Noonan: When character was king

Posted: Nov 17, 2001 12:00 AM
Peggy Noonan has outdone herself with her biography of Ronald Reagan, "When Character Was King." Of all her extraordinary work, this beats anything I've seen – and I think I know why. I detect from Noonan's writings that she is a positive person, an optimist, an idealist (maybe even a dreamer) and a patriot. All of these things she shares with Ronald Reagan. So, the subject of this book was perfectly suited for Peggy, and it brought out the best in her – her insights, her selection of material and, of course, her writing. As to the selection of material, I can scarcely imagine how daunting it would be to sift through the mountains of information and determine what would make the final cut in a 327-page book. I face that task in microcosm as I struggle to decide just what to share with you in this column. I read the book with the intention of writing about it, so I took notes of memorable passages along the way. I ended up with seven pages of handwritten notes, and it would have been twice that, except that about a third of the way through I had to become more selective out of necessity. The book is rich; it moved me in a big way. Based on her firsthand experience, research and interviews with friends, family and major players, Noonan takes us inside Reagan's mind and otherwise lets us see things from an entirely different perspective. She doesn't try to candy coat the record just to make her old boss and conservative soul mate look good. She gives us the bad times, too, including his errors in judgment, such as with Iran-Contra. But while he erred, he did so for honorable reasons, "Reagan was romantic, and this time he paid dearly for it." Since space is precious, let me give you just a few of Peggy's many fascinating insights and observations about Ronald Reagan. His parents instilled in him the belief that everyone was equal in God's eyes; people should never be discriminated against on the basis of race or class. He never wore it on his sleeve or tried to prove it, but it was ingrained in him. He was a prolific writer, but even as one of his speechwriters, Noonan didn't realize it until reading his earlier writings years after she'd worked for him. Instead of becoming a professional writer, he used his skill for political communication. "He had turned his art to the service of his beliefs." It is tempting to think of him as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things, but that's too superficial – and wrong! Though he came from humble beginnings, "there was some kind of huge destiny playing out within him." He was "a most extraordinary man indeed." He learned his negotiating skills while working with the union in Hollywood. Also, he began to form beliefs there that would equip him to lead us to victory in the Cold War. Initially, he wasn't worried about fighting communism, but his eyes were opened by the comments of a preacher. He later fought communism in Hollywood because he believed that films were the window through which the world saw America, and he didn't want the communists to taint that perspective. There are a number of paradoxical things about Reagan: His father was an alcoholic who even embarrassed Reagan at times, yet he exerted some powerfully positive influences that "were broadening, not narrowing. It gave the boys the sense that they were responsible for putting good things into the world." Though his mother taught him and his brother not to judge their father because "alcoholism is a disease," Reagan ironically developed the conviction that we are responsible for our own choices in life. He chose to be sober. He was a very warm person with a big heart, "a kind of liquid heart that flowed out to others," but he seemed to have few close friends in later life. Noonan traces the likely reasons for this. Some thought of Reagan as an extremist, but he was anything but. Even in his zeal to purge the communist influence from Hollywood, he fought those who engaged in witch hunts and defended those who had been falsely accused of involvement. As a conservative, he was not sympathetic to the notion that the answers lie in government, yet he aspired to power so that he could make a difference (by dismantling big government). He had an irrepressible sense of humor. He wasn't comfortable being ambitious. His fearless handling of the air-traffic controllers strike had profound international implications. He never subordinated his principles for the sake of self-glorification. He switched to the Republican Party, for example, when it was least expedient to do so. More importantly, he forewent an opportunity for infinite adulation, maybe even a Peace Prize, by refusing to abandon SDI in order to reach an arms deal with Gorbachev. And, his refusal to lie even for the sake of diplomatic etiquette (e.g., his Evil Empire speech and various dealings with Gorbachev) greatly contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He suffered many hardships and setbacks, but almost always turned them into something positive – consistent with his mother's teachings that God works things for the better. The book's predominant theme – to the extent a biography can have a theme – is that character matters and Ronald Reagan was steeped in it. He was not preoccupied with his legacy and felt no need to spin history – it would speak for itself. And to Noonan, it already speaks, in volumes. She thought one true test of his character was whether he fulfilled his promises. She knew he had on the big things, but upon examination it wasn't just the big things, "comparing what he promised in 1980 with what he'd done by 1988, the sheer mounting of fact upon fact left me not only pleased but, in a way, moved." Noonan demonstrates though that it wasn't just Reagan's character that made him great, but also his beliefs and ideals. He passionately believed in America, in its freedom and its ideals. Indeed, to him, America was inseparable from idealism. As he wrote to her in 1993, "There's no question I am an idealist, which is another way of saying I am an American." He believed that in this nation any person, no matter his or her background, could make a difference. His entire life is a testament to that ideal. It is easy to conclude that Ronald Reagan is the object of hero worship by many conservatives, but I think that's inaccurate in that it's impersonal. It is more than that. People have a genuine love for President Reagan, not just for restoring economic prosperity and leading us to victory in the Cold War, but for making us proud to be Americans again and allowing us, as Americans, to feel good about ourselves. Peggy Noonan reveals her personal affection for him toward the end of the book when she describes the sad story of taking her 11-year-old son to meet him. It soon became obvious to her that his disease-ravaged mind would not permit him even to recognize her, much less understand what she wanted to tell him ("thanks for everything"). So she fell back on what her heart (and a whispering angel) told her to say, "Mr. President, I just came here to tell you that I love you. I want you to know that we love you very much." Don't worry. I haven't given but a tiny fraction of the book away. This book will make you feel good all over again, and grateful for this great man. If you love President Reagan, you'll love the book. If you don't, be careful, because the book may just change your mind.