Sunday, October 11, 2009

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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At the end of her previous book (What I Saw at the Revolution), Peggy Noonan was touting the new Bush administration, which she had helped bring to power by writing the president's convention acceptance speech. Bush represented, she assured us, "an affirmation of ambition: He was right to want it, and he's going to be good." How could he not succeed, surrounded as he was by lieutenants such as Richard Darman, a man who had "never touched failure," and whose work at the Office of Management and Budget was contributing "daily to what will no doubt be said when they review his thirty years--brilliant and important." As Noonan, who has spent the last several years in New York, might now put it: who knew?

I cannot dislike Peggy Noonan; to do so would be self-loathing. She is mon semblable, ma soeur: a child of postwar Long Island (in her case, Massapequa, before she saw it shed its GI Bill-dignity and become "Buttafuoco-land"): someone whose early movie-going was supervised by the Legion of Decency; an Irish-American reciter of the Baltimore Catechism; someone who recognizes that liberalism has led New York to the point where the bowel habits of pets are more strictly policed than those of humans, but who, for all that, can still say, and mean it: "I love my neighborhood." We're both even godparents to nephews named Sean.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is about the past few years that Noonan has spent on "Pause," out of politics for the most part, raising her son and seeking a renewal of her Catholic faith. Her book has the earnest amiability that conservatives in the city, where all of one's best friends are liberal, learn to practice in argument: "One of my functions when I'm surrounded by those whose politics are generally of the left--at a seminar or a dinner party--is like that of a Negro at a 1950s liberal cocktail party: I am an opportunity to show how broad-minded they are." She is stuck on the city in the brassy, sentimental way that New Yorkers are terrified of losing (when she got back here. "It was all so vivid, and vital"), lest the place's harsher realities, like those street criminals she compares to fascists, be seen in something like their true proportion. She is sometimes wrong about the place (the subway is, in fact, one of the few aspects of life markedly better than is was ten years ago), but when she's right, she's interestingly so: in New York, unlike Washington, failure is never definitive. Here it "comes with an escape hatch and is surrounded by a knowing question: Where will he show up next? Blow it in Mediatown and you can still find a place in Publishingville, fail to make it in Societytown and you can repair to Museumville to ponder your next move." Even Darman could have a comeback here.

This new book is such a miscellany of observations that it's hard to come to any coherent opinion of it. One wants simply to agree with a few things here, object to a number of others there. Noonan's best big-picture observations of the culture include one about how there are no "rubes" left in America: "We have become a nation of insiders. We all know everything now. No matter where you're from or what you do you've got the facts. We read Spy and Vanity Fair, know Irving didn't like to be called Swifty, know which film opened big last weekend and which network won the year, know the difference between a rating and a share ..." Our sophistication may be useless, but it's sophistication of a kind.

Noonan also has grasped, if only second-hand, a truth that continues to elude most purveyors of boilerplate thumb-sucking, namely, that it was the 1970s that really changed the country. That was "the decade when America went crazy, the decade when, as John Updike said, the sixties had finally percolated down to everybody." The most refreshing part of her book is its revulsion from "boomer narcissism," the dreary fixation that has doomed us, for years to come, to the musings of Anna Quindlen and Frank Rich and other eager representatives of their (and my) over-analyzed and under-challenged generation. Noonan prefers the company of Guadalcanal veterans to contemporary parents who natter on about their effortful child-rearing, but on occasion she lapses into making the squishy sounds of present-day feeling ("No one looks like what: they are"; "It's easier to clearly show love to the preverbal"), and she does have, one is alarmed to note, a safe-conduct pass to that orgy of boomer-driven sharing known as Renaissance Weekend. She reprints a 1991 New Year's Eve speech she gave to the twelve-step chautauqua on the prescribed subject of "Sailing Uncharted Seas."

A few weeks after that she would be trying to save George Bush from having to deliver a badly drafted State of the Union address: "I sat in !Robert^ Teeter's office at the Bush-Quayle campaign, and read. 'The way this thing has been hyped and the shape it's in, this is a bullet coming straight at the heart of the president. I can't write a great speech and I can't turn this into a triumph, but I can push the president into the car and help him get away. That's all I can do, help him dodge a bullet.'" Some months before this, she'd written Teeter a memo (more prophetic than the last chapters of her first book), in which she worried that Bush, like Churchill in 1945, was going to lose the election after winning the war. By the time of the New Hampshire primary, she was resisting invitations to join the campaign and work her rhetorical magic. "I was hoping you could bridge the gap and make the difference," said Teeter's desperate aide.

But Noonan wasn't about to join a team whose members hated one another. She paid attention to the bad portents she'd been glimpsing--how the White House staff forgot to get Bush his tea, how it was slow getting a car the president had ordered to return her to the airport: "I've never seen a president ask for a car and it took a half hour to get there. It tells me that things at the White House are, at least this evening, a little too relaxed." Noonan's story is probably no more meaningful than the grammar in which she tells it, but the middle portion of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness does have the distinction of being the first campaign memoir by someone who refused to join a campaign.

