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Life at Court

What I Saw At the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era Magazine on October 12)

by Peggy Noonan
Random House

Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir

photographs by Jean Howard, text by James Watters
Abrams, 248 pp., $39.95

My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan

by Nancy Reagan, with William Novak
Random House, 384 pp., $21.95

At Reagan’s Side

by Helene von Damm
Doubleday, 341 pp., $18.95

Behind the Scenes

by Michael K. Deaver, with Mickey Herskowitz
William Morrow, 272 pp., $17.95

Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches

by Ronald Reagan
Simon and Schuster, 432 pp., $24.95

Ronald Reagan, we are told by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, spent his time off-camera answering some fifty letters a week, selected by the people in charge of his mail operation, from citizens. He put the family pictures these citizens sent him in his pockets and desk drawers. When he did not have the zip code he apologized to his secretary for not looking it up himself. He sharpened his own pencils, we are told by Helene von Damm, his secretary first in Sacramento and then in Washington, and he also got his own coffee.

In the recent rush to establish that we knew all along about this peculiarity in the Reagan White House, we forget the actual peculiarity of the place, which had to do less with the absence at the center than with the amount of centrifugal energy this absence left spinning free at the edges. The Reagan White House was one in which great expectations were allowed into play. Ardor, of a kind that only rarely survives a fully occupied Oval Office, flourished unchecked. “You’d be in someone’s home and on the way to the bathroom you’d pass the bedroom and see a big thick copy of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times lying half open on the table by the bed,” Peggy Noonan, who gave Ronald Reagan the boys of Pointe du Hoc and the Challenger crew slipping the surly bonds of earth, and who gave George Bush the thousand points of light and the kinder, gentler nation, tells us in What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. “Three months later you’d go back and it was still there,” she adds.

There were words. 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. 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. All politics is local but more to the point all economics is micro. There were phrases: personnel is policy and ideas have consequences and ideas drive politics and it’s a war of ideas…and to do nothing is to endorse the status quo and roll back the Brezhnev Doctrine and there’s no such thing as free lunch, especially if you’re dining with the press.

Peggy Noonan arrived in Washington in 1984, thirty-three years old, out of Brooklyn and Massapequa, Long Island, and then Fairleigh Dickinson and CBS radio, where she had written Dan Rather’s five-minute radio commentaries. A few years later, when Rather told her that in lieu of a Christmas present he wanted to make a donation to her favorite charity, the charity she specified was The William J. Casey Fund for the Nicaraguan Resistance. She did not immediately, or for some months later, meet the man for whose every public utterance she and the other staff writers were responsible; at the time she checked into the White House, no speech writer had spoken to Mr. Reagan in more than a year. “We wave to him,” one said.

In the absence of an actual president, this resourceful child of a large Irish Catholic family sat in her office in the Old Executive Office Building and invented an ideal one: she read Vachel Lindsay (particularly “I brag and chant of Bryan Bryan Bryan / Candidate for President who sketched a silver Zion”), and she read Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whom she pictured, again ideally, up in Duchess County “sitting at a great table with all the chicks, eating a big spring lunch of beefy red tomatoes and potato salad and mayonnaise and deviled eggs on the old china with the flowers almost rubbed off”) and she thought, “this is how Reagan should sound.”

What Miss Noonan had expected Washington to be, she tells us, was “Aaron Copland and ‘Appalachian Spring.”’ What she found instead was a populist revolution trying to make itself, a crisis of raised expectations and lowered possibilities, the children of an expanded middle class determined to tear down the established order and what they saw as its repressive liberal orthodoxies.

There were libertarians whose girl-friends had just given birth to their sons, hoisting a Coors with social conservatives who walked into the party with a wife who bothered to be warm and a son who carried a Mason jar of something daddy grew in the back yard. There were Protestant fundamentalists hoping they wouldn’t be dismissed by neocon intellectuals from Queens and neocons talking to fundamentalists thinking: I wonder if when they look at me they see what Annie Hall’s grand-mother saw when she looked down the table at Woody Allen.

She stayed at the White House until the spring of 1986, when she was more or less forced out by the refusal of Donald Regan, at that time chief of staff, to approve her promotion to head speech-writer. Regan thought her, according to Larry Speakes, who did not have a famous feel for the romance of the revolution, too “hardline,” too “dogmatic,” too “right-wing,” too much “Buchanan’s protegee.” On the occasion of her resignation she received a form letter from the President, signed with the auto-pen. Donald Regan said that there was no need for her to have what was referred to as “a goodbye moment,” a farewell shake-hands with the President. On the day Donald Regan himself left the White House, Miss Noonan received this message, left on her answering machine by a friend at the White House: “Hey, Peggy, Don Regan didn’t get his goodbye moment.” By that time she was hearing the “true tone of Washington” less as “Appalachian Spring” than as something a little more raucous, “nearer,” she says, “to Jefferson Starship and ‘They Built This City on Rock and Roll.”’

