A Speechifier in Her Own Write : WHAT I SAW AT THE REVOLUTION A Political Life in the Reagan Era <i> by Peggy Noonan (Random House: $19.95; 346 pp.; 0-394-56495-2) </i>

<i> Klinghoffer, formerly assistant literary editor of National Review, now writes about popular culture for the Washington Times</i>

Even among conservatives, Peggy Noonan, the celebrated Reagan speech writer, continues to draw mixed reactions. Was she a sinner or a savior? Opinions differ.

When excerpts from this memoir appeared last October in the New York Times Magazine, the ensuing publicity earned the author an immediate censure in National Review--possibly Reagan’s most loyal supporter in all of journalism. As the magazine’s anonymous editorial writer put it: “There is a stern moral here for present and future Presidents . . . when you hire a speech writer of this moral character, lock up the silverware and keep your hand on your wallet.” Reading “What I Saw at the Revolution” will give you a pretty clear idea of what it is that makes Noonan such an ambivalent figure. And not just for conservatives, either.

Keep in mind, first, that political speech writers are supposed to do their jobs quietly and without notice. After all, when a speech writer takes credit for his efforts, the man he works for necessarily loses some degree of credibility. This is bad form.


During her two years in the Reagan White House, and a later stint as a free-lancer for President Bush, Noonan found her way around that old-fashioned ethical code. She was, for example, the first working speech writer to score a celebrity profile in Esquire magazine--under the headline, “Who Puts the Words in the President’s Mouth?” And now the follow-up: a full-blown celebrity-style memoir taking credit for most every noteworthy ink mark to emerge from her word processor--from speeches for Reagan marking the Challenger disaster and the anniversary of D-Day to such phrases for Bush as “kinder, gentler,” “read my lips” and “a thousand points of light.”

“What I Saw at the Revolution” tells you a lot of things you probably never wondered about Noonan: about her vintage ‘60s childhood on Long Island, her failed marriage to a distinguished gentleman with an eye patch. Unfortunately, she never quite explains how a speech writer like herself managed to become an inside-the-beltway star nearly on the order of big-name insiders like Michael Deaver and Donald Regan.

Her former White House colleagues will tell you (or anyway they told me when I was researching a story on the subject a few months ago) that Noonan courted the press, regularly lunched with reporters, on occasion gave off-the-record advance notice that she had written a speech a day before the speech was actually given. How else to explain those mysterious leaks to the press that have, in Noonan’s account, repeatedly linked her name with some of the most successful presidential utterances of the last few years?

Noonan’s reluctance to be completely candid is probably the most irritating thing about this book. There’s always something you feel she’s neglected to tell you. Like why it was she became such a reviled figure around the West Wing, harassed at her every step, she says, by Nancy Reagan, Maureen Reagan, Don Regan, Don Regan’s aides (whom she tells us she called “the mice,” an epithet that--surprise!--found its way into Newsweek) plus fellow speech writers, members of the National Security Council, and others?

What’s likely is that her colleagues found her, as will her readers, a somewhat difficult personality. There are really at least two Peggy Noonans at odds here. One is a kind of shivering jelly of resentments and insecurities, alternately decrying the “movement” conservatives in the Administration (“creepy little men with creepy little beards”), railing against the foreign-policy Establishment’s legion of “Mr. Harvardheads,” etc. The other is Peggy Noonan the self-styled policy-maker. This one suffers from what, in others, she calls “the attitude.” A person with “the attitude” sees the politician he works for as a mere front man for the more intelligent members of his staff. Or, as Noonan puts it, “A speech writer is obviously not free to invent out of whole cloth, but--by articulating the policy he invents it .” This is a little high-handed.

Happily, though, an angry, arrogant writer also can be a terrifically entertaining one. In fact, if you’re not the type to get too worked up over the hard-packed details of White House policy-making (in which Noonan clearly was not involved), then this may be the Reagan memoir you’ll want to read.


What separates Noonan from competing White House memoirists--Donald Regan, Michael Deaver, Nancy Reagan, Larry Speakes--is that she indicts her enemies not on the usual charges of venality and ineptitude but above all, for their failures of taste.

These arise principally in what’s called the “staffing” process, about which Noonan has a great deal to say. All speeches submitted to the President, we’re told, must first pass through staffing, during which as many as 50 tone-deaf policy hacks are encouraged to edit the work of professional speechwriters. This creates innumerable frustrations. Like bad writers everywhere, White House bureaucrats adore cliches (one “pudgy, young NSC mover” ordered Noonan to change the last words in the Challenger speech from “touch the face of God” to “reach out and touch someone--touch the face of God,” plus cheesy rhetorical tricks of all kinds (Deaver couldn’t resist alliteration, and favored the letter p, as in ‘prepared for peace,’ ‘pride and purpose,’ etc.”).

In time, the President’s poll-takers began offering advice too. One of them, Dick Wirthlin, deputized groups of citizens (called “focus groups”) to listen to the President recite his State of the Union speech, and, while they listened, to press a button if they heard a phrase they liked. Wirthlin then instructed the President’s speech writers to take the most popular phrases and make sure to include them in subsequent speeches.

In other words, what brings out the nastiest, and the best, in Noonan is language-abuse--in particular, language-abuse on the part of federal bureaucrats. The two Reagan Administrations are supposed to have worked a revolution in government. Certainly, though, they left the values and parlance of bureaucracy intact.

Thus Noonan observes of National Security Adviser Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane: “I had a hunch McFarlane decided long ago, as young people sometimes do, that intelligent people speak in an incomprehensible manner. He adopted the style. In time, he was no more capable of a simple public utterance than of a private one, so that when dining with his wife, he presumably would not say, ‘Pass the butter’ but rather ‘The stationary oleaginous object which is now not within my grasp or the grasp of others within this administration would be desirable, though not necessary, within my sphere and on my muffin.’ ” Likewise McFarlane’s colleague, Oliver North, who we’re told said things like “And don’t forget this (memo) is in accord conversation Casey-North approximately fifteen hundred this date .”

In one respect, Noonan seems to be asking us to consider whether the Reagan revolution ever really happened. It was one of the great promises of Ronald Reagan’s presidency that it would clear out the culture of Washington bureaucracy--of which the language of Bud McFarlane and Oliver North has been a principal underpinning. Viewed from this perspective, the revolution failed. Noonan’s peculiarities aside, her book is a lively portrait of that failure.