Why is it that speech writers always produce the best White House memoirs? They do, you know, even though they are (in Washington’s terms) bit players in the high drama. Remember Schlesinger, or Sorensen, on the Kennedy White House? Or Safire on Nixon ”before the fall”? And now there’s Peggy Noonan’s beautifully drawn memoir of her two-plus years in the Reagan White House. Written with an eye for the telling detail and told from the point of view of a passionate but open-minded observer (aha! so that’s the speech writers’ secret), Noonan’s book is unlike any before it. There never has been a White House memoir as quirky, or as personal, or as graceful. Never been one as good, either.
Noonan’s advantage is that she’s not writing for history, she’s writing for readers. She wants us to feel what it is like to work at the White House. She wants us to smell the paint, to have a cup of coffee in the White House mess, to understand the macho culture, to know what it’s like to be knee-deep in the eternal infighting. As much as she loved working for Reagan, she came to loathe much of what she saw around her — especially the obsession with polls — and she’s not afraid to say so. (There are lots of things she’s not afraid to say: Conservatives, in particular, are going to hate this book.) She also has a knack for capturing, in a sentence or two, the essence of her White House colleagues. Of Ollie North, she writes: ”It is true that you would want him in a foxhole with you because he would be brave. But in an office you just knew: that’s where he’d get snookered.” And George Bush comes into clearer focus when you learn that he struck a sentence from his acceptance speech with the words ”Can’t offend Mother.”
And of Reagan himself? Noonan struggles with Reagan, struggles to understand why she was so drawn to him even though toward the end of her stint she ”thought of him as a gigantic, heroic balloon floating in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.” And in this process of trying to understand Reagan, she has done something important. Noonan is the first Reagan staffer who has tried to square the version of the President presented by the likes of Al Haig or Don Regan — Reagan as empty figurehead — with the fact that his instincts and judgments reshaped American politics. She doesn’t completely bridge this gulf, but in her willingness to think hard thoughts about her boss, she has come pretty close.
A great flaw in most Washington memoirs, as Noonan herself jokes, is that they share an ”unspoken subtitle”: ”If Only They’d Listened to Me, the Fools!” She is not, alas, completely immune to this desire (which in her case translates into ”If Only They’d Left My Brilliant Speeches Alone, the Fools!”). She also can be annoyingly glib, and she makes it annoyingly plain that her own ego can match those of former White House colleagues. The difference is that hers is a writer’s ego, and in general she has been right to trust it. What I Saw at the Revolution is a pleasure to read, one that owes more to Ward Just’s exquisitely rendered Washington novels than to the generally forgettable genre of White House memoir. When you finish it, you say, ”Yes. That’s the way it really was.” And when was the last time you could say that about a Washington book? A-