Noonan likes to portray herself as rescuing people with supportive bits of wisdom, and there are traces here of the same self-aggrandizement that put off a number of those who reviewed her previous book. "If I declare I'm not going in," she agonizes to a friend, in terms more appropriate to a candidate than a speech-writer, "it's news. The press will speculate on my reasons and I can't tell them my reasons, so they'll make them up." The whole dilemma is overthought, and oversold to the reader, and it's too much bound up with her quest for personal happiness to be of much political interest. (God's not aiding her to find the right house in Washington helps her decide to stay in New York.) The hapless Bush campaign was probably better off without her, since she would no doubt have been as keen on seeing the experience yield a memoir as a victory. She laments the demise of private political diaries (Dick Cheney won't keep one that will always be subject to somebody's subpoena), but she has no apparent respect for anyone's privacy. Less than three years after President Bush cried to her, over dinner, about the troubles of his son, Neil, she serves up his tears to the American public. Perhaps she should write diaries instead of instantaneous memoirs, and let such things as the president's tears ferment for a decent interval,

She likes to see herself as a Katharine Hepburn heroine, giving better than she gets to the gruff, good-guy Tracys she works with, but like many women her age she was probably more influenced by Mary Tyler Moore: our gal Peg, throwing her hat in the air, greeting the day with open arms, never letting pessimism trump perkiness for more than a moment. She is a true enthusiast of democracy; a genuine believer in America; proud of the "beautiful living Benetton ad" that her young son and his friends look like together; enthusiastic about the new immigrants to New York while nostalgic for the ethnic harmonies of the past. In her parents' world:

The Irish knew they were better than the Italians and the Italians knew they were better than the Irish and we all knew we were better than the Jews and they knew they were better than us. Everyone knew they were superior, so everyone got along. I think the prevailing feeling was, everyone's human. Actually, that used to be a saying in America: Everyone's human.

This is a nice fantasy, but it leaves out the very real feelings of inferiority that motivated each group to assimilate; leaves out the way enforced time in Army barracks helped them to tolerate one another; and leaves out the fact that what finally bonded the Irish and the Italians and the Jews was, alas, a postwar fear of the Puerto Ricans and the blacks.

When Noonan turns her eyes to the future--near the close of the book one finds an extended Utopian fantasy of what real tax incentives for inner-city business might lead to--she can sound like a supply-sider on nitrous oxide. "Young black men will save our country ... something just tells me they're going to save our country." She seems to have in mind the "soldiers laid off in the downsizing of the armed forces," who are going to come home and police the new tax-free ghettoes. O shining Enterprise Zone upon a hill!

The structural conceits of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are aggressively informal--what Peggy thought at the hair salon, what occurred to Peggy as she channel-surfed--and the prose style is something like Joan Didion by way of Ronald Reagan: "I keep wondering about who we are these days, all of us. I keep wondering if ..." Some sentences are pure speechwriting ("There is in this place more sin than hell could hold, and enough goodness to light up the world"), which doesn't travel so well to the printed page. Probably the best thing she could do for her prose (lively and charming though it can be) is turn off the television, which she admits to keeping on while she works.

Her addiction to the tube seems curious, aware as she is of its contribution to the "coarsening" of America. On this large subject she is persuasive--"My friends complain about the decade of greed, and mean Michael Milken. I complain about it too, but I mean Def American Records, Time Warner, Death Row/Interscope . . . ." She would be more persuasive if she herself didn't talk about "Washington assholes" and hang out with Joan Rivers.

She does try seriously to ponder the whole notion of values--that word Bush idiotically exclaimed in '92, throwing it out upon the airwaves without so much as an adjective to keep it company--and she writes poignantly of having to spend as much energy protecting her child from the culture as introducing him to it. She is moving when she writes about why she likes the boy to be around when she polishes the furniture. Once again she's guided by her parents' generation:

They worked so hard in the house. And I think their children unconsciously absorbed some connection between Mother waxes the table, her hand going back and forth back and forth along the brown wood with Lemon Pledge, and the old soft cloth that smelled like chemicals. They connected it to: My mother cares for the house, my mother cleans and cares for the house, for the family, for me.

"Propinquity" is a favorite word of Noonan's. It's an odd one: does it mean "iniquity," you wonder for a moment, before remembering that, no, it means nearness, proximity. Propinquity is what Peggy Noonan is seeking these days. She wants to be closer to her son, to her roots--she intends to spend more time in Massapequa, Buttafuocos or no Buttafuocos--and to God. She goes to Bible-study class now, and is making an effort to return to a church whose mystery (and Latin Mass) she misses. This is a good story, and best left to herself to tell. She is certain that Clinton will be a one-term president, and she spends a number of pages handicapping the '96 Republican field, but her principal ambition for the here and now is to become preoccupied by one great light instead of a thousand points, to take a break from spinning and sound-bites for the more serious business of reading His lips. She seems like a nice woman, and one wishes her the best.

Thomas Mallon's new novel, Henry and Clara, will be published in August by Ticknor & Fields.

Named Works: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Book) Book reviews

Source Citation:Mallon, Thomas. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." The American Spectator 27.n7 (July 1994): 64(3). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 11 Oct. 2009

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