The White House she renders is in fact one of considerable febrility. Everyone, she tells us, could quote Richard John Neuhaus on what was called the collapse of the dogmas of the secular enlightenment. Everyone could quote Michael Novak on what was called the collapse of the assumption that education is or should be “value-free.” Everyone could quote George Gilder on what was called the humane nature of the free market. Everyone could quote Jean François Revel on how democracies perish, and everyone could quote Jeane Kirkpatrick on authoritarian versus totalitarian governments, and everyone spoke of “the movement,” as in “he’s movement from way back,” or “she’s good, she’s hard core.”

They talked about subverting the pragmatists, who believed that an issue could not be won without the Washington Post and the networks, by “going over the heads of the media to the people.” They charged one another’s zeal by firing off endless letters, memos, clippings. “Many thanks for Macedo’s new monograph; his brand of judicial activism is more principled than Tribe’s,” such letters read. “If this gets into the hands of the Russians, it’s curtains for the free world!” was the tone to take on the yellow Post-it attached to a clipping. “Soldier on!” as the way to sign off. Those PROF memos we later saw from Robert McFarlane to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (“Roger Ollie. Well done—if the world only knew how many times you have kept a semblance of integrity and gumption to US policy, they would make you Secretary of State. But they can’t know and would complain if they did—such is the state of democracy in the late 20th century…. Bravo Zulu”) do not seem, in this context, quite so unusual.

Bureaucrats with soft hands adopted the clipped laconic style of John Ford characters,” Miss Noonan notes. “A small man from NSC was asked at a meeting if he knew of someone who could work up a statement. Yes, he knew someone at State, a paid pen who’s pushed some good paper.” To be a moderate was to be a “squish,” or a “weenie,” or a “wuss.” “He got rolled,” they would say of someone who had lost the day, or “he took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.” They walked around the White House wearing ties (“slightly stained,” according to Miss Noonan, “from the mayonnaise that fell from the sandwich that was wolfed down at the working lunch on judicial reform”) embroidered with the code of the movement: eagles, flags, busts of Jefferson. Little gold Laffer curves identified the wearers as “free market purists.” Liberty bells stood for “judicial restraint.”

The favored style here, like the favored foreign policy, seems to have been less military than paramilitary, a matter of talking tough. “That’s not off my disk,” Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North would snap by way of indicating that an idea was not his. “The fellas,” as Miss Noonan calls them, the sharp, the smooth, the inner circle and those who aspired to it, made a point of not using seat belts on Air Force One. The less smooth flaunted souvenirs of action on the far borders of the Reagan doctrine. “Jack Wheeler came back from Afghanistan with a Russian officer’s belt slung over his shoulder,” Miss Noonan recalls. “Grover Norquist came back from Africa rubbing his eyes from taking notes in a tent with Savimbi.” Miss Noonan herself had lunch in the White House mess with a “Mujahadeen warrior” and his public relations man. “What is the condition of your troops in the field?” she asked. “We need help,” he said. The Filipino steward approached, pad and pencil in hand. The mujahadeen leader looked up. “I will have meat,” he said.

This is not a milieu in which one readily places Nancy Reagan, whose preferred style derived from the more structured, if equally rigorous, world from which she had come. The nature of this world was not very well understood. I recall being puzzled, on visits to Washington during the first year or two of the Reagan administration, by the tenacity of certain misapprehensions about the Reagans and the men generally regarded as their intimates, that small group of industrialists and entrepreneurs who had encouraged and financed, as a venture in risk capital, Ronald Reagan’s appearances in both Sacramento and Washington. The President was above all, I was told repeatedly, a Californian, a westerner, as were the acquaintances who made up his Kitchen Cabinet; it was the “westernness” of these men that explained not only their rather intransigent views about America’s mission in the world but also their apparent lack of interest in, or identification with, Americans for whom the trend was less reliably up. It was “westernness,” too, that could explain those affronts to the local style so discussed in Washington during the early years, the overwrought clothes and the borrowed jewelry and the Le Cirque hair and the wall-to-wall carpeting and the table settings. In style and substance alike, the Reagans and their friends were said to display what was first called “the California mentality,” and then, as the administration got more settled and the social demonology of the exotic landscape more specific, “the California Club mentality.”

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