Peggy Noonan : The Woman Who Gave Presidents the Word

<i> Cokie Roberts is the congressional correspondent for National Public Radio news and special correspondent for ABC news. The interview was conducted in Roberts' office at ABC's Washington bureau</i>

Since the summer night in New Orleans when he accepted the Republican nomination for President, two terms have followed George Bush: “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler nation.” They have provided fodder for cartoonists and columnists, served as inspiration to faithful followers, been used ironically by fierce foes. But they have not been forgotten. They are the product of Peggy Noonan’s pen.

The 39-year old former speech writer started putting words in the mouths of famous men as a writer for CBS Radio, where, she writes in her best-selling book, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” she was trotted out as the house oddity--the conservative.

Though Noonan grew up as one of seven children in an Irish Catholic family where Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy numbered among the household gods, she became convinced that it was the Republican Party that spoke for working-class families with strong religious beliefs--families like hers. Then came Ronald Reagan and Noonan found inspiration. She conspired to get to the White House and, in 1984, succeeded, making the odd transition from writing for Dan Rather to writing for Reagan.

In her book, Noonan describes with some humor the prats and pitfalls she took in her first months as the “woman speech writer.” But eventually she settled in to write some of the most memorable and goose-bump provoking addresses that Reagan ever gave, including his tribute at Normandy to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” and his response to the Challenger disaster. When Bush formally moved into the presidential campaign, he threw his hat into the ring with Noonan’s words. Bush then turned to her for the other moments when the nation would be listening: the acceptance speech in New Orleans and the Inaugural Address on the steps of the Capitol.


That day, the chairs in the reserved section held signs for the specially invited dignitaries. One said “Peggy Noonan,” another “Mr. Noonan.” In fact, “Mr. Noonan” is Richard Rahn, an economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He and Peggy are now separated and she lives in New York with their son, Will.

Question: You talk a lot about the male culture in this town in the book, the men in Congress who are fighting with each other in the committee and then leaning over to each other and saying, “Check out the one in row three, look at those legs.”

Answer: Washington is a power place. The magnet is power. The little bits of metal that the magnet collects are people who really want power, believe in power. They have been historically, as you may have noticed, men. So if it’s a power town, it’s a bunch of guys. If it’s a power town, it’s a guy town. Well, if it’s a guy town then there will be a certain amount of bonding done around the issue of, say, sexual sameness. “We’re boys. Did you see a girl coming down the hall, let’s make a joke about the girl--does she have good gams?” So there is that, the chauvinism in Washington comes out very understandably.

I think it’s a little bit like chauvinism in the Catholic Church, in that “Hey, this has been, excuse me, a male bastion for a long time, and we are simply not used to having a lot of women here. And it’s going to take us a while to readjust. And some of us will readjust a little clumsily, some of us will feel a little bit inadequate and to cover our sense of inadequacy, we will sometimes make women feel bad. . . .”

Q: When you came, did you take the woman speech-writer slot?

A: I did. I didn’t know it was called that until I’d been hired. Until I was there my first week, and then I was introduced by a fellow speech writer as, “Hello, this is Peggy Noonan. She got the woman speech-writer’s job.” And I was appalled. I thought he was going for a joke. I thought it was like he was showing solidarity with me. “We’re both young, we’re both hip, we laugh at sexism.” But he was not going for a joke. And that’s how they looked at it, because for a few Administrations there had been historically one woman speech writer. I don’t know why. There just was.

Q: And was she supposed to do all the sort of touchy-feely things in the speeches? Was she supposed to deal with children and Mother’s Day, or was she supposed to just be there as the token woman on the staff?

A: I don’t know. When you’re hired as a speech writer, you’re there to work; they don’t have room for a token. I don’t know what it was like in the past, but when I worked at the White House my immediate superior was Ben (Bentley) Elliott, who brought me in, not because I was a woman, but because he was swamped by all of the speeches he had to do, and he wanted me to take a major part in them, and take a major share of them.

