Noonan Serves Us Well With
By Bob Slosser
Peggy Noonan, a gifted writer and observer of contemporary life,
seems to continue her extraordinary gift to the American people long after her
sizable contribution in Washington public life during the 1980s and her return
to home base in New York City.
Miss Noonan, a speechwriter and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan
during the second half of the eighties, was first the author of the best-selling
book, "What I Saw at the Revolution," and now a follow-up,
Character Was King." The second book was much needed by millions
of Americans like me, for we felt bereft of knowledge of the fortieth president
of the United States. He went so quickly, we feel, from prominence at the
helm of the free world to the loneliness of the terribly ill at his removed
ranch in California. And our hearts ached for his notably dependent, yet very
strong wife, Nancy, fighting in seeming isolation for her courageous husband.
At last we have word, painful word, about the Gipper and Nancy. They are
lonely under the curse of Alzheimers, suffering, stout-hearted, and battling.
"I saw Reagan in the winter of 1998," wrote Peggy, "when I
was asked to speak at a symposium at the Reagan Library, which had been built
in Simi Valley . . . I told the library people that I would bring my 11-year-old
son, and Id like him to meet the old man. They couldnt guarantee it. The
news that Reagan had Alzheimers had been made public almost five years before.
And he didnt come to his Century City office now unless he was feeling well,
and he wasnt always feeling well. I took my chances."
Miss Noonans son knew that this was a guy his Mom had worked with once,
and PBS had recently devoted two hours to him. He was more than a guy in a
picture on the wall. "He brought down the Berlin Wall," the boy
told Peggy, impressed.
She waited each day for a call, and it didnt come. On their last day in
California, she called the Century City office and asked if he was in and
was told yes, but he had just arrived and was leaving soon. "So we went
to the top of a skyscraper and waited in an office with an American flag and
a big table and a big window; we were up so high you could see the ocean.
"And then Reagan came in. And the sight of him took my breath away.
The old brown suit, the one we always made fun of [as I had when visiting
him in 1984 on a book assignment] he was wearing it, with a brown striped
grandpa tie [I had seen that, too; ugh!]. He walked toward us and it was the
old stride, his shoulders straight, his hands cupped at his sides. But he
was smaller it was the same Reagan but smaller, and I realized the suit
had been altered, he couldnt work out anymore, he had lost mass. His hair
seemed thicker, with wiry gray hairs, and wavier, because it was longer. And
he wore glasses. Grandpa kind of glasses."
Then came a tough line. "We shook hands. I introduced myself."
How sad for two who had worked so closely together. "My son looked up
at Reagan as if he were looking at Gwyneth Paltrow, with shyness and adoration.
Reagan said, Nice to see you, complimented my son on his hat, a baseball
cap, looked at me and said, Good to see you." Oh, the loneliness of
Noonan wrote, "I had planned to tell Reagan that I wanted to thank him
for all hed done for our country, and I meant to be specific and detailed,
lay it all out. But I looked in his eyes and realized: Thats what his life
is now, hearing things he doesnt understand from strangers and trying to
come up with the right response, trying to say the right thing when they say
these words that no longer make sense...
"So I just looked at him, and then I think an angel whispered in my
ear because I remembered the thing everyone understands, old people and little
babies and everyone in between. I took his hand and said, Mr. President,
I just came here to tell you that I love you. I want you to know that we love
you very much.
"And his eyes flickered and he smiled and nodded his head in the old
way and said in his old soft voice, Oh, thank you! Thank you. Thanks. And
he nodded again."
This marvelous, fast-moving book by a comprehending woman, as I said, serves
us well and opens our hearts. It offers more than moving and courageous
insights into the tragedy of one of Americas sweetheart couples,
too. It also tells us much about President Bush, his cause, and his
hopes, and any of our comparisons of him with Mr. Reagan. It talks
to us clearly about the faith of George W. Bush and opens my eyes
to see that Peggy Noonan had not penetrated enough through the surface
of "character" in Ronald Reagan to lay hold firmly of his
deep religious faith, which in this bold cowboyish hero was terribly
important and was not fazed by his wifes reluctance. Ronald Reagan
walks with the Lord, which became clear to me in developing my l984
spiritual biography of him, "Reagan Inside Out."
It has never been a sophisticated or terribly educated walk, but its
reality has been starkly true.
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