Peggy Noonan thrives on the power of words A figure of SPEECH

June 01, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Washington--Imagine being a White House speech writer working on President Clinton's addresses for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Imagine knowing, or at least suspecting, that your very best effort still might be only the second-best D-Day remembrance speech ever.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

These are the words of Peggy Noonan. Delivered by President Reagan on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, it's a tough act to follow.

"Oh, Clinton has a great speech writer," Ms. Noonan says with the grace of professional courtesy and the distance of someone who no longer has to produce one for the history books. "I'm sure he's working on it."

And maybe that Clinton speech writer, Donald Baer, could have picked up some tips from a certain blind date he had in the early 1980s.

"Life is full of ironies," Ms. Noonan says. "Don and I were both working in New York, and a mutual friend fixed us up. I thought he was adorable, but he never asked me out again. I was disappointed. I joked with a friend that, on that night, we were probably the only two future presidential speech writers out on a date together."

Ms. Noonan saw her counterpart recently, had a good laugh with him, and, well, it's another gaily told, self-deprecating anecdote in an arsenal that has made her a favorite on the party and chat circuit both here and in New York.

Ms. Noonan gets back to town occasionally, but now she delivers her own lines. The White House lyricist during part of the Reagan-Bush years -- she gave President Bush "read my lips" and "thousand points of light" -- Peggy Noonan is now writing as Peggy Noonan.

"You earn the right to write on your own," she says during a recent interview as she toured to promote her just-published book, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" (Random House, $23).

Her first book, "What I Saw at the Revolution," came out in 1990 and rose to best-seller ranks, in part because of its inside-the-White-House revelations. This one will have to make it to the top -- or not -- on its own. While Ms. Noonan writes briefly about the failed Bush campaign of 1992 -- and why she thinks President Clinton is a one-termer -- the new book is primarily about private rather than public life. It includes her reflections on being a single mother in New York and a reawakened Catholic.

This shift from insider dishing to internal searching has drawn both praise and criticism, to put it mildly.

"I'm not getting the kind of mixed reviews that say, 'interesting but flawed.' It's either hailed or damned, sometimes . . ." she pauses to dramatize the understatement, "in . . . the . . . most . . . vivid . . . and . . . personal . . . terms."

That would be a reference to the Washington Post's recent review, in which critic Jonathan Yardley assailed the book as "so bad that it adds whole new universes of meaning to 'bad.' . . . This is a brain-dead book. Its only evident purpose is to cash in on such eclat as Noonan may still enjoy in the world of chatter. It has no shape, no meaning; it is self-regarding and smug;' it is riddled with the phrase 'I think,' yet there is not in all its pages a single sentence that betrays the slightest evidence of thought."

The New York Times was kinder, with critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praising "Ms. Noonan's striking ability to behold great vistas through a pinhole . . . Following her train of thought is like watching a spark move along an endless serpentine fuse that leads from impassioned cultural commentary to shrewd political analysis to quotidian autobiography."

Are we talking about the same book here?

"I guess it's because it's so personal," says Ms. Noonan, 43, a sunny blonde with bright eyes. "I thought, gee, I'm a woman living in a particular place in a particular time. In this book, I mean to be an observer and a pointer-outer of things that have political or cultural implications. I am a person with a voice. I meant for it to be a chatty book."

The book does seem like a ramble. Ms. Noonan ruminates on everything from crime ("I feel about street criminals . . . the way I felt when I was a girl about the Nazis") to aging ("Your 30s are about ambition, your 40s, fruition. Sometimes the fruit is like the artificial apples and pears people kept in a bowl on the table . . .") to her renewed interest in religion ("Maybe I am converting from [a] person who approves of Christianity to [a] Christian").

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