Q: You had the experience as the woman speech writer of being asked to write speeches for the First Lady . . . and you chose not to do that.

A: Yes, I chose not to do that.

Q: Why was that so important?

A: It took me a few weeks to sort of scope out, “Wow, it is kind of different to be a woman here. And, it is not necessarily in your interest to be a woman here.” And I gathered that speech-writing itself was a highly competitive shop and that there was a lot of competition going on in the White House, a lot of competitiveness between groups and offices and such.

And I felt that if I, as the only woman speech writer, wrote some speeches for the First Lady, I would become pegged as the First Lady’s woman speech writer, and I would never be given any more serious assignments. Like when Reagan went away on a big trip and had a big speech, I thought, “Oh, boy, they’ll never give me those speeches now. They’ll give me the First Lady’s speech to the women’s club.”

I just didn’t want that, so I said no. It was just not what I came to the White House for. And I was willing to not work at the White House if I had to do that. This is not to suggest I mean to denigrate a First Lady’s speeches or the groups she speaks to. But I was aware that that was not really where the action was. OK.

Q: Did you suffer any repercussions?

A: Well, the Reagan White House was an interesting place. There was a considerable amount of intrigue. There was a considerable amount of back-stabbing. There were a lot of tong wars.

One of the things that I thought was interesting about the Reagan White House was that sometimes you could die and no one would tell you. You’d notice after six months nobody had given you a serious assignment and nothing good had happened to you. And you’d realize, “I am one of the walking dead. And no one told me, I guess I’d better leave.”

I got the impression, it was very subtle, but I did get the impression that I had made a major faux pas, and done nothing to help my career by getting the First Lady’s chief of staff and the First Lady herself irritated with me. And as I say in the book, I did not handle it in the best way possible. I was not politically astute, both because of anger and because of a sort of bumptious lack of knowledge.

Q: One of the things that surprises me is you also say that in going to CBS you had the experience which I had had more than 10 years before, of men saying, “You’re not authoritative enough to be on the air.” I thought by the time you were there and some of us were on the air that was over.

A: No, and that was about 1977-78 that he said that to me. He was a major news director for a major CBS O&O; (owned & operated station). He had heard about me through a former boss of mine who said of me, “This is a young woman who can write.” Writing, as you know, on radio is a lot of the anchor’s art. So they auditioned me because I was a writer and after that audition, I must say, the news director was very blunt with me. He said, quote, “Your voice, it has no balls.” That was like 13 years ago. I still don’t know what the proper snappy reply is to that . . . .

Q: I’m enough older than you that for our generation we all heard that. But I really did think that it had changed.

A: Well I ran into it too. Want to know something? It has changed. I know it’s changed. It was better in ’77 than it was for you in ’72 or ’66 or whatever. But you know what, as long as--I was just going to say as long as men run networks there will always be this problem.

But do you want to know something funny? If more women were in high executive slots and picking on-air talent . . . oddly enough, I think a woman executive would tend toward males with authoritative personas. You know, I still do. I--that may be an awfully sexist thing for me to say, but somehow I would think that even if women moved into the top executive slots, it would not necessarily advance women in media. . . .

Q: Are you a feminist?

A: I don’t know. I get asked that a lot. Look, we all have our biases. I am not sure I am a feminist. I think I am a female chauvinist, however. Now, that’s different than a feminist, but a female chauvinist cannot help it. She has this bias that, by and large, women are better than men. I’m sorry. Please note I said I’m sorry. I mean it’s not a nice thing to say but you know it is my bias. So there you are.

Q: I think it’s one most women would agree with, however. But why, when you say that, are you hesitant about the word feminist? What does it imply to you that you don’t embrace it?

A: A political agenda that I do not embrace. To call oneself a feminist now is to become inevitably associated with say the National Organization--is it “for” Women or “of” Women, I always forget?

Q: It’s “for.”

A: For Women. The National Organization for Women. And their political agenda which, excuse me, is way to left of where I am. Or to become say, to suggest implicitly that you support the ERA (equal-rights amendment), which I don’t.

