Monday, April 21, 2008

Peggy Noonan's Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

I enjoy reading Peggy Noonan's column in the Wall Street Journal, so when I saw one of her books in a used bookstore for $5.50, I bought it. Noonan's style is difficult to describe. It is best-suited to columns and short speeches, but I could not explain to you why I feel this way. The writing in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Adams Publishing (1994)) evokes a calm, folksy demeanor, favoring anecdotes over heavy prose. Basically, Noonan's style is vintage Erma Bombeck--if Bombeck had a political agenda.

When Noonan is more concise and quoting others, she is less preachy; for example, she introduces the reader to two interesting quotes, such as "Life makes conservatives of us all," and "Politicians prefer unarmed peasants." The second one made me laugh, and the first one was used very well in its full context. Noonan clearly aims to be a political philosopher, and here is what she says when she refers to Jack Kemp's evolving views of limited government:

[I]t's not the federal government that is the prime helper of the poor in America, it is freedom. Freedom to build, freedom from excessive taxation, from regulations and lawsuits that can ruin your dry-cleaning business because someone says you don't employ enough of this race and that gender. Freedom to work as a kid off the books and learn and get good habits and not have the guy who runs the candy store be buried under tax and medical forms. (page 178)

As a political insider, Noonan also has access to Justice Clarence Thomas, and in response to how he felt during the Anita Hill hearings, we see a more human side of the man:

"I didn't go in there strong," he says. "I went in there a broken man. I had been broken. They had reduced me literally and figuratively to a fetal position. I was broken. And what got me through it was I prayed, I said 'Lord, I am weak, I am weak, you must help me.'" (page 114)

On Dick Cheney, Noonan's experience is telling, even in 1994. After asking him to keep a diary so he could one day write a book, here is what happens:

Cheney makes that wince face he makes and looks down. "No, unfortunately you can't keep diaries in a position like mine anymore." "Why?" I ask. "Because," he says, "anything you write can be subpoenaed or become evidence in a potential legal action. So you can't keep and recount your thoughts anymore. (page 89)

Later, Noonan, a Republican insider, states, "Fact: No one really knows what Cheney would do or think domestically." (page 184) It's enough to make an American do a wince face.

Speaking of domestic issues, California is having heated discussions about immigration in 2008. However, it appears the issues were the exact same in 1994, and after 14 years, California is doing relatively fine, and the same issues keep coming up every few years (it's almost enough to make you think that politicians play the immigration card when it's convenient for them and when they need to get votes):

"What are you going to do about immigration?" "It isn't xenophobia," he said; the Mexicans and other recent immigrants were coming up to him and asking about it, they're taxpayers and they're seeing California sink under the weight of illegals who come into the state and go on its services...California's going broke." (page 186)

And there is what makes Noonan slightly unbearable to read in an expanded format: wide brushes of policy packed in folk style, which are designed to impart a certain lesson, but without regard for accuracy. It's passive-aggressive politico-speak. California is suffering from a lower bond rating in 2008--many years after her book was published--but it is not clear at all whether undocumented immigrants are the reason for the decline in the state's ability to pay future projected costs. (In fact, it appears most payments from the State go to bonds relating to schools--which, last time I checked, needed approval by by citizen taxpayers and which benefited all children.)

Noonan's folksy style becomes excruciatingly asinine in some places:

Young black men will save our country. I'm not sure completely what I mean by this but--they're tough and smart and know how to survive...Anyway, something just tells me they're going to save our country." (page 26)

Although she is foremost a political insider, Noonan comes across best when she dispenses common sense advice:

When you think about your enemies, you're letting them live in your head without paying rent. (The same person told me, When you worry, you're paying a deposit on trouble that may not be delivered.) (page 157)

Noonan continues to be most interesting when she talks about being a mother and about life in general, such as her own born-again experience. Noonan's use of personal experiences are her greatest strength--feet on the ground, writing to lift you just far enough so you can see beyond the horizon and see the promise of conservative principles:

[I]n a way, life is overrated. We have lost somehow a sense of mystery--about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness. (page 215)

As long as she sticks to shorter pieces of work, she'll continue to be one of my favorite writers.

© Matthew Rafat (first published April 2008, revised)

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