The Gipper and the Sycophant: His Character-and Hers

When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan , by Peggy Noonan. Viking, 338 pages, $24.95.

A bunch of old Reagan hands got together this spring, a couple of months into the new administration,and reminisced about their old boss, now 90 and lost to Alzheimer’s. They also took some shots at the new President. They were, Peggy Noonan reports, “in private merrily irreverent.”

They told jokes. What was President George W. Bush’s answer to a question about Roe v. Wade ? “Ah think it was the most important decision George Washington made when he crossed the Delaware.” They repeated the judgment offered by Ronald Reagan’s son-that Mr. Bush’s only accomplishment in life had been to stop being a drunk. When Mr. Bush failed to praise Mr. Reagan sufficiently at a ceremony for a new aircraft carrier, Ms. Noonan had this thought: “I bet he wonders if his listeners aren’t thinking, Yes, Reagan was the man your old man wasn’t. “

The theme of Ms. Noonan’s new Reagan scrapbook, captured in its title, is that Mr. Reagan’s sterling character was the key to the greatness of his Presidency. The book’s unspoken but nevertheless plain subtext is the inadequacy of Bill Clinton’s character. Her last book, The Case Against Hillary Clinton , gave a withering polemical assessment of both Clintons: “Together they stand for one thing: maximum and uninterrupted power for the Clintons,” she wrote. “What they want is self-advancement, and what fuels them is a sense of self-importance.”

But, just as the old Reaganites’ harmless if unfunny merriment now has about it a faint odor of treason, the gravitational pull of history has redirected Ms. Noonan’s argument from the past toward the future. The question you think about while reading Ms. Noonan’s book has nothing to do with Mr. Clinton. It is whether Mr. Bush-a man Ms. Noonan once considered, with fine understatement, as not “especially gifted or full of promise”-has it in him to lead us now.

In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin separated writers and thinkers into two camps-those who know one big thing (the hedgehogs) and those who know many things (the foxes). Dostoyevsky was a hedgehog; James Joyce was a fox. In this calculus, Mr. Reagan was a hedgehog, which in political terms means he was an ideologue. Mr. Clinton is a fox. Mr. Bush, one fears, belongs to neither category.

What was attractive about Mr. Reagan, aside from his avuncular affability, was his hedgehog’s consistency of purpose. He favored smaller government and free markets, and he opposed communism. He said so, and he generally followed through. That sort of straightforwardness is rare in a politician, and Ms. Noonan is right to praise it.

Ms.Noonan,a former speechwriter for Mr. Reagan, is one of the great popular political writers of her generation. She sometimes displays astonishing rhetorical skill. Her writing is fluid, lively and varied, and rooted in an American idiom that runs back to at least Emerson. Occasionally you read a Noonan sentence twice, to appreciate how she sculpted it. Though some of her recent newspaper work has tended toward the sycophantic, the sentimental and the loopy, I expected a lot from this book.

It turns out to be little more than a mash note, something for the souvenir shop at the Reagan library. She has a crush on the old man. He used to collect anecdotes to support views he already held, and she does the same. She has pulled together countless stories of Mr. Reagan’s authenticity, toughness and humanity, and she recounts them with a sing-song quality suitable to a fable or to Sunday school. They strike me as rather less reliable than Edmund Morris’ biography of Mr. Reagan, Dutch , and Mr. Morris was making things up. In a way, Ms. Noonan admits as much. “I am still searching for an anecdote about Reagan that truly reflects badly on him,” she writes. The problem is partly one of definition. People will, Ms. Noonan concedes, “tell you Reagan was lazy, or naive or a bore. But they never say he was low or unkind or dishonest or untrustworthy.” Ms. Noonan, of course, would not be the one to suggest that the former category of character flaw helped protect Mr. Reagan from the latter, admittedly more serious kind.

When Character Was King is a pastiche: some straight, familiar biography, some firsthand reporting, quite a few fairly raw, uninteresting interviews and some long speeches, including one that drags on for eight pages. An entire chapter is devoted to the jokes Mr. Reagan used to tell. Ms. Noonan explains away their uniform lameness: “Wit penetrates, and humor envelops.” Her old boss, she concedes, did not penetrate. The point seems to be that humor need not be funny if its social function is to share with the listener an amiable informal experience, a simulacrum of ease and intimacy. Reminds me of those Reader’s Digest “Life in These United States” columns.

Ms. Noonan is desperate to show that Mr. Reagan was a thinker, an intellectual. She builds her case from the fundamentals, demonstrating first that he could read and write. She quotes some dreadful high-school juvenilia, and she tells us that his later work-radio talks, speeches-had “the smoothness of a simple stream.” The evidence presented here makes the case for “simple.” Aiming higher, she boasts about the books she saw on a visit to the now-vacant Reagan ranch-Allen Drury, Winston Churchill, Whittaker Chambers, Horatio Alger-and asserts that Mr. Reagan “read up here. He’d be out all day and come in at five, before dinner, and sit in his favorite chair in the porch room.”

She blames Nancy Reagan for some of her husband’s intellectual limitations. Mrs. Reagan “was not deep and did not pretend to be.” She “was more like a Republican than a conservative.” (Here is the difference, according to an unnamed friend of Ms. Noonan’s: “Democrats respect books because they respect ideas. Conservatives respect books because they respect ideas. Republicans respect money.”) There’s something disquieting about the nastiness Ms. Noonan once directed at Hillary Clinton and now, in this new book, directs at Mrs. Reagan-something misogynistic and perhaps even self-loathing. She tells us that Mrs. Reagan was tense and “looked like an aging movie star. So you add tense to movie star and you get Evita.” She tells us how much she admired an acid 1968 Joan Didion profile of Mrs. Reagan in the Saturday Evening Post ; it was “a startling piece, beautifully observed and quite deadly.” Ms. Noonan had lunch with Mrs. Reagan last year, and she thought to raise the subject of the 30-year-old magazine article. “Things like the Joan Didion piece years ago really hurt you, didn’t they?” she asked. To this faux sympathy, Mrs. Reagan replied, “Oh, she was mean.” Then she added, “That was mean.” Perhaps she was still thinking about Ms. Didion; perhaps not.

George W. Bush gave Ms. Noonan an interview for her book in June. She tried to draw him out about Ronald Reagan; she does the President no favors by reproducing, over several pages, his tentative, disconnected riffs. But Mr. Bush also talked about his famous meeting with Vladimir Putin and the criticism of the President’s over-the-top enthusiasm for his new soulmate, the K.G.B. thug. Mr. Bush defended himself: “I have pretty good instincts,” he told Ms. Noonan, “and I found a man who realizes his future lies with the West, not the East, that we share common security concerns, primarily Islamic fundamentalism.”

That was, as I said, back in June, not long after Ms. Noonan’s pals were having some fun at the President’s expense.

Adam Liptak is a lawyer at The New York Times.