Life at Court

What I Saw At the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.