Peggy Noonan
Peggy Noonan
What I Saw at the Revolution
ISBN: 0449001008
What I Saw at the Revolution
Former presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan discussed her book "What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era." She answered her critics and talked of the publicity surrounding the book. Once a writer for newscaster Dan Rather, Ms. Noonan was a speech writer for Ronald Reagan during the last half of his presidency. She also wrote the well-known "thousand points of light" acceptance speech that George Bush delivered at the 1988 Republican convention. In addition to discussing her experiences at the White House, she reflected on the role of speech writers in politics and discusses her own political beliefs.
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TRANSCRIPT
What I Saw at the Revolution
Program Air Date: February 18, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peggy Noonan, author of "What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era," you write at the middle of your second epilogue, in the back, "Don't fall in love with politicians, they are all a disappointment. They can't help it, they just are." What did you mean?
PEGGY NOONAN, AUTHOR, "WHAT I SAW AT THE REVOLUTION: A POLITICAL LIFE IN THE REAGAN ERA": Oh, I meant when you are young and you come to Washington to work for someone, a Senator, a Congressman, a President, an agency head, who you think is just wonderful and magical, perhaps going in with those presuppositions because you've read a little bit too much history, maybe too many celebrations in history like biographies of Lincoln by Sandberg. You go in with some big notions and you just love them and you want to help them and you kind of fall in love, and at the end you realize they're just regular guys, they got clay feet. One of the things I wish I put afterwards, another thing I found working in Washington, that everybody's nervous. You wouldn't think an anchorman, a President, a Senator, that all these folks are nervous, but they all are. As nervous as a secretary on her way to work for -- looking for a new job, you know? They're regular, they're human.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. How do you see them being nervous?
NOONAN: The little, the insecurities that sort of come out, you would think when a person is awfullly powerful that they wouldn't pay so much attention to little knocks in the press. But you know, they do, and they not only do, they get a little hurt, you know. Sometimes they get so hurt they don't forget it and they're mad at the reporter for 10 years. I can remember the night, watching President Reagan give his farewell address -- I watched in the Oval Office -- and before he went on, when they were doing as they just did here, the countdown, 10, 9, 8 ... sucked in his breath, sort of went like this ... and put down his head, thought for a moment .. I think he was saying a little prayer. He was scared, he was going on in front of the whole nation to talk to them all on TV. You'd think Ronald Reagan couldn't possibly be scared, his lifetime has been talking to the nation on TV, but he's nervous, Dan Rather's nervous, they all are.
LAMB: Where have you been the most nervous on this book tour?
NOONAN: Actually, it was yesterday morning. Well, actuallly, I had two great nervous moments. One was before I did the “Today” show, I had never done live national TV. And I was so nervous, a producer had to walk through the halls with me at 30 Rock [Rockerfeller Plaza] and take me around from office to office, just parading me around so I could burn off the nervousness because you know, you have horrible fantasies. It's one thing to write for people who go across the nation on live TV, but it's quite another thing to be your own self, unscripted and afraid, perhaps, that your tongue will get caught in your throat and you'll go AGGG!, like that, on national TV, and frighten your friends.

So that was the most frightening moment, the “Today show”, and the second most frightening was going on with “Bombastic Bushkin” John McLaughlin, yesterday up in New Jersey, with his audience. He has a cable show, and he has an audience full of people, and a little panel of reporters questioning me, and I thought “Oh, I'm not up to this, I'm new at this game, you know?” So I was really nervous about it. But it went OK. I was a little dull, but ...
LAMB: Do you do anything -- and I assume you've been nervous at other times in your life -- do you think people do things differently when they're nervous?
NOONAN: You mean perform their job differently?
LAMB: Yeah, better or worse ...?
NOONAN: Oh, good question. I think Dan Rather is better when he's nervous, when he doesn't know what's going to happen. So he's a performer who's better. I don't know with President Reagan, I think he always had a little stage fright before he went on. With President Bush, actually, I think, I don't think nervous is quite the word, but when he knows it's high stakes and it better work, then he's at his best, I think. And I think he's likely to fall off a little bit when it's not that high stakes.
LAMB: When you read your book, you see constant reference throughout it to Dan Rather and Ronald Reagan. And I know they both played a major role in your professional life. Why the two men, and what did they have in common, if anything?
NOONAN: You know, the very fine Washington Post essayist Tom Shales once wrote in the 80s when I was working for Reagan, a few years after I worked for Rather, he wrote in one of his columns that Rather and Reagan have a lot in common, which seemed an eccentric thing to say. But I was maybe the only person reading who had special experience with both of them and who thought “Boy, is that true.” They are both -- Rather for all his, perhaps stiff, perhaps cool, but perhaps also hot persona is a very sentimental person. His emotions are very close to the surface. I said in the book, he is as corny and emotional about America as a drunken YAFer. He has those moments.
LAMB: Young --
NOONAN: Young Americans for Freedom.
LAMB: Are you a member?
NOONAN: Yes. President Reagan also had that easily accessed emotionalism. And sweetness and pride about America, you know? So, that was the biggest thing I think they both had in common. May seem a surprising thing.
LAMB: What did you do for Dan Rather?
NOONAN: Dan had a daily five-minute radio show at CBS on the CBS radio network, and I wrote it for him. Met with him every morning at 11:00. Talked about what we were going to write and what the show was going to say, had some disagreements, and some real agreements. Worked for him for three years, learned to like him a lot.
LAMB: You do say in the book he was a liberal. What kind of a liberal?
