“Even a child is known by his doings.”
—Proverbs 20:11

This book is at once a strange object and a peculiar event. To touch on the latter for a moment, it was excerpted before publication in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which chose with an unerring eye those passages most damaging to Ronald Reagan and his administration. Using those same passages, Reagan-loathers such as Joan Didion and Wilfrid Sheed much enjoyed themselves in print. Yet Noonan’s book does contain many other passages expressing a kaleidoscope of attitudes toward Reagan, many of them highly favorable. One reflects, however, that Noonan must have approved of the selection published in the Times, corrected the galleys, and so forth. She is smart enough to have known what the Times was up to. Why did she put up with it? To get her face on the cover of the Times Magazine? Was this, in the famous words of Orwell’s parody, another case of “Under the spreading chestnut tree, / I sold you, and you sold me?” Is personal publicity really the ultimate value for Peggy Noonan?

But before we return to the subject of this book as an event, let us consider it as an object, about which a great many things can be said.

One experiences in What I Saw at the Revolution an extreme discontinuity; the book is like a smashed mirror. To change metaphors, it reads as if its author had had a dozen errant bowling balls colliding constantly between her ears while it was in composition. The text seethes with contradictory resentments. Noonan’s background, about which we learn much more than is interesting, was lower-middle-class. While standing on that particular platform she does her populist routine, a kind of public hate (to borrow from Orwell again) against the smooth types and “Harvardheads” who surrounded her at the White House. But there are also moments when she expresses deep loathing of the culture in which she was raised.

[The men] are not wearing their uniforms—for this one is a conductor on the Long Island Rail Road and that one is a cop in the city and this one is a foreman at Grumman—but are dressed in stiff khaki slacks and a zippered jacket from when they were in Korea. Their skin is blue-white. They look soft and lost without their uniforms.

I suppose the reader will wonder whether their skin was really “bluewhite,” though perhaps there is something strange about the drinking water in Noonan’s hometown of Massapequa. Anyway, there is worse to come:

And everyone had Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and read them and the women had coffee klatches late in the morning and there was a round of swirl of Entenmann’s coffee cake and they would leave deep red lipstick marks on the coffee cups and they wore pedal pushers and bounced babies on their freckled knees and gossiped about . . . what?

Those red lipstick marks and those freckled knees perfectly express Noonan’s loathing, adding just the extra touch to the other details of her own . . . superiority.

The amount of loathing in this book is extraordinary, perhaps even pathological, and it is always expressed in terms of taste or aesthetics: “Wherever the president was his top staff was. They’d sit there in a row in his office like frogs on a log.” And here is Noonan’s (quite clever) mockery of her White House colleagues, expressed in a parody of their lingo:

You had a notion instead of a thought and a dustup instead of a fight, you had a can-do attitude and you were in touch with the Zeitgeist [sic]. No one had intentions they had an agenda and no one was wrong they were fundamentally wrong and you didn’t work on something you broke your pick on it and it wasn’t an agreement it was a done deal.

That is pretty funny, and recognizable, but not exactly dripping with charity and fellowship. It is in the mode of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, if one wishes to compare the great with the microscopic.

The comparison with Flaubert reminds me of another peculiar quality of Noonan’s book, with its range of reference to movie and TV figures. She has read Hemingway and even thinks Thomas Wolfe was a good writer, but she much more comfortably refers for illustration and comparison to pop-cult figures who are at best marginal to the adult consciousness. As she herself puts it, “No one has lived for and been immersed in the ephemera of the entertainment era like my generation.” Speak for yourself, Peggy. Reading her prose is like taking Eliot’s Waste Land, subtracting the allusions to Dante and Shakespeare and the rest, and substituting references to Johnny Carson and Robert Redford. The reader experiences a sort of cultural decompression.

It must also be said that What I Saw at the Revolution is the most narcissistic item to come along since Milton’s Eve gazed at her kisser in the reflecting water and decided that she was beautiful. The repetition of the pronoun “I” sounds at first like hailstones on a tin roof and finally, from relentless repetition, like machine-gun bullets hitting a wall. The shift from ice to hot lead occurred to this reader as early as page six:

I was so swept away that when my fifth-grade teacher. Miss Scott, told my mother I didn’t do my homework, I explained, seriously, that I was too busy with the [Kennedy] campaign.

This degree of self-regard is always on the threshold of taking offense:

A few weeks later I was walking through the East Wing when I saw the first lady and her entourage coming my way. I’d never met her and didn’t know if I was supposed to look at her and make eye contact and say hello or leave her to her privacy, of which she had not had much these many years. I decided to look to see if I could see anything interesting in her eyes. She looked at me in a way that seemed to have no meaning. Then she looked down at what I was wearing which was, unfortunately, a wrinkled khaki skirt and a blue workshirt and heavy walking shoes with white woolen socks. Not exactly White House issue, but I was going walking. She looked me up and down and I swear her mouth curled. She looked away and said something to an aide. The next time I saw her I hid behind a pillar.

Count these personal pronouns. Wonder about that attire. Meditate upon the thoughts and emotions attributed to Nancy Reagan. And what are we to make of Noonan’s presumption in judging that Mrs. Reagan had “no meaning” in her eyes?

Of course, given this narcissistic sensibility, nothing is ever good enough for Peggy Noonan. Like most people who work in “The White House,” she actually was installed in the old Executive Office Building. Not good enough:

They gave me an office that faced a courtyard that never got the sun. I could look out and see the exhaust system of the EOB. An old radiator hissed forlornly, carrying into my office the metallic rumblings of the deepest insides of the old Victorian building. It was dank and clanked.

