POLITICS MARCH 25, 2002
It was during the summer of 2000 that Peggy Noonan’s adoration of George W. Bush began in earnest. The GOP candidate, she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column, “seems transparently a good person, a genuine fellow who isn’t hidden or crafty or sneaky or mean, a person of appropriate modesty.” Over the next year or so, she went on to call him “respectful, moderate, commonsensical, courteous,” and “a modest man of faith.” She has seen in him “dignity” and “a kind of joshy gravitas.” And this was before September 11. Since then, he has risen in her estimation. The president has “a new weight, a new gravity, a new physical and moral comfort.” He possesses “a sharp and intelligent instinct, an inner shrewdness.” He is “emotionally and intellectually mature.”
The interesting thing here isn’t Noonan’s devotion to the president—most conservatives praise Bush, just as most liberals criticize him—but rather the personal nature of that devotion. She exhibits little interest in the president’s policies except as windows into the greatness of his character. And Noonan is not alone in this politics of hero worship. She shares a sensibility with pundits like Mark Helprin, a fellow Journal contributor who penned speeches for Bob Dole in 1996, and Noemie Emery, a contributor to The Weekly Standard and National Review. In fact, the genre seems to be in vogue on the right.
The hallmarks of the hero-worship style are a Manichaean moral sensibility, eloquent prose, and assertion rather than argument. This might seem like a harmless, even refreshing, counterpoint to the politics of personal destruction, which both parties now disdain as mindlessly partisan and corrosive to civic health. But Peggy Noonan’s glorification of George W. Bush isn’t a departure from the politics of personal destruction at all. It’s the very same thing.
NOONAN, LIKE BUSH himself, invests considerable meaning in the phrase “good man.” (“Good man” is also the president’s favorite tribute when announcing a nominee.) The term suggests an all-encompassing personal uprightness that trumps any particular questions about professional qualifications or issue positions. The good man can be trusted to do the honorable thing.
For conservatives, of course, the modern model of the good man in politics is Ronald Reagan. And Noonan, his former speechwriter, has carved out a role for herself as the Gipper’s swooning head cheerleader. Her most recent book, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, casts the former president in almost mythical terms. “It was (Reagan’s) character—his courage, his kindness, his persistence, his honesty, and his almost heroic patience in the face of setbacks,” her book claims, summarizing its central contention, “that was the most important element of his success.”
Indeed, Noonan sees character as virtually the only element of Reagan’s success. To the minimal extent that she addresses Reagan’s policies, she considers them outgrowths of his personal integrity. She writes, for instance, that Reagan “was by nature a conservationist because he believed what (his mother) told him: Man was made in God’s image and given dominion over natural things.” What about his environmental policies and his fiercely pro-development Interior Secretary James Watt? Noonan does not even mention them. She glides over Reagan’s divorce and indifferent parenting; instead she lavishes attention upon his poor, character-building childhood, his kindness to underlings, and other personal virtues. Her biography has all the moral nuance of a fairy tale.
If Reagan helped establish the good-man theory of politics among conservatives, Bill Clinton confirmed it—by serving as the quintessential bad man. Just as Reagan’s policies were seen as an extension of his inner goodness, Clinton’s policies were deemed an extension of his inner evil. Clinton, in Noonan’s columns, does not just pursue misguided policies; he pursues them with malicious intent. “They are atheists. They don’t believe in God,” she quotes the Miami mayor as saying of the Clintonites in a column on the EliAn Gonzalez affair. She dismisses the possibility that Clinton believed he was acting in EliAn’s best interests and speculates that Castro blackmailed him, sexually or otherwise. (“Is it irresponsible to speculate? It is irresponsible not to,” she explains.) She ends the column by wondering “what Ronald Reagan, our last great president, would have done.” One answer is that her hero “would not have dismissed the story of the dolphins (sent by God to rescue Elian) as Christian kitsch, but seen it as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption that God’s creatures had been commanded to protect one of God’s children.” She concludes, “But then he was a man.”