NOONAN: He probably doesn't appreciate my saying that, but he's read it and he hasn't mentioned it to me. What kind of liberal? Largely a domestic liberal, I think. He has sort of the liberalist attitude towards government, which is sort of inherently, maybe even compulsively, skeptical about any presidential decision or initiative. Liberal in sort of social issues, domestically more of a liberal. In international affairs, I don't think he trusts any other country. He's probably as compulsively skeptical about other countries and leaders as he is domestically about his own. He was a Marine, and he's a Texan, you know? So he's kind of an "American guy."

But his politics were different from mine, in many regards, and when I had been writing for him for a few weeks, I finally went to him one day and I said “You know, you and I really do see things differently and we're going to have to work out an M.O. in order to work successfully.” Because I was freezing up a little as a writer, sometimes writing things I didn't agree with. So he was very nice. We had a little badinage in which we teased each other about being of the left and of the right. And ultimately, we worked out this thing whereby I would go in every morning at 11:00 and he would tell me what topic he wanted to deal with in the commentary. And then he would tell me what point of view he wanted to take on it, and if I disagreed with him, I'd have five minutes to change his mind. And if I changed his mind, fine, we'd do it my way. If I could not change his mind, we'd do it his way, but I'd get to fairly portray the views of the other side in the piece, and we'd just sort of wrap it up with Dan's conclusions. So that's how we did it for three years, and it worked well.
LAMB: How long did you work at CBS?
NOONAN: CBS in NY from '78 to '84. And before that I was at a CBS station in Boston.
LAMB: The last 11 years -- actually, 10 years -- for call-ins, we've sat here and listened to our audience. And there's a fair percentage of people who call in and accuse the networks of all being full of liberals. You had a chance to see it inside. Are those folks out there who are afraid of the networks being liberals accurate?
NOONAN: Yes and no. The networks are full of really good conservative folks. But they tend to be blue collars. They tend to be secretaries and technicians and the fellows who roll the cameras and check the audio levels. They tended to be regular working folks who lived out, say -- if we're talking about the networks based in NY -- regular working folks who lived out on Long Island, and had a wife and kids and were of a certain age and were heavily taxed on the margin, didn't love having high taxes, that was half of CBS, half of the CBS I know.

The other folks at CBS, the sort of white collar folks, the writers, the producers, the on-air talent, were, in my view, generally --generally, not exclusively liberal, but did not usually see themselves that way. They saw themselves, particularly the younger ones, as just decent people trying to be fair. They never called themselves liberals or conservatives. They usually didn't even have a party affiliation. Some of the older folks, older white collars at CBS, were old-line Democrats and would tell you. But the younger folks weren't, in their 30s and 40s. I always thought -- though they don't see themselves as liberals, and would not call themselves liberals, if you made out a list of great questions of the day, and they had to take a stand on each of them, five questions from abortion to lowering taxes, to raising taxes in order to rid ourselves of the deficit, what should our stance be towards the Soviet Union -- they would, most of them, tend to take the generally liberal position, but would not think of themselves as that, they would just think “Well, that's the right and decent and fair position.”

So that's how it was. So they're right and wrong. The good part is I never saw anyone at CBS say “Reagan's making a speech tonight. Why, let's line up your standard liberal critics and knock the heck out of him when the speech is off.” Or, “Let's take the standard liberal view.” So I never saw any of that awful stuff, and that just doesn't exist. And there is some conservative paranoia about that. But you know if you generally tend to think with certain liberal biases, the way you cover a story will be affected by that. If Reagan says he's going to try to cut social services, your nice liberal feeling on this is “Let's go out and get sound bites on the street from poor people who are going to be hurt,” you know? Your bias would not be “Well, let's get an economist who can discuss with us how making a smaller government might make lower taxes which might rejuvinate the economy and create more jobs for poor people on the streets,” you know? So, bias was there. Most people did as much as they could to be fair.
LAMB: Do the networks influence the public into thinking a certain way?
NOONAN: I think TV in general does. I don't know, you know, I can't help but think a lot of people on my side, the conservative side, would say that we have had a pretty liberal media for the past 20 years, but oddly enough, we keep electing conservative presidents, don't we. So I guess "the media" are not controlling who we vote for, and they're not controlling our opinions on things. The television networks control the images you see and the words you hear, but I can't help but think the American people, who are pretty saavy, and pretty sophisticated, almost have unknown to them a Kow-dung screen between them and the television, know what I mean? And they sort of filter out what they really think is the nonsense. And try to let filter in what they think is the truth.
LAMB: I brought along a lot of reviews of your book. But I wanted to start because I wanted to read you some of this stuff I know you've already seen and get your reaction to it. People write books and I'm not sure they ever get a chance to respond to their reviewers. First I wanted to ask you about ... I think I could say without equivocation that your book has gotten ... and the audience will see this in a minute, as much publicity, out-front publicity, as any book that has been written in the last year. Would you say that?
NOONAN: It's a heck of a lot. I can't make comparisons, but I'm stunned by the amount.
LAMB: Let me start with this. This is one of those things we see a lot of on the East Coast. This is the NY Times magazine, from last October, and this is a chapter, I believe, a chapter or more than that, from your book. Here it is. Basically, the cover is your book. How did that happen? This started it all. This was the first we say of what you were going to write.
