them as you bring up that child. But if your programming was not such that you would know how to be a parent, and you want very, very badly to be a good parent, you’ve got to learn it. You have to do a number of things, and it isn’t just reading books. It is, for one thing, aligning yourself with a faith in a very serious way because faith can help you. For another thing when my son would bring home a little boy or a little girl I would kind of suss out whether or not this child was a happy child and seemed to be coming up right with parents who were doing the right thing. And when I found that, I would make friends with the parents and ask for their help—and get it.

“I had no clue how to be a mother. I have a clue now. I know how to do it. And I’m good at it.”

Her son, Will, loves politics and has grown into the sort of young man Noonan can bring to a dinner party at Vice-President Dick Cheney’s home “and have a good conversation with the vice president of the United States about the war,” Noonan says. “How lucky is that kid to be exposed to that sort of thing—and how lucky am I as a parent to take my son to such a thing.”

The popularity of Noonan’s more recent work attests to her continuing power to connect with everyday Americans. She has written seven books, several of which—When Character Was King, The Case Against Hillary Clinton, and What I Saw at the Revolution—were bestsellers.

“I make most of my living as a writer of books. I take them deeply seriously,” she says. “I think a book has to be intensely interesting to me before I can let it go. And then, I feel if it’s intensely interesting to me, then I did my best and we’re okay.”

With her first book, What I Saw at the Revolution, “I wanted to write a book that captured what it was like to work in the White House. That small, simple thing had never been done before. Beyond that, I wanted to capture what it was like to work in the White House for an authentically great man during a dramatic period in history. So—I worked really hard on that, and it did well. It allowed me to do other books and to do other kinds of writing.” Columns for Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, Harpers Bazaar, and the Washington Post soon followed.

Noonan has been writing her Wall Street Journal column since July of 2000. In it, she covers politics, religion, current events, theater—and the September 11 attacks, which affected her deeply and permanently. Noonan’s columns describing the trauma of the day, the bravery of the firemen, the renewed respect for religious faith, and the lives changed by the tragedy became both a kind of security blanket for her readers and a soaring literary witness to a horrific event.

“The year after 9-11 included to my mind the best and most important things I’ve ever written,” Noonan says. “Sometimes you’re on fire. The rest of the country still doesn’t know and will never know what 9-11 was in New York, to New York. But we all helped each other out, and my writing was my way of being part of helping.”

That she succeeded is apparent from the nature of the response. “Ms. Noonan, no one can put things in perspective quite as well as you do,” wrote a Chilean. “Your insight… has calmed my spirit.” From New Jersey: “I knew [Noonan] would put this into words that would somehow make sense out of all of it.”

Where does it come from, this ability to connect with readers, to calm and to comfort?

“I think part of it has to do with her extraordinary intuition into human character,” says Rod Dreher, assistant editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and former Brooklyn neighbor to Noonan. “Once I said to my wife, only half-joking, that Peggy must have some kind of psychic gifts, because she really seems able to size up people with uncanny accuracy. Julie said no, she simply has an uncommon gift of empathy and emotional insight—which, in my view, explains a lot about why her columns speak so deeply to the human element in the events and people she writes about. She seems to understand in her bones how normal people think about things. She herself was not well-born, and she’s not for-gotten where she comes from. She knows who she is, and she’s confident enough to bring everything about herself to her writing.”

Noonan’s friend and colleague Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, agrees. “It’s partly because Peggy is a real person who’s led a real life, not a new-class policy wonk who went straight from the fancy school to the high-class internship to the entry-level job in Washington. This comes through in everything she writes—not defensively but proudly and naturally—and people with similarly ordinary backgrounds, be they suburban or small-town, sense it and respond to it.”

In Peggy Noonan is a genuine curiosity about others, and she takes pleasure in mixing with and talking to people from all walks of life. When she goes grocery shopping, she likes to chat with store employees to find out how their lives are going. When she encounters the famous and the powerful, as she did at Reagan’s funeral, she wants to know about them, as well. Says Dreher: “She moves with some pretty sophisticated company, yet the times I’ve seen her, whether it was at a backyard cookout [on] Long Island” with the boisterous clan of a NYPD detective, “drinking wine on IKEA furniture in the basement of our little Brooklyn apartment, or hanging out with folks here in Dallas, she seems equally at home as one imagines she is at, say, an A-list dinner party on the Upper East Side or Georgetown. She knows how to talk to all kinds of people, and how to listen, because she’s genuinely curious about people’s lives.”

Noonan’s ability to keep her fingers on America’s pulse also has to do with faith and family background. “When you come from a hard environment you have a strong sense of the poignance of American dreams,” Noonan says. “You should not go through life in a way that says, ‘I started out in A, therefore I cannot know the people of B, C, D, E, or F’: That’s wrong. Know everybody, talk to everybody, try to experience everybody, try to be good to everybody. Be yourself, and give people as much of a break as you would hope they’d give you. Nobody is better, nobody is worse, we’re all children of God. If you could keep that in mind you’ll probably be okay.”


  • Anne Morse

    Anne Morse is a senior writer with the Wilberforce Foundation.

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