Noonan speech was refreshing yet challenging

Noonan speech was refreshing yet challenging

Peggy Noonan offered insightful commentary on recent politics but said little about moving forward.

When Wake Forest students, faculty, staff and members of the greater Winston-Salem community gathered at the Brendle Recital Hall to hear from the distinguished “Wall Street Journal” columnist and former presidential speech-writer Peggy Noonan, many of them probably expected to hear a subdued reflection on the state of American politics.

Many voters are disenchanted with the leading candidates in the presidential election (in fact, a good deal of polls tell us that regardless of which candidate does win, he or she will be unambiguously disliked by a majority of Americans) and voters feel trapped in a web of uncertainty when they seriously consider their less-than-stellar options for the nation’s next president.

Noonan has devoted decades of her life to a career in politics and certainly could have chosen to deliver such a speech, but it was truly a pleasant surprise that she did not take that route.

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Instead, Noonan offered substantive and thought-provoking remarks on presidents past and present, while frequently giving her audience a chance to laugh while still learning along the way.

Too often we seem to think that discussions about politics and political issues must unavoidably be (perhaps by necessity) serious and lack any kind of lightheartedness or merriment. But as Noonan deftly noted, merriness has a certain special power.

It allows us to relax, if only for a moment, to set aside our partisan dispositions about any given issue and to see presidents not as symbols or devices that we can employ to advance our agendas, but as human beings just like the rest of us, striving as best they can to live meaningful lives and serve their country well.

Noonan’s numerous anecdotes of politicians behind-the-scenes and beyond the debates and press events serve as an important reminder that we must not take ourselves too seriously.

To be clear, we certainly should not concentrate our efforts and force politics to transform into a thoroughgoing circus filled with wild and eccentric performers — indeed, we probably have enough of those as it is.

But Noonan’s advice not to view politics as an inevitably bleak and solemn undertaking is one we should all take to heart.

Moreover, beyond her tales of what she called “old-school courtesy,” some of Noonan’s insights should undoubtedly be scrutinized.

Her critiques of our current president are well taken, but one cannot help but think that in many of her criticisms, Noonan characterized President Obama a bit recklessly.

She wasted no time unequivocally denouncing Obama’s signature healthcare reform effort as a complete failure, and delivered a spiel that has become so much of a knee-jerk opinion that it hardly means anything anymore.

Our government cannot expect to reform healthcare without support on a bipartisan basis, Noonan said, and on this point she was surely correct. But it is easy to forget why Obama acted as he did.

Contrary to the narrative on the right, Obama did not ignore the will of Congress and bully the legislation through. He responded to one of the defining crises of our time by providing affordable health insurance to millions of Americans who desperately needed it. While the rollout of the Affordable Care Act certainly was far from ideal, it is hard to deem the program a complete failure if millions of Americans now have health insurance because of it. 

Obama stepped up, not because he was unabashedly partisan and wanted to defy the desires of Congress, but rather because Congress refused to do anything. He did much the same on the issue of immigration.

In both instances, Obama did his best to ameliorate a dilemma that Congress intransigently refused to help resolve, despite tireless pleas for the lawmakers to work with him.

It is more than a little ironic that Noonan griped about the president’s unwillingness to pass legislation in a bipartisan fashion but recoiled at the mere hypothetical idea of working for Hillary Clinton if she were asked.

Noonan also declared that Obama never seemed to show affection for those who did not see the world as he did, but this assessment seems hard to make when we consider that Obama has repeatedly insisted that our politics “requires listening to those with whom you disagree and being prepared to compromise.”

The true measure of the effectiveness of our politics cannot strictly be revealed by the merit of our own ideas, President Obama has noted, but rather by our willingness to earnestly consider those ideas which we might find at worst to be disgraceful and at best misguided.

Finally, Noonan’s incisive ability to dissect and repeatedly examine the past serves simultaneously as her best quality and her coup de grâce.

Indeed, it was, at times, difficult to discern when Noonan was trying to extract lessons from instances when past presidents had come up short and when she was simply lamenting the fact that no stately gentleman like Reagan has come along to take us under his wing and save the day.

Whether today’s conservatives are willing to admit it or not, we are living in a time that is almost entirely divorced from the lives that many Americans once lived in the 1980s.

In Noonan’s defense, she did note that while we will miss certain aspects of all of our recent presidents, we must nonetheless move onward into the future. But that is essentially all she had to say on the matter, and she offered practically nothing when it came to how we might best move forward.

Perhaps her laudable appeals for a more elevated form of politics are her best answer to this question.

After she delivered her speech, Noonan took questions from the audience, including one from a young woman who intriguingly asked Noonan if she considers her role as a speechwriter to be that of a poet, given that one writer decided to become a poet after hearing Reagan’s remarks on the Challenger disaster that Noonan wrote. Noonan, surprised at the graciousness of the question, replied that, she did not, but that was not what was so special about the interchange.

Before Noonan answered the question, she and the young woman went on for some 30 seconds just talking. The woman asked if Noonan had read a book that discussed some of her work, and Noonan replied that she had not, but that she very much wanted to read it.

For a moment, it seemed like the two were not in a lecture hall but rather in a coffee shop, freely conversing with one another as two friends would. It was a moment of civility and grace that we have all but left behind in today’s political world.

More than anything, Noonan’s remarks, and the exchange  with the questioner at the end of the program are emblematic of the respect and decency that we must always strive to show towards everyone when we debate political issues — even those who seem to do nothing more than stand in our way. 

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