NOONAN: I think it made the book, actually. When I had finished one of the final drafts -- I think not quite the final draft, but one of the final drafts of the manuscript, Random House and my agent sent the entire manuscript off to a number of magazines, so that the magazines could buy an excerpt. This is standard operating procedure. And you hope that a magazine will buy for almost any price, you're not even that interested in money at this point, you're interested in exposure. You hope that a magazine will buy a chapter, say, of the manuscript. We were very lucky. We were hoping the New York Times would take a chapter. Every few months, the Times does take a chapter of a book. They took Thomas Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and so they bought a chapter from us and we thought “Well, terrific, that is just wonderful, that is the best thing that could possibly happen for the book.”

Then, within a few weeks they told us “Guess what, we want it to be on the cover,” and that was really stupendous. And we were surprised and delighted. I hope I'm not talking out of school to say this, I don't think I am, we had somewhat of a disagreement about the cover. The editor of the magazine, a very talented man named Jimmy Greenfield, had decided, having read this chapter, he wanted with the cartoon cutouts of President Reagan that you see on the streets of Washington. You still see Reagan ones, now you see Bush ones, you see Jesse Jackson, they were all over -- but we remember when they were new? He wanted me to pose on the street between a Reagan and a Bush cutout. And I thought “Oh gee, that doesn't sound good. I don't think so.” So we sort of tussled around a little bit. And we kind of thought we weren't going to be on the cover anymore after we said we didn't like that, you know? But they came back with another idea having to do with a teleprompter and words and such coming out of the President's mouth. That still didn't feel right. And ultimately they said “Well what about a picture of you at a typewriter -- did you ever write at a typewriter?” I said “Sure, when I got to the White House I did.” They said “Good, with a picture, a sort of campaign picture of Reagan in the background.” And I said “Gee, that's really wonderful,” so they put us back on the cover, and it was, it did get a lot of attention when the magazine came out. So that my editor, Peter Osnos, said “Terrific, wonderful picture. That's the cover of the book.”
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
NOONAN: In the studio of a photographer named Michael O'Neil, down in kind of the Soho area of New York.
LAMB: And it's a picture that we've seen in so many places. Is this a picture you had a chance to say “I like that.” And if you did, what is it about the picture you like?
NOONAN: The Times, we took a million picture like that, sometimes with me in a different blouse. It was always the standard Reagan picture and the standard typewriter -- I just looked different sometimes. They picked the final one at the Times, and we saw it once they'd chosen it. But we thought “Well, that's a nice picture.”
LAMB: You like that?
NOONAN: Yeah, I think it's fine. It's controversial in my family.
LAMB: Why?
NOONAN: They just don't like the way I look, but I think it looks great.
LAMB: Here is a review. This is the Washington Times, and this is a fellow ...
NOONAN: Oh, I hadn't seen that.
LAMB: John Podhoretz, Norman Podhoretz's son. He also is an editor over at the Washington Times and writes a column. "Writer for the Revolution" is what he calls it. And they use the same picture again. "White House Intoxication Fills Noonan's Memoirs." I'm going to drop this, James, so that I can read to Peggy Noonan what the first paragraph says: "Peggy Noonan's "What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era" is a classic, the single best book yet written on Washington during the Reagan era, and the only volume to come out of the Reagan White House that does the previous administration's triumphant strengths and appallingly petty weaknesses full justice."
NOONAN: Wow.
LAMB: And he was a speechwriter in the Reagan administration, does not know you, says he's never met you, but he was there at times that you weren't there. What do you feel when somebody says something like this? This is a card-carrying conservative.
NOONAN: Yeah, that's thrilling. Conservatives have, by and large, tended to be a little rough on the book, so I'm shocked to hear that.
LAMB: Why?
NOONAN: Oh, they ... the book is arguably indiscreet, OK? It's a book that is very supportive of President Reagan but at the same time, is it hagiography? Is that the word for lives of the saints? The art form known as lives of the saints? It doesn't portray him as a saint; he wasn't. He was a really terrific political leader. But I had some ambivalent feelings towards him, and I let them out, and sometimes I'm a little rough on him. And so that's one thing that's bothered them. Another thing that has bothered them is I have written as a speechwriter about writing speeches for Ronald Reagan, and there are some people who feel -- I feel they are arguably cororect, I just disagree with them -- that you, first of all, as a speechwriter you should never be out there and say that you wrote anything, or ever write about the writing of it. But also, you should pretend that the President didn't have speechwriters, that that is our job and I think that's silly. I think once that was legitimate and now it's just untenable, you know? So it didn't do no halo-polishing, or if it does, not quite enough.
LAMB: On the other side of the political fence, and I want to be careful not to characterize Walter Shapiro as a liberal, I'm not sure he would agree with that. He used to write for the Washington Monthly, I believe, and he writes, I think he did, the review in this week's Time magazine. Here's a different photograph. Where did this come from?
NOONAN: That's my apartment in New York. Time magazine sent over a photographer to take my picture a few months ago.
LAMB: You like this?
NOONAN: Do I like the picture?
LAMB: Is that you?
NOONAN: They're all goofy to varying extents, but I also like them all, you know? But yeah, that is me. I guess there's a clue here. After a while I started to think if they want a picture of me, it must be a good review. So constantly, when they'd call and say we need a picture for the review, I'd say yes, feeling it was definitely a good review. Because I'm not Gore Vidal, and I'm not worth denouncing at length. And if you're going to denounce me, why have a person of the hapless person here you’re being tough on? So, small clue to future authors: if they want to take your picture, say yes, it’s good news.
LAMB: Can you believe all this is happening to you? All this publicity? All these reviews? All of this out-front recognition, is it what you wanted?