Given the popularity of Clinton’s policies and the unpopularity of his personal behavior, Noonan’s characterological analysis dovetailed neatly with the political interests of the Republican Party. But it is striking how easily Noonan and her associates have transposed it onto the post-Clinton era. Even Al Gore’s fiercest conservative detractors did not, during the Clinton years, put him on the same moral plane as Clinton. In fact, for most of his political career, Gore had the reputation of something of a Boy Scout. But when he won the nomination, Gore quickly came to embody the moral depravity of liberalism. Noonan, in fact, worked herself into such a moralistic lather that by mid-fall she considered Gore “not fully stable” and “altogether as strange and disturbing as Bill Clinton.” For her part, Emery wrote a cover story for National Review after Gore sewed up the nomination, tabbing him “WORSE THAN CLINTON,” and by fall he was worse than that: “self-obsessed, conniving, dangerous,” “a monster willing to trash the whole country.” (The tactic was handy with other threats as well: When John McCain became a danger to Bush, conservative hero-worshipers attacked even him. Helprin, who has spent his career writing about martial valor—and who wrote poetically in 1996 of Bob Dole’s wartime bravery—attacked the Republican apostate as “not honorable” and committing “betrayals.”)
THE PROBLEM WITH Noonan’s brand of hero-worship isn’t that character doesn’t matter. Reasonable people can disagree about the proper weight to place on personal virtue versus ideology in evaluating a politician. But for Noonan and her ilk, conservative ideology and personal virtue are so deeply intertwined that it is virtually impossible for a good person to pursue liberal policies or for a conservative politician to be morally flawed. And this allows Noonan to view similar sets of facts in wildly inconsistent ways. Earlier this year Noonan wrote an entire column praising Bush for prohibiting his staff from leaking to the press. One year before, she denounced Clinton for the same thing. “The code of omerta,” she thundered, “ran strong and was obviously enforced.” Noonan defended Bush’s vicious attacks on McCain in the South Carolina primary, which included racial innuendo and disparagement of his military record. “You make the best case possible for yourself and what you stand for, and you paint your opponent in less attractive light,” she lectures. “That’s what politics is.” Unless, of course, a Democrat is practicing politics. “Al Gore is surrounded by tough mean operatives whose sole political instinct is to rip out the other guy’s guts and dance in the blood,” she later raged.
Noonan’s unstated assumption is that Democratic politicians do not have the moral right to, well, do what politicians do. She attacks Clinton for “unleashing the fierce energy of your hatred into the national bloodstream, and getting all your people out there on television every day to hate for you,” as if Clinton loyalists ruled the airwaves unopposed for eight years. She sneers that “the endlessly calculating Tom Daschle”—in Noonan’s world, only Democrats have pollsters—”did his hair up and got made up” to do a speech. Vanity is another telltale liberal trait. Emery approvingly cites Bush’s observation about Gore—”The man dyes his hair. What does that tell you about him? He doesn’t know who he is.”—as evidence of his sound judgment. But wait: Reagan dyed his hair, too! Somebody needs to get the catechism straight on this point.
In one preelection column, Noonan went so far as to assert that Gore doesn’t actually believe his political positions, but hews to them out of expediency. On partial-birth abortion, she writes, Gore “supports something he knows to be sick and wrong.” On education, he “knows the most hopeful proposal of our time to make government schools better is the school liberation movement—including scholarship vouchers...” but because teachers unions oppose them, “Al Gore lies and says vouchers are bad.” “Al Gore knows that it is responsible and constructive to allow greater freedom and choice in Social Security,” she continues. “But he lies and says it’s bad.” Noonan presents no evidence of the bad faith she attributes to Gore. She simply assumes that no one who holds his policies can be well-meaning.
In other words, the seemingly sweet hero-worship in Noonan’s writing is merely the flip side of all the traits that have made politics a death struggle—think impeachment and Florida—in recent years. If politics is a struggle between good ideas and bad ideas, a compromise can be found. If it is a struggle between good people and bad people, then absolute victory and absolute defeat are the only options.
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.