Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan has a way with words. She was a Reagan speechwriter, after all. Words slip off her tongue with a thoughtful panache not unlike Barack Obama’s and, to paraphrase Salon’s always astute Gary Kamiya, a Whitmanesque lyricism. In her latest Wall Street Journal column, Noonan sketches a reasonable portrait of Obama as president. I urge you to read it in full, but in short, she praises Obama’s gustiness, steadiness and judgment. She writes: “When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd ’I have no comment,’ or ’We shouldn’t judge.’ Instead he said, ’My mother had me when she was 18,’ which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn’t have to.”
On John McCain, she offered a reluctant, perhaps too optimistic, assessment of the Republican nominee’s failed campaign. Two former U.S. senators (and McCain adversaries) with which Noonan shared a drink in a hotel last month told the journalist of their admiration for McCain’s patriotism. They said he’s running for president not because of personal ambition but because he wants to help the country. It’s something I, too, believe and have said as much on this very blog. But there are things more important than simply being a patriot. A leader must have the judgment to know who to surround himself with, the temperament to know when to exercise his authority, the organization to win. McCain, it’s become apparent, lacks all three. It’s unfortunate, really, but more tragic is the lack of control he seems to have over his campaign, as well as his own faculties. The McCain of 2000 seems to have been hijacked by the neoconservative movement, which is now running both his party and his campaign.
Though Noonan’s piece is clearly an acquiescence to an Obama victory, it’s also a last-ditch scare tactic, published on Halloween no less: “Conservatives must honor prudence, and ask if the circumstances accompanying an Obama victory will encourage the helpful moderation and nonpartisan spirit [Colin Powell, William Weld and Charles Fried, among others] attempt, in their endorsements, to demonstrate.” Despite Noonan’s gracious assessment of Obama and his campaign, she clearly can’t wrap her head around his broad appeal, his unwillingness to attack the Republican party en masse, his awareness that he will, in fact, need them to accomplish his goals. Obama isn’t campaigning in Iowa, Indiana, Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Virginia because he thinks more Democratic voters will suddenly materialize in those traditionally red states; he thinks his message reaches across party lines. It’s the epitome of the moderation and nonpartisan spirit of which Noonan espouses and the antithesis of what George W. Bush brought to Washington eight years ago. It’s also indicative of how Obama will likely and hopefully lead as president.
I might agree with her on the issue of divided government, on the importance of checks and balances, but it will require an undivided Democratic government to undo the damage—and make no mistake, that’s exactly what they have caused: damage, of the most reckless, gratuitous kind—of an undivided Republican government. Two years of a figuratively Democratic-controlled Congress battling—or more accurately, being complicit with—Bush’s failed policies has garnered virtually no progress. If a fully Democratic government, created by two landslide elections in a row, doesn’t speak to Noonan’s delicately conservative sensibilities, she has only her own blessed party to blame.
The remainder of Noonan’s article unravels in a blinding puff of archaic, conservative dust, suggesting that Obama’s stance on social issues, like abortion, is “suggestive of radical departures. ’That’s above my pay grade.’ Friend, that is your pay grade, that’s where the presidency lives, in issues like that.” Ms. Noonan, friend, we clearly disagree on the location in which the presidency dwells, and Obama and the Democrats have routinely stressed that, despite their rivals’ attempts to paint them as “pro-abortion,” their goal is to reduce the number of abortions. Clinton’s “safe, legal and rare” approach to the issue, which Noonan praises, is, along with the “health of the mother,” the objective of all pro-choice advocates on both sides of the aisle. Obama’s admission that he does not, in fact, presume to know when “life” begins is not, as Noonan says, an abstraction fueled by an “intelligent mind” (there’s a reason thinking with your heart or gut is illogical and physiologically impossible), and it’s not “cold.” It’s called humility. The lack of which will likely find Republicans enduring yet another routing at the polls on Tuesday.
In his assessment of the GOP, Kamiya observes: “Noonan believes that conservative Americans have been waging a heroic battle for these Republican-associated virtues for decades. But she never quite reconciles the fact that the last 40-plus years have been dominated by Republican presidents and policies. Apparently ’the age,’ like a Spenglerian villain, works its evil, values-corroding magic independently of whatever party is actually in power.” What Noonan would like to believe is God’s fluctuating influence on history is in actuality called progress. And like her party, she’s fighting it with every fiber of her being.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.