NOONAN: I said in the book politicians tend to resist introspection and reflection. I'm not normally like that, I'm good at reflection. I like to sit around and just daydream and think about stuff. But I must say that recently, with all the hoo-hah over the book, there is a part of me that is just doing it, and not reflecting, and not quite thinking about it. Because in way I don't have time, and in a way it's a little too big for me. It's been a big thing, and sometimes I think I do handle things by not quite thinking about them at the moment.
LAMB: Let me read what Walter Shapiro said in Time magazine. "Perhaps Ted Sorensen, with his trademark verb first, ask not formulations, might rival Noonan as the best White House word-crafter of the television age. But Sorensen writing for John Kennedy, or for that matter Noonan composing soaring scripts for Reagan's second term, had it easy. Bush was an infinitely greater challenge. In writing his 1988 GOP convention address, Noonan miraculously transformed the Bush of the stumbling syntax and clotted catch-phrases into a quiet leader, sensitive enough to glimpse a 1,000 points of light, but strong enough to say flatly: Read my lips, no new taxes. Now Noonan, who retired from politics with Bush's inaugural address, has written the funniest, most richly textured, nervously self-effacing, and deftly observed political memoir likely to come out of the 1980s.” What's your reaction to that? This is a gentleman not of the same political persuasion, I suspect, as John Podhoretz, basically ...
NOONAN: I'm afraid I have only banal things to say when I read that. I just thought “Oh, that is just so great. Thanks, Walter!” You know? I tried to write a serious book and I wanted it to be a book that taught people things. I wanted it to have weight. I wanted it to be dense, you know? In a way I think you have no right to be boring. A book is a form of aggression; you're aggressing and saying “Hey, look at me, I can tell you something, I really have things I want to tell you, and it might be worthwhile listening.” And if somebody says it was worthwhile listening, you feel “That's wonderful! I just spent the last three years the right way.” You know? So, it's a delight.
LAMB: It took three years to write?
NOONAN: Well, I signed the contract for it in '87. In the winter or spring of '87 started writing it, but then soon after had a child. Took some time off after I had the baby, started writing it again but then got somewhat involved in the '88 campaign. And wound up, say by the summer of '88, writing speeches in the morning and the book in the afternoon. Then, as soon as Bush took the presidency, literally the first day of his presidency, the second day of his presidency, I went back to the book full-time. And between August, between late January and August of '88 I really got most of it done. It had been on mind very much for three years.
LAMB: Did you write the book differently than you wrote speeches? In other words, was your mind in a different mood when you wrote your book than when you, say, wrote a speech for George Bush?
NOONAN: Oh, yeah, I think so. In the morning, when I was working on speeches for Bush, I was always going over notes of things he had told me. And I was always trying very much to listen, to resummon in my head the sound of his voice or the way he was using words when he told me something that I wrote down. So the morning was sort of trying to resummon him, and keep him in my head. Then I'd go have lunch with my son, and in the afternoon I'd sort of try to shake it out, and remember what it is that I think. And how it is that I express myself.

There was a part of me -- you know, I've spent all off my professional life writing for other people. And they have mostly been men -- Rather, Reagan, and Bush -- And there was a part of me that was a little bit afraid when I first decided to do the book, and signed the contract to do it, and got a deadline for it. There was a part of me that was afraid that I didn't really have my own sound anymore. Because I had so subsumed, in a way, my own sound in order to hear others. Maybe this is a smaller point, but maybe not. I was just really afraid I couldn't get my -- I couldn't get ME back. And when the manuscript was done, I sent it to a few close friends, and they all told me “You know, we were afraid this might sound like Reagan, but it sound like you.” I said “Oh, does it really?” And they said “Yeah, it sounds like you at dinner.” Which is precisely the quality I wanted it to have, a conversation, you know? As if you were talking to someone you respect at a dinner table, and telling them things. I forget what you asked me; I'm off on this tangent.
LAMB: You talked about when you wrote the book, whether or not you wrote -- you were writing it from your perspective, rather than when you used to write speeches, if there's a difference. How about physically, where did you write it?
NOONAN: In two places. At a word processor at my home out in Virginia, in a very quasi-rural Virginia, out there by the Potomac. Then, when I moved from there, I wrote the book in a big leaky Victorian townhouse in Georgetown. A marvelous old place full of books, that was owned by an elderly lady who was a liberal democrat, and who had worked apparently, from what I could see of her books, for Johnson in the 60s. I would open up her books at night when I was done writing about Reagan. I'd just pick at random a book and I'd go through it and out would flutter little leaflettes in which the woman who owned the house had clearly written this essay answering Lyndon Johnson's conservative critics. And there was something so funny about that, you know, that I was in another -- not just another writer's house, but a woman who was somewhat clearly obsessed with a time and a person, you know?
LAMB: In the remarks of Walter Shapiro, when he talks about George Bush, "taking away the stumbling syntax and clotted catchphrases, make him into a quiet leader sensitive enought to glimpse a 1,000 points of light." What should the public think about a president who needs a wordsmith putting words in his mouth that are something that he would not say if we were just having a conversation? Does this bother you at all?
NOONAN: Yeah, because it's -- first of all, Vice President Bush was never an inarticulate man. You have met him or seen him up close, I suspect. And in person he's funny. I wouldn't call him voluble. He speaks in kind of gusts of speech. But he's kind of laid back and says kind of funny and amusing things, and interesting things, and is very chatty and anything but inarticulate. If you've ever received one of his notes or letters, you know he's anything but inarticulate.

