What I Saw at the Revolution
“The Reagan revolution,” as many within and without the Reagan campaign and staff referred to it, is clearly one of the more curious political phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century—if only for its grand successes and profound failures. Oddly, the Reagan presidency has as many critics on the right as on the left, and, predictably, the feats regarded as triumphs by one side are regarded as defeats by the other. Such ambivalence has prompted more than one prominent member of the Reagan Administration to offer up that most contemporary genre of political volumes: the insider’s memoir intended to “set the record straight.”
Thus, there has been a spate of rather self-serving and hard- hearted tomes about Reagan’s political fortunes, written from putatively superior vantage points and dwelling typically on the President’s supposed flaws. In contrast, there is the sprightly and entertaining book by Peggy Noonan, an insightful and informed set of reflections on the Reagan years by the former and somewhat notorious White House speechwriter. Though it is an “insider’s memoir,” Noonan’s “outsider” spirit of irreverence makes What! Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era a disarmingly funny and incisive volume. Noonan’s work is a breezy show-and-tell tapestry of anecdotes and encounters. The book is a well-tempered if sometimes ego-enhancing report of her extended expedition inside the bowels of America’s often-wounded executive branch.
Noonan’s memoir begins with a brief but helpful contextualizing look at her apparently unremarkable childhood: “Like most baby boomers, I live this paradox: Nothing really memorable happened in my childhood, yet I think about it all the time.” This observation prepares the reader for Noonan’s offbeat characterization of much that occurred in the White House during her sojourn. What emerges as strikingly memorable are not events but persons; in particular, the reader is impressed by the impact of one particular person on her sense of political reality: Ronald Reagan. Noonan’s immigrant, working-class Irish background would hardly seem to have prepared her for the celebrity or the political allegiances she currently enjoys. Actually, her ethnic pedigree is only one of the curious historical circumstances and character traits she shares with her beloved president, who is the real central character of this volume.
Early in her narrative, Noonan evinces the same earthy, even religious appreciation that she believes Reagan has for ordinary folk and their abilities to cope with, or even overcome, problems with a minimum of governmental intrusion. This over-arching principle helps explain why, in her years at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she embraced a healthy skepticism toward the utopian visions of social improvement generally brokered by the political left. As an English literature major, Noonan sharpened her writing skills and her wit, which served her well in her subsequent landing of a position as a news and editorial writer for CBS radio news. Her successful career there eventually brought her to the attention and appreciation of Dan Rather, the veteran CBS news anchor, whose friendship continued throughout her stint in the Reagan Administration.
From this biographical base, Noonan takes the reader on a fast-paced tour of her eventual interest in and initiation into the White House speechwriting corps. She provides a mostly chronological and day-to-day view of the life and craft of a White House speechwriter. Entailed in this travelogue are Noonan’s intriguing histories of certain famous speeches of Reagan and her part in their eventual delivery. These speeches become the unusual but effective pegs upon which the narrative hangs for its coherence and overall organization. What might have been dry or trivial details in the hands of a less adept and winsome writer become riveting insights into Noonan’s own work and the interaction of Reagan and his staff.
Upon leaving the “enemy-occupied” territory of CBS, she found herself submerged in a new but not completely different culture, whose prime directive was to shape the public’s perceptions of its president. Sprinkled within this narrative are some immortal vignettes of the more infamous and interesting characters associated with the Reagan White House: a catalog of charming rogues and true believers whose allegiance to their president rises and falls with the political tides. For example, Donald Regan, former Treasury Secretary and Chief of Staff, appears as a George Raft sound and lookalike singularly unsuited to the delicacies of Beltway negotiation; Oliver North, the fallen Iran-Contra figure beloved to many conservatives, comes across as a...
(The entire section is 1944 words.)