Features

Noonan's Reagan

National | The Gipper's gifted former speechwriter discusses her newest book on a boss she so clearly admires, "an extraordinary man who did extraordinary things"

Issue: "No time to celebrate," Dec. 1, 2001

in New York-If a clean office is the sign of a small mind, then experts would have to agree that Peggy Noonan is a genius. Her home office on New York's tony Upper East Side is a jumble of all the things that fascinate her. An anthropologist stumbling upon the place 100 years from now could make a career of studying the random clippings taped to almost every square inch of vertical space: An article on IQ. A thank-you note from gossip columnist Liz Smith. A paragraph from the classic text, On Writing. A poem by Jorge Luis Borges. Newspaper stories from the World Trade Center disaster. And then there are the Reagan pictures. A dozen or more of them from those heady days in the mid-'80s when America seemed to be rediscovering its sense of self. The place could easily be mistaken for a shrine to the former president, but for the competition from dozens of icons and statuettes of the Virgin Mary. Ms. Noonan is apologetic about the clutter. For the past eight months she has virtually lived in this room, banging out a biography of her mentor and political hero. On a shelf behind the door sits the manuscript that she willed into existence in near record time. But on this crisp fall morning, it's not the 18 inches of neatly stacked white pages that give her the greatest sense of satisfaction. The first copy of the book itself arrived from the publisher just last night, and as she discusses it, she can't help running her fingers absent-mindedly across the cover, like a mother caressing the baby she delivered after a difficult labor. No one would mistake Ms. Noonan for an objective biographer. One of the best-known presidential speechwriters in history, she served in the White House from 1984 to 1986, when she left to write her first bestseller, What I Saw at the Revolution. As a columnist and pundit, she kept in close contact with her friends from the Reagan administration until about 500 of them gathered in Williamsburg, Va., last March for the commissioning of the USS Ronald Reagan. The fond memories of all the old hands contrasted sharply with the sailors aboard the new aircraft carrier, whose average age was just 19. Many had not yet been born when the 40th president took office, and they were still children when he left. They had only the vaguest recollections of the man for whom their ship was named, and Ms. Noonan decided she should do something about that. She dedicated When Character Was King "To the men and women of the USS Ronald Reagan, CVN 76." Ms. Noonan's own claims for the book are fairly modest. "It's not a biography," she insists. "A great and serious history of Ronald Reagan needs to be written, and it should be 700 pages with footnotes. Someday that will be done. What I wanted to do was walk through the life as we know it-and as I experienced it-as someone who knows and cares about the family." Reagan family and friends were generous with their time. Ms. Noonan quotes both Nancy Reagan and daughter Patti Davis at length throughout the book. (Another daughter, Maureen, was too sick with cancer to participate, and Ms. Noonan didn't approach Ron Jr., who is said to shy away from interviews on the subject.) Together with her own experiences at the president's side and interviews with countless other Reagan intimates, what Ms. Noonan found emerging was a slightly different picture of the man she thought she knew. "I think that when you are very close to a mountain, when you're standing at its foot, it's just a bunch of rocks and dirt sloping up in front of you. You get away from that mountain, and you can see that it changes the entire landscape. That's the story of the great in history. You usually need some time and distance to understand how great they really were and the part they played. "I used to think he was a good man who did extraordinary things," she says, toying with her food at a restaurant near her house. "Now I believe he's an extraordinary man who did extraordinary things. His was a life marked by serious effort and by a courage that was heroic in its consistency." As someone who gave voice to the ideals of the Reagan Revolution, Ms. Noonan makes no pretense of being a dispassionate observer. An Irish Catholic who says she has only recently begun taking her faith seriously, Ms. Noonan seems ready to make value judgments about her subject that others-most notably Edmund Morris, author of the sweeping bio Dutch-are not. "Reagan had an extraordinarily continuous personality and character. You can actually see that he didn't change much in terms of who he was from the time of his young adulthood. At a certain point, he became who he was, and that's the person he remained. I don't mean, 'Oh, how sad, he became static.' What I mean is, he never changed his good reasons for doing anything." To Ms. Noonan, such consistency is striking, particularly in a politician. She recounts a conversation years ago, when she asked David Garth, a longtime Democratic pro, whether he thought politicians operated out of their beliefs. No, he replied: "They start out with belief and end up with hunger." "Reagan actually started out with belief, and you know what he ended up with? Belief. The hunger didn't happen. He simply didn't have to rise in order to feel good about himself or get ego gratification. That was part of the secret to his great success." His success was all the more remarkable, to Ms. Noonan, in light of his background. Previous biographers, she says, have failed to appreciate the difficulty of his childhood. The book's opening chapters required several rewrites as she struggled to make sense of his formative years. "I was thinking and thinking and writing and writing," she says, "and finally I realized something that had never been written: Ronald Reagan had the most difficult and financially strained background of any president of the 20th century. When you read the stories of presidents, you find out that most of them come from something. They're from a background of ministers or mill owners or millionaires, and they're heir to a certain inherited respect." Even the century's two apparent exceptions to that rule, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, had more going for them than Ronald Reagan did. Mr. Truman's parents were "sober, upright farmers," and Mr. Clinton's grandparents reared him in their little store while his mother sought a nursing degree. "Ronald Reagan was born in a rental to a father who was a drinker. They owned nothing, and their entire life was shaped in part by the father's illness. Reagan had to ride through a tough, tough childhood to become what he was." To Ms. Noonan, there's no doubt about the secret to his eventual success. "His mother's Christian belief was what saved him," she says. "Nancy actually said that to me: 'His mother saved him.' ... Nelle Reagan had come from a background of want, but she was a happy Christian because she knew that God loved her and that He would only make way for those troubles that would benefit her." In his adult years, according to Ms. Noonan, the man who would be president continued to operate with a strong sense of the divine. "Nancy told me he prayed all the time," she says. Every time he got on a plane, for instance, Mr. Reagan would stare out the window for long moments of silent prayer. Thinking he was daydreaming, aides would approach him with one question or another, forcing Nancy to shoo them away. "I don't think this aspect has been fully captured by people," Ms. Noonan muses. "It explains a lot of him to me, a lot of his internal sense of security. The difficulties of his childhood plus the extraordinary impact of his faith are two things that I feel have not been fully understood about him." Now that her grueling, eight-month labor of love is finally over, Ms. Noonan admits to feeling a sense of mission, "though you sound jerky when you say that," she adds with a laugh. She hopes the sailors of her dedication will better understand their ship's namesake. She hopes her liberal friends on the Upper East Side will see what she so admired in her former boss. But one gets the impression that ultimately, Peggy Noonan doesn't really care who reads her book, because the one reader who matters most is lost to her. "We old Reagan hands feel very tenderly about the old man," she says with a smile that looks strangely sad. "When we had the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan, a lot of us felt we just wanted to wrap our arms around him and rock him to sleep. That's how I think of my book, a rocking to sleep."

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