But I thought in '88, I thought part of the secret of Vice President Bush was that he was a little bit shy, he froze up a little bit when all of the cameras were on him, and the red lights were on and the boom mike was five inches from his nose. So he froze up a little bit. What I did for him: you can't make up words and stick them in his mouth. It's not as if “Oh, he's the hollow vessel, then handlers come along and fill him up.” Bush was a man, a sophisticated serious man, who'd been in politics for a long time, who held serious beliefs. I think it's fair to say he hadn't quite caught his own voice by the time '88 had come, and by the time he really had to. And what I did for him at that time when I was working for him, was a very simple thing. I just spent a lot of time with him and listened to him, listened to what he wanted, listened to what his plans were, listened to what words were for him and humor was for him. When we worked on the acceptance speech, one of the things I like about remembering the acceptance speech is it was the way things should be. It was a speechwriter working very closely with a principal.

That is somewhat unusual these days, in modern White Houses. In the Carter White House, Ford, Reagan White House. There is now a greater separation between speechwriting, it's like a word factory, and the president, you know? Carter's speechwriter at a meeting of the Judson Wellover Society once told me “Hey, the longest talk I ever had with Carter was the day I left.” I found that in the modern White Houses they all don't see them that much. You read Safire's memoir of life with Nixon, before the fall, and he said -- as a speechwriter he said -- “I was spun into the vortex and then spun out again.” Spun in very close to the President, and then out again. And when I read that, I thought “Gee, just like it was for me, except I never got in.”

It had changed, even in 20 years, or 12 years I guess. That is a trend to be discouraged. I think it ought to be like the old days, when Judge Harry Rosenman, and Robert Sherwood were actually working with FDR, you know? One of the sub-themes of the book was to sort of quietly agitate to going back to the old ways, because there is too much separation. But, in the acceptance speech, there was not that separation and it was the way it should be, you know? And the reason it worked was not because “Aha! We tricked you. We've made up this edifice called the New Bush.” The reason that it worked -- again, people are savvy and sophisticated, the people who are watching out there -- they finallly understood him because he finally showed who he was, you know? He found his voice, and he never lost it after that. He found his voice, and he could talk about what he was about, and that is why it was effective.
LAMB: I've got another review here. Have you noticed that your friends, or the people you are acquaintances with, have changed their attitude about you as this publicity just get more and more visible? People treating you differently today than they were say, back in pre-October and the New York Times cover story?
NOONAN: Not friends. A lot of acquaintances are treating me a little differently. I called people at business offices, friends of mine who are regular folks at business offices, and when I say my name now, people brighten up a little and go “Sure! I'll get her.” I think when they say they've left a message for a friend who isn't in, I think they actually leave the message now. So little things like that happen. But nothing's changed with friends.
LAMB: James Fallows wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter. He is the Atlantic Monthly -- he was in Japan, I think, he's back here now, did some NPR work. Here's a review in the Washington Monthly, February 1990. James, let's just let the audience see a little of what the headlines look on this. "White House Confidential. The top speechwriter for Reagan and Bush takes you behind the scenes." It says” "Peggy Noonan is a terrific speechwriter, as she showed most convincingly with George Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican convention. Then he goes to the second page, and he's got some, let's see if he calls them criticisms. "There are three significant problems with this book, which actually seem to be traits of character which came through in the writing." Have you read this?
NOONAN: No, but I've heard about it. I haven't read it, and I'm going to get it from you, and also the Washington Times one, but I have heard about it. So you're not taking me by surprise.
LAMB: By the way, are you sensitive?
NOONAN: Oh yes, much too much.
LAMB: When somebody whacks you over the head with one of these it bothers you?
NOONAN: It's worse than that. I have that horrible Catholic sense of when anybody says anything bad about me, I can't think they're wrong. I think “Oh really? They don't know the half of it.” You know? It really pierces my heart.
LAMB: “First, even by the standards of Reagan-era memoirs, and of speechwriters as a class, Noonan seems remarkably full of herself."
NOONAN: Oh thank you, James. I'm sure he'll elaborate. Let me hear the elaboration.
LAMB: “Life, somehow, has never taught her that if you can't be genuinely modest, even the semblance of modesty is a plus. She gives phrase by phrase accounts of how she drafted her speeches in a tone that would be appropriate for a bar by bar recollection by Mozart.” By the way, this is a very positive review but this is obviously not a positive ...
NOONAN: That was sort of described to me as a kind of rough one, is it not? Maybe rough because it's well-argued.
LAMB: That statement just kind of jumped off the page, what do you think of that one?
NOONAN: Well, I don't know. Maybe I have too robust an ego and it shined right through. But I take joy in writing, and joy in work. I actually believe in high falutin' thing like the sanctity of work. There's even redemption in it. And when I was writing about speechwriters and how they were put together and what my thoughts were and what input I got, if I wrote with too great maybe a robust self-enjoyment, well there you are. But I didn't think of it as self-enjoyment. I thought of it as excitement about and love for the work, you know? So there you are. That's the best I can do. I can't say that's an illegitimate criticism. It's just I hope he's wrong, I don't see it his way.
LAMB: There's more to that, of course. "There is a peculiar class dynamic underway in the book. In this book, she hauls out her working-class credentials so often and so slowly, that she seems to be using them to mow-mow the nice young men in blue suits from Brooks she fought against in the White House. They couldn't possibly understand the emotion of real America, she would tell them. Because unlike her, they weren't from Brooklyn and hadn't ever worked in a diner. There's something to this point, but not as much as Noonan makes of it. When she's not talking about her humble roots, Noonan drops allusions to the world of academics and athletics, and the deconstructionalists (Gerald Murphy) that seem a little far fetched. I can be reading it wrong, but it looks as if she's using these signals to show that she has it both ways, she's a woman of the people, but she knows as much as the pointy heads."