Actually I am afraid I am one of those women who thinks that she has seen women gain so much through the feminist wave that began in the mid-'60s and that we are still enjoying. But I have seen us lose a lot too. And I think some of the women who lost things are not women that the leaders of the feminist movement are thinking about.

You cannot go into a county courthouse in America and walk in unannounced on, say, a divorce trial, a child-custody trial, and not get the sense that the marvelous feminist spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s has in fact hurt some women--mostly women who can’t afford to protect themselves with expensive lawyers. But you find that a woman who’s leaving a guy, she doesn’t have much money, he has some more. They decide they’re going to fight about the kids. It was once assumed in America that mom gets the kids. It is not anymore. Is that progress? No, but I am the only one of my friends who believes that.

I was very moved by the women fighting in Panama. I like having women in the U.S. armed forces. I like it that they’re brave and resourceful and talented and I want them to get a lot of medals. I do not ever want women drafted in America--ever. Now, I don’t know, would Gloria Steinem say, “Uh-oh, 10 points off your feminist score. Wrong position.” I think she would. I think it is the quote “wrong position.” But it is definitely my position. . . .

As for her job--writing in the President’s voice--Noonan felt the differences in writing for Ronald Reagan and George Bush:

A: He (Reagan) had a beautiful voice, a really beautiful and distinctive, lovely old Midwestern voice. And he had a warmth to his nature that made him find anecdotes that expressed his views. Perfectly congenial for him, and I think that the voice and the warmth had something to do with the actor’s art.

Q: Well, that’s a lot like writing for radio.

A: It was a little. You know I used to write for Charles Osgood. With his lovely warmth and he had a similar almost a proto-avuncular voice and style. . . . We’re getting back to the old authority questions in a way, they spoke with a certain--to call it a moral authority would be too much. But there was a certain obvious integrity in them that radiated through those airways.

Q: Bush does not have a beautiful voice. How was it different to write for that voice?

A: Oh, you know there’s an old phrase, they’re as different as chalk and cheese. They are. Bush does not love the oratorical part of his presidency. He loves the pushing of the levers in the Oval Office. And then being on the phone. He does not massage a speech the way Reagan did. Reagan would get his hands around it, you know. You could almost see his print marks on it when you saw the text after he’d given it.

Bush’s personal conversational style and his public speaking style has more to do with short bursts of words and thought, of fragments, sometimes fragments of sentences, fragments of thoughts. Almost more the suggestion of thoughts than the statement of thoughts. He was harder to write for in many ways and easier in a few. . . .

Ronald Reagan is publicly a sentimental man. But privately there was a certain coolness to him. Publicly, Bush is not comfortable with sentiment.

An example: I once worked with him on funeral remarks when (Justice) Potter Stewart died and Potter Stewart was a very close friend of Bush. Bush was giving the eulogy, or one of the eulogies, at the service for Potter Stewart. We had worked on the remarks, I gave them to him that morning. He looked over them in the car on the way to the church and he started to cry and so did his wife. And he said, “I can’t say this.”

That never would have happened with Reagan. Bush couldn’t say it because he knew he’d cry in public, and he didn’t want to do that. It just never would have happened with Reagan, as you know. So he got up there, and he just winged it. He took certain pieces of it, and then just told anecdotes, did it as quickly as he could and left. Because in a way his heart is more on his sleeve than Reagan, although it does not appear to be so. It’s a funny thing. . . .

Q: Is there anybody you listen to now, in public life and say, “Gee, I’d like to write his or her speeches?”

A: No. Not because there aren’t some really good people out there, but only because I do not feel the desire to write speeches anymore. Arthur Schlesinger said, “Nobody should write speeches over 40.” And he was right, it’s a kid’s game. It’s really for when you’re in your early and mid-'30s. I think that’s when the best speech writers are throwing their best fastballs. And then, if you’re a writer, you should go on and become another kind of writer and do other kinds of things and really write in your own voice. So there, so I never think about it. You know I never see anybody and think, “Oh I’d love to write her stuff or his stuff.”