Yet the old Executive Office Building was good enough for Secretary of State Cordell Hull and for Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, and it’s a helluva long way from Massapequa.

Though there can be no doubt that Noonan possesses some talent as a speechwriter, still she is not favorably recalled by her colleagues. She claims to have originated George Bush’s “thousand points of light” phrase; others, however, trace it to an article in Crisis magazine. They dispute, too, her claim to the words Reagan bestowed on the Challenger catastrophe. Now, most official speeches result from a collaboration and are not ordinarily the work of a single ghost. The bad feelings among her former colleagues come from the fact that Noonan, in leaks to the media, imperialistically claimed personal authorship.

What I Saw at the Revolution is, in major aspect, novelistic: “Bill Bennett, who walks in thinking Holy smokes, I’m in the White House. I am a member of the Cabinet of the United States, holy smokes!” And for its fictional aspect, this book should have been signed “Peggy Bronte.” Its pervasive plot amounts to “Reagan didn’t love me,” which becomes rather embarrassing, as when Peggy Noonan writes, “there was a childlike quality to his robust self-regard, an innocence even to his sin.” To his what? The only Reagan “sin” to be documented in the book is Reagan’s insufficient appreciation of you-know-who:

He was at his desk. He came toward me warm as ever; he hardly seemed aged. Does he remember me? I think so but am not sure.

Mr. Rochester, please call your office. There is a message from Miss Eyre.

And the following must be about the strangest conversation ever to have taken place in the Oval Office. In it, Noonan is questioning the President of the United States:

“Do you ever feel like the boy in the bubble?”


“Who was that?”

“The boy who had no immune system, so he had to live in a plastic bubble where he could see everyone and they could see him, but there was something between him and the people, the plastic. He couldn’t touch them.”

“Well, no.”

At least in part of her disordered mind, Reagan does not measure up to Noonan’s idea of presidential greatness: “Where is the anguish that usually comes with greatness?”

Well, to hell with the anguish. Let Paul Muni play the Reagan part. It occurs to the reader that George Washington, though often angry, was never, so far as we know, “anguished.” No, Reagan simply does not measure up for Noonan. No anguish.

And yet, as a youngish conservative, she does admire Reagan’s undoubted accomplishments, as in the following weird sentence:

And Reagan? I knew he’d done more good for our country in six years than any president since Roosevelt.

But wait a minute: just what were Roosevelt’s accomplishments? Certainly not ending the Depression; the war did that. Historians are somewhat at a loss to delineate FDR’s “greatness.” I can only suppose that Peggy Noonan is talking not about the historical Franklin Roosevelt, but about some movie or TV version of him.

But though she deems Reagan to have accomplished much, there are moments when her unrequited love—or her desperate need to be noticed and appreciated—turns to fury:

There were times when I would see the earnest young people in the middle levels of the administration trying to get someone to listen to their thoughts, fighting to advance ideas that were not country club [sic] but human and compassionate, and see the sunny president who did not seem to know or notice, and I would think to myself (if I was tired enough, frustrated enough) that the battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.

This spasm has as its premise the notion that Reagan did not have a mind of his own, that he had to be instructed by people like Noonan. In actuality, Reagan possessed several large and clear ideas, and had possessed them since he decided to enter active politics more than forty years ago.

Today, Peggy Noonan is persona non grata at the Bush White House, and for good reason. She may be the worst thing to have passed within the pearly gates since the palmy days of Cordon Liddy and John Dean. Her exploitation of her minor role in the Reagan administration is regarded by professionals as an unprincipled outrage, a gross violation of the code of the speechwriter, which insists that the said writer submit to being a spectral one: the speech belongs to the public figure who delivers it. In his review of What I Saw at the Revolution, another former speechwriter, Aram Bakshian, observed that while on the job Noonan had a “canine” hunger for publicity. She courted the press, leaked her speech assignments, and determinedly became a Beltway media star. As former LBJ speechwriter Ben Wattenberg has written by way of lampooning her, “Extra: Extra: President to read Glotz’s speech tonight.” Now we learn that the speech was not always by “Glotz.” (“Glotz” was the first presidential speechwriter to star in an Esquire celebrity profile, legs over a couch arm, thus providing what was apparently the last straw for then Chief of Staff Don Regan.)

“There was terrible bad blood in the speechwriters’ shop at the White House.” Thus, in a note to me, wrote an official by far superior in rank to Noonan at the time. Not surprisingly, a publicity monger like Noonan had plenty of non-admirers in the West Wing, and in this book she returns their loathing with interest. By contrast, my own experience as a speechwriter was one of immense camaraderie: we wrote speeches for Reagan or Nixon and went out for beers. But Peggy Noonan was not a player on those teams.

When an editorial in National Review sternly criticized her for violating the anonymity code of the professional speechwriter, a former member of the profession (and one who was, by the way, much more significant in it than Noonan) wrote to me personally as follows:

Rumor has it that you authored the National Review piece re Peggy Noonan’s book. If so, you should know that more than a few people believe you are right on target.


More than one reporter has remarked to me that nothing like this phenomenon of self-promotion has been seen before—even acknowledging that speechwriters are a more prominent lot than they used to be.

You—and they—are right. In any event, you’ve said the empress has no clothes. Don’t expect any parades in your honor.

After the editorial appeared, Peggy Noonan’s Beltway claque went bananas. Whether Noonan has clothes or not, she obviously remains an empress for at least some Washington conservatives.

It remains only to add that the narcissistic photograph of Noonan printed on the dust jacket of this book inescapably reminds this reader of Jack Nicholson at his typewriter in The Shining.


[What I Saw at the Revolution, by Peggy Noonan (New York: Random House) 353 pp., $19.95]