NOONAN: Oh James, what's the meaning of that, you know? If you were a waitress, should you not know who Proust was, you know? Does it proves you were a waitress is you don't know about Ezra Pound? That's not as good a point, I think. I don't think that's as good as the first one.
LAMB: The last one isn't really criticism. Well, it may be criticism but it's not the same kind. "Finally, there is the question of writing for the ear. Before she joined the Reagan staff, Noonan had spent several years as a writer for Dan Rather. Her specialty was scripts for his five minute radio commentaries. She presents it as kind of a delicious irony that she could have spanned the gulf between Rather and Reagan. But by the time a reader finished the book, the irony or mystery will have disappeared. In both jobs, Noonan was doing essentially the same things -- writing words that would be listened to rather than read on a page. Probably without meaning to, she uses the same approach in much of this book, and in so doing demonstrates the way she writes matters more than what she says."
NOONAN: Well, I don't know what to say about that. I think that's kind of interesting, actually. I have been writing for the ear since the time I got out of college and I got my first job in broadcasting. And I've been writing for the ear so long that when I was writing a book, which you do not read with your ear, I still found myself saying every sentence aloud. And seeing if it had the right rhythm or just sounded just the way I wanted it to sound. And I don't know if that was a plus or a minus for the literature of the book. But I must tell you it's the way I do it now. And it's probably not going to stop. It's partly writing for the ear, but partly maybe love for conversation. I love what I hear. I love the rhythm of human speech. But that's not what he means. Maybe it is written for the ear, I don't know.
LAMB: Couple more here. The New York Times, Wilfred Sheed undoubtably seen this one, it was the lead again. The lead book review in the Sunday Times. Was that something you were hoping for? And when it came, what was your reaction to it?
NOONAN: I knew about it in advance. We knew about it a week before -- they're printed up like 10 days before. I hadn't known that until recently. But I got that a week before everybody else did. It was thrilling, it was wonderful. My fantasy had been page three, you know. My fantasies are always kind of grounded in reality. My feeling is, how many books do we put out in America, 50,000?
LAMB: 3,000 a month, at least.
NOONAN: 3,000 a month? Don't hope for the front page of the New York Times Book Review. That's not going to happen. But if you're lucky and the book is good, you could be page three.
LAMB: Let me stop at this point and ask you: What if all these things you mentioned earlier when we started that the New York Times magazine cover story probably did more than anything else to make the book?
NOONAN: Yes.
LAMB: Why, is it that powerful?
NOONAN: I think it is a magazine that is taken seriously, it is not a frivolous magazine, it's taken seriously by thinking people. And the particular chapter that the Times took from the manuscript and ran in the magazine was a funny chapter about sort of being a little bumptious, a little clumsy in the White House, but also how exciting it is to be in the White House and how exciting it is to write there. So it kind of captured, I think, people's imaginations. I almost gathered that people were a little bit surprised that a conservative would come out of a White House and be funny, or make them laugh, you know? And I think that helped it, that the Times happened to pick a chapter that was funny as opposed to a chapter that was serious. Mirabella magazine, the fashion magazine, picked a very serious chapter. Everybody plays against type, I guess.
LAMB: What are you going to do with all this? You've got a ride in publicity that if you scripted it it couldn't be any more than it is, probably. Have you missed anything in this? Is there anything you want to do that you haven't done? In the publicity part of this?
NOONAN: In the book tour?
LAMB: Yeah.
NOONAN: No. Like what?
LAMB: I don't know what's missing. I guess the “60 Minutes” interview is…
NOONAN: It hasn't been that extraordinary. There aren't any “60 Minutes” interviews or stuff like that. But it's got more attention that a book usually gets.
LAMB: Is it selling?
NOONAN: Yeah, it is. The actual publication date is February 28, but still it's ...
LAMB: What does that mean?
NOONAN: In this case, it means nothing, it means very little. Pub date is supposed to mean something. It means reviewers are supposed to plan their reviews around the pub date, like a week before or a week after. But again, the New York Times thing so accelerated the process that I think by November and December people though they'd already read the book. I actually met a woman in New York -- I met a woman at a cocktail party -- who assured me in December she'd bought it in the bookstore, and it was still in galleys. And she loved it. She was very complimentary about it. But, at any rate, the pub date, which normally means something and in this case doesn't mean anything, is February 28. And the book hasn't been in the bookstore for very long, really, for about 10 days, and doing very well, at least in Washington and New York, which I think are the only two cities Random House is tracking.
LAMB: What I was really starting to ask you is: What are you going to do next? Out of all this publicity, all this visibility, what are you going to do next? What's next for Peggy Noonan's career?
NOONAN: Well I'm going to do something maybe a little bit surprising. I'm going to stay home and write a novel. A novel that is going to be based in New York, will not be overly political, although because I'm writing it it will certainly be implicitly political.
LAMB: Where's home now?
NOONAN: New York City. Based in New York. I don't know quite what it's about, but I know it will deal with the very rich and the changing nature of wealth and the very poor and the changing nature of poverty. And I know it involves a child living in the most dysfunctional heart of that at least somewhat dysfunctional city. I'm really fascinated by the horrid Gin Lane -- like conditions under which some children in New York are growing up. So, I'm going to do that. I'm not going to do some of the maybe more predictable things. I don't want to do a column, I've already decided that, or commentary and stuff like that. I want to stay home and be a serious writer. I'm going to write some for TV, too. And still try to be a serious writer in TV.

