Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 1/27/2006 [Archive]

State of the Noonan

Peggy Noonan:Interview with a speechwriter

Peggy Noonan not only knows what it takes to make a great State of the Union address, she's helped presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush write a bunch of them. Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist, TV commentator and author of such books as her recent " John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father,"is a former presidential speechwriter who's credited with coining the phrases "A kinder, gentler nation" and "Read my lips: no new taxes." With President Bush's annual message to Congress coming Tuesday night, I called Noonan on Thursday (Jan. 26) at her home in New York City.

Q: Is there a line or thought that you'd like to insert into President Bush's speech on Tuesday?

A: No. Although I must tell you as an American who will be watching it with American high school students, I would hope that he will speak about what I think is the great question in the back of every American's mind -- and that is 'How can we be safe and secure in a stable world.'

Q: Are there any particulars to that theme you would stress?

A: I think people feel constant concern about the unknowability of the world. So many actors running around with so many weapons and so many grievances and so many passions. I think it makes everyone feel real concern and a sense of low-key pessimism that they keep back in their minds and they don't necessarily acknowledge each day. Why would you? You have a life to live. You want to go out and have a good time and do what you've got to do. But I think anything the president says about how we can help the world be a safer place will be well-received.

Q: Is the State of the Union speech still important?

A: Yes. It is still important, but there is a great paradox within it. Here's the paradox: The networks are running nothing but the State of the Union speech. America, if it wants to be watching TV at that moment, may well be looking the State of the Union speech. It is one of the most heavily covered formal news events of the year and it is one of the most important speeches to any president each year. He kicks off his agenda with the speech.

Here's the paradox: It's always boring. It runs an hour. It meanders over various topics. It covers every agency's latest initiatives. And it loses a certain soul, or a certain spine, that keeps it together. There is always a sense when you watch a State of the Union of missed opportunities. But this is inevitable. It is built into the system. If you head a small, obscure government office, your great chance each year to get your importance and relevance noted is within the State of the Union. So you lobby the White House hard -- everybody does -- to get your paragraph in.

Q: Within the speechwriting profession, is there an example of the greatest State of the Union speech -- for what is said, its impact, its timing?

A: I don't know. When I think of successful State of the Unions, the very first one I think of is John Kennedy's in January of 1961. It was very difficult for him. He had just come off a historic inaugural address a week or so before and nobody expected much of the State of the Union. That would be anti-climax. Yet it was a good, straight, intelligent, crisp piece of work.

Q: Are state of the Union speeches meant to be believed and referred back to, to see if promises were kept or if agendas were met?

A: I think the speech is made to assert and persuade. That is its essential purpose. However, it is also true that dramatic moments in history tend to bring -- inevitably -- more dramatic state of the union addresses. FDR after Pearl Harbor? Sure. George W. Bush after 9/11? Yes.

Q: How do you define your politics?

A: I am an American political conservative.

Q: And that is in the tradition of Ronald Reagan?

A: I would hope that it would be in the tradition of the Founders of our country.

Q: Did your personal politics affect the way you felt about Pope John Paul?

A: No. I never viewed him in a political manner. I never viewed him from a political point of view. I found him very moving as a man, as an individual living one of the great lives of the 20th century, and I also found what he believed about the truth of life, what he believed in terms of his faith, to be the most compelling thing about him. Politically, he was a mid-20th century European.

Q: It wasn't his brave anti-Communist stance?

A: That was one of the beautiful, moving things about him. He was so unusual. He was a Pole, not an Italian, in the papacy. And he was a Pole who at the height of communist power went home to communist-controlled Poland. What a story! Oh my gosh! I would think any American political liberal, reading that story or knowing of that story, would be just as moved as I was.

Q: What is the 60-second synopsis of your book?

A: My book about the pope is about two things. The first is about how he came upon the stage of the world and made an unforgettable mark -- as an individual, as a thinker, and as a spiritual presence. He was a man who every day got up, put on his shoes and brought thoughts of God into the world, as you saw him. That was a great benefit for the world. For me, personally, there is a second part of the book, and that is my personal journey becoming a Catholic while the pope was reigning in Rome and learning my Catholicism, in effect, from him -- from reading his encyclicals and listening to what he said.

Q: You seem genuinely fond of President Bush. Why is that?

A: I have been very critical of him the past year -- rather tough on him. But as an individual, I think one can not argue with the fact that he is reliable as to his word, he's brave, and he has a quality of going forward if he believes he is right and simply accepting the slings and arrows of the world. And that is something to be admired in a politician.

Q: He's not a waffling, weasely kind of politician.

A: He sure is not.

Q: Aren't you worried that he may be too romantically attached to the idea of spreading freedom around the world?

A: I am worried about it. Look: America stands for freedom and for liberty and an American president stands for freedom and liberty. That having been said, this world is a strange old place these days, and sometimes I want him to cool it with the emotional rhetoric and get steely-eyed about where we are what we need to do.

Q: Do you think the war in Iraq will ultimately be the president's great success or his great, perhaps nave, failure?

A: I think he will be judged by history, long-term, on whether or not the Iraq endeavor succeeded or failed -- or succeeded partially and in what way. That's what it's going to come down to with him.

Q: And domestic stuff won't matter?

A: It's not that it doesn't matter. But when you come down to the one sentence that history applies to each president -- as in Lincoln: 'He won the civil war.' -- Bush's sentence is 'Iraq --.'

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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