I have a boy who's 2 1/2 and he's growing quickly. He's going to leave me soon and go to school, and in New York when they go to school they leave at 8 in the morning and then between lessons and scheduled play dates you don't see them until 4 or 5 pm, when they come in with their little briefcases, you know. So if that's going to happen in three years, I want to spend the next three years at home where he is, and that'll be good for him and good for me.
LAMB: Why did you choose to go back to New York?
NOONAN: Friends and family are there. It's where I'm from. My marriage had ended, I had been living in Virginia with my husband. When we separated I went and lived in Washington for a while and had to decide really where I was going to go and spend the rest of my life. And Washington, although a fine place in many ways and a place that did win my heart, was not it. And I must tell you, all of the five years I was in Washington I really missed New York. I even held onto my rent-stabilized apartment my first three years when I was down here, when I couldn't even afford it -- just cause I didn't want to lose that little bit of me being up there. So I decided to move back up and did. Packed up a Ryder truck over Labor Day weekend with my mom and my son and moved on up. And I can't imagine really living outside that area. Maybe New Jersey or Connecticut, but that'll be my place, I think, for the rest of my life.
LAMB: Wilfred Sheed's -- one thing I wanted to ask you about -- he says "Which brings us, at long last" -- It's interesting to watch these reviewers, it's four paragraphs before they get to the book -- "at long last, to Peggy Noonan. Lengthy preambles are a pest, but justified in her case because Ms. Noonan places herself firmly, not to say hauntingly, in her situation such that when she says this is where I stand, she means a specific time and place." What about this, not this criticism, but "lengthy preambles are a pest?" He says it's OK, but did you on purpose write lengthy preambles?
NOONAN: I thought he was referring to his preamble.
LAMB: Oh, he must be.
NOONAN: I think he was, yeah. I think he was just sort of charmingly gliding from his preamble into what he wanted to say. I think they actually -- I understand it was a lengthier preamble, but they cut it on him at the Times, because they wanted to get the name of the book on the front page, for which I certainly thank them.
LAMB: As a matter of fact, when I read it I couldn't figure out what he was saying.
NOONAN: That's what he was referring to.
LAMB: "Ms. Noonan might further be described as a strict reactionary like her boss, driven rightward by the sheer obnoxiousness of the left."
NOONAN: Yeah, and he uses a funny example. He compares Ronald Reagan continually talking about how he got to know the communists when he was head of the Screen Acting Guild. He compares Reagan talking about that with my talking about what is was like in the early 70s to be going to anti-war demonstrations in Washington. And to be surrounded by people who were saying awful things about America, which is a moment recounted in the book, which people always ask me how I became a conservative, and you know I can never quite answer that question, but I always can tell them when I knew I was not of the left. And I knew I was not of the left when I was on that bus hurtling down the Jersey turnpike on its way down to Washington for this big demonstration. And those people were saying awful -- you remember the standard litany of insults about America. And I didn't see it that way. And that's when I started to part from the Democratic party. And from what was becoming modern liberalism, I guess.
LAMB: Do you think your views today are work related? Have they changed at all in the last couple years?
NOONAN: I have not changed a bit in the past few years about the essentials, one essential being communism. Another essential you want government, as Reagan would say, to be smaller not bigger, and you want taxes to be lower, not higher. I can't say that I've changed about any of that. I've changed some approaches. My feeling on abortion, as I go into in the book, I'm as anti-abortion -- you know 20 years ago I wasn't anti-abortion, but changed somewhat in the 70s and early 80s. And I have sort of changed strategically on that. I used to just think, yes -- let's get a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and now I think really we have to change our strategy, that the Republican part is the anti-abortion party.

But Republicans do a funny thing. Abortion is such an opposition- creator as a subject that they hate to take about it. So they talk about it very little. They talk about why they oppose it very little, but once a year they trot out this unpopular amendment which goes nowhere, you know? And I think we have it backwards and we really ought to talk more. And talk about why we are the anti-abortion party and why we are opposed to abortion, and then move legislatively. So that a change in strategy or tactics -- I forget which word is the right one. But still on abortion itself, I haven't changed. By the time you're in your mid-30s, you have your political views, and you may change little at the margins, but essentially you believe what you believe. You're a fully formed adult. And if you are you're probably not going to discover at age 42 that Maoism is the answer, you know?
LAMB: In your book, there are no pictures other than this picture on the cover. How come?
NOONAN: That was probably a mistake. We just never thought in terms of pictures because it wasn't a history, and it wasn't your basic "Was you there, Charlie?" sort of White House memoir. It sort of wasn't linear. I'm not even sure what I mean by that. Maybe I was thinking I was attempting to make the book literature, and pictures didn't seem right. But you know, people love to look at pictures, and people continually ask me why we didn't have them, so maybe we should've.
LAMB: And this picture of your son Will and you?
NOONAN: That's Willie, yes.
LAMB: And it's in the New York Times Review. Who took this, and why did you let them have this picture?
NOONAN: Well, it was a little impromptu. It's Sam Wilson or Jim Wilson -- I think it is Sam Wilson, a staff photographer for the New York Times, came over to my house. The Times called and said “We're running a review of your book at such and such a date, can we have a picture?” Now that's unusual. The Times will do that with maybe three books a week. When the photographer was there, my son woke up from his nap, and I went in and got him and brought him out. And he looked at the camera and the photographer said “Can I take a picture?” and I thought about it for a second and I said “Yeah.” I must tell you, figuring they wouldn't use it. But frequently photographers send you their leftovers, you know, that they don't use, and I'd get a beautiful professional photograph of me and Will. We were all quite surprised when they used it. But that was OK. Maybe because I like to look at my son.
LAMB: What does your son think of all this?
NOONAN: He's funny. He's 2 1/2, and the 2 1/2 year old mind is just a hoot. He's gotten used to seeing me in magazines now. There's been a lot of magazine publicity about the book. So when he sees a magazine now he brings it to me and says “Mom, what page are you on, 47?” He knows what a book is, cause they're on the bookshelves. He thinks now I've written all books, all of the books on our bookshelf, and all books in general. He feel that's what I've done, write the books. He brings them to me.
LAMB: We've got two more. One is the Washington Post, and this is a fellow by the name of Reed Bedow –
NOONAN: I don't know how to pronounce it.
LAMB: He's an assistant editor at Bookworld. "Putting Words in the President's Mouth." He says "It's an engaging book, the story of how a plucky and talented young person literally wrote her way into a previously all-male domain." Is that true, and why is it? And by the way, this is an illustration that the Washington Post has done. Why is it an all-male domain?
NOONAN: I think only because politics has been largely an all-male business, you know? Maybe also because young women who wanted to write in my generation mostly went into various kinds of journalism and reporting. It's almost an odd tick to want to write for other people as I did, but to write politically, you know? So that limits the number of people who go into the speech writing biz anyway. Most speechwriters do come from sort of the bowels of the campaign. They were one of the press office kids on the campaign plane. Or, you know they put in their time working for the political director of the campaign as an assistant. And speechwriting I think is given as sort of a job, sometimes as a plum, a reward. Campaigns are mostly male, so if you bring in guys from a campaign into a White House, you're going to have mostly male speechwriters. In the past few White Houses there's always been one woman speechwriter. Mari Maseng was the woman speechwriter before me. There was a wonderful Carter speechwriter whose name I cannot remember, but she was the only Carter speechwriter who was a woman. There was a Ford speechwriter who was a woman. There always seems to be one.
LAMB: Last review. David, or Dave, Shifflet, who is now the deputy editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News -- this is in the Wall Street Journal; he used to work for the Washington Times. This is one paragraph. I'm sure you've seen this one.
NOONAN: I have seen that one.
LAMB: He says he didn't really want to give you a good review. But he's going to give you a good review anyway. He says the fact is -- Peg. Anybody call you Peg?
NOONAN: No.
LAMB: Did you like that?
NOONAN: No, I thought it odd. I couldn't help but think: “Dave. Would you have done that to a boy, Dave?” I may be wrong to ask that question but it did cross my mind.
LAMB: "The fact is, Peg was one of the few people wearing pants in the White House. She was a raw meat gal."
NOONAN: That review is kind of schizophrenic, I thought. It was a generally approving and supportive review, written in a nasty snide tone. I have never seen such a review in my life.
LAMB: You know this man?
NOONAN: He says I took him to lunch once. And I didn't remember it, but a fellow nammed Phil Nicoledes who I worked with at the White House called me after this review and said "Peggy, I feel so sorry about this, but I'm the reason you took that guy to lunch. I know him and I walked by your office one day and you said `Come on over to the Mess, we'll have lunch together'" and he said it was my fault. So I told him I'd forgive him some day, but not soon.
LAMB: He does end it though, back to what we talked about earlier: "Unfortunately, the book ends with her moving to New York." Why do you think someone who say "unfortunately?" Is there a bias in this town against New York?
NOONAN: Oh, understandably. I think Washington thinks New York is not America, and Washington is right and New York isn't. New York is an island off the continent. In New York, of course, they think Washington is not America, Washington is an old gray company town, and that is also true. Maybe they have biases against each other, to an extent. But then again everybody on the shuttle is jolly everyday, so there you are.
LAMB: Will your book have any impact -- we just have a few minutes left. You think on what White House's think about speechwriters and do they worry ... Did you take notes when you were there?
NOONAN: Oh, yes, very much so. When I first jointed the White House, William Safire, the old Nixon hand speechwriter, took me aside and said “Keep notes every day.” And I said “Oh, I'm working so hard, I don't have time.” He said “No, every day, even if its a sentence. Write it down, put it in the bottom left-hand drawer of your desk. Sooner or later you're going to have something.” I can't say I did it every day, but I did it a lot. It was very good advice.
LAMB: Is there a lot in this book from those notes?
NOONAN: Oh yes, very much so. I had whole files full of notes, I kept a diary, I did all that stuff. Kept notes on everything the President had ever said to me. Sometimes written on napkins, literally, because it was what I had around when he was on the phone. I hope that changes the position of the speechwriter in politics. I'll tell you, that would be important. At the very least, I hope it convinces campaign aides if they're not good, someone may write about them, you know?
LAMB: Is there anybody you know of in the Bush White House that is keeping notes and plans to write a book someday?
NOONAN: At least half of the Bush White House is keeping notes. I know that, without having asked, you know? I don't know of anyone who wants to write a book, or who has thought about it, but I can imagine a number who would.
LAMB: "What I Saw at the Revolution" is the title of the book, and author Peggy Noonan our guest for the last hour. Thank you very much for spending this time with us.
NOONAN: Thank you, Brian. This was fun. I appreciate it.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.