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I'd read this terrific memoir shortly after it came out and really liked it. So having recently read Dutch (see Orrin's review) and wanting to get a more positive spin on the Gipper, I figured this was as good a book as any. But as I reread it I found something really unexpected and stupefying; to a remarkable degree Dutch appears to have been plagiarized from Peggy Noonan. At first I thought it was just the chatty tone and Noonan's habit of imagining scenes from Reagan's life. But then I got to the point where Noonan has a throw away line about Reagan that struck me as awfully familiar and I recalled that Morris uses it as the central metaphor towards the end of his book. Noonan says that a Reagan aide told her that: "Beneath the lava flow of warmth there is something impervious as a glacier". As I noted in my review of the Morris book, he seizes upon this image of Reagan as a glacier, and while I think he uses it to somewhat dubious effect, what really jumped out at me was that he used it at all, and as near as I can tell it's unattributed. Now to give him his due, he claims that in this instance he was merely reproducing his own diary entry from 1998 (Noonan's book didn't come out until 1990) and I suppose he could be the unnamed source of Noonan's quote, but by that point the similarities in the two texts were just getting to be too much for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.
One central theme that they agree on seems like it may be a puzzle to biographers and historians for years to come, the question of who Ronald Reagan really was. On this point, though she has nearly a schoolgirl crush on him, Noonan is no more forgiving than Morris. The portrait she paints, though generally positive, is of an affable but fundamentally unapproachable figure. She conveys much the same sense as Morris, that Ronald Reagan presented a facade to the world, essentially playing the role of Ronald Reagan in a movie of his own life. Whatever lay behind the mask was not there for public consumption; it was reserved for Nancy and himself.
Now Noonan and Morris, and many critics, are deeply troubled by this. We live after all in an age where the current resident of the White House has no secret self. His presidency has been one long (seemingly interminable) exercise in psychodrama, with himself as the patient and the rest of us as the analysts. And for all the current fashion in singing the praises of the Greatest Generation (see Orrin's review) and their humble service to country, there is a palpable sense that we are dissatisfied with these older folks who don't bare their souls and beg us to feel their pain. It's instructive that when push came to shove, the electorate twice chose Bill Clinton and all his Oprahesque, cathartic, stage show baggage over George Bush and Bob Dole, decent men and competent public servants who couldn't make that same bathetic connection to the voters. It is the generation of Noonan and Morris that is essentially running the country and the culture right now and this is what they seem to want in their politicians. But Reagan, who is actually a little older than most of the WWII generation, came from a time when such openness would have been unthinkable and as the child of an alcoholic father it is hard to imagine how he could ever lay bare his inner being in the way these folks seem to require.
This book is great fun, in particular for the acid sketches and loving portraits of the colorful cast of characters who surrounded the Administration. And the Reagan who emerges from the pages is a complex and fascinating bundle of contradictions, a much richer figure than the Reagan that Morris portrays. While Noonan was frustrated by not penetrating his veneer, the man she reveals seems to be worthy of both the hero worship and the partisan hatreds that he summoned forth.
Noonan herself is an emblematic representative of her times. The casually liberal kid from Massapequa, Long Island who was so repelled by the excesses and nihilism of her generation that she was driven into the arms of the conservative movement. But at the same time she retained her sense of perspective and a healthy skepticism. As a result she offers a seemingly honest and often quite perceptive insiders view of the frequently unattractive machinations of governance as it was practiced in the Reagan Era.
See also:Presidents (Reagan)
-BOOKNOTES: What I Saw at the Revolution Author: Peggy Noonan Air Date: February 18, 1990
-ESSAY: RONALD REAGAN: Excerpted from an essay by Peggy Noonan (Character Above All, PBS)
-ESSAY: The Flyboy vs. the Boss's Son (Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY: THE CULTURE OF DEATH (PEGGY NOONAN, WALL STREET JOURNAL)
-ESSAY: MEMO FROM THE DESK OF PEGGY NOONAN TO: BOB DOLE DATE: MAY 27, 1996 (TIME)
-ESSAY: Dole's Long Road: His campaign was doomed by a lack of vision -- but distinguished by true grit (Peggy Noonan, CNN/TIME Allpolitics)
-ESSAY: There is no time, there will be time (Peggy Noonan, Forbes)
-ESSAY: Still, Small Voice (Peggy Noonan, Catholic Educator's Resource Center)
-REVIEW: of THE CONSERVATIVE CRACK-UP By R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. (Peggy Noonan, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of ALL THE BEST Letters From a Feisty Mayor. By Edward I. Koch with Leland T. Jones (Peggy Noonan, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE FROG PRINCE, CONTINUED By Jon Scieszka. Illustrated by Steve Johnson (Peggy Noonan, NY Times Book Review)
-EXCERPT? Dec 21, 1989 Peggy Noonan: 'KNEE DEEP IN THE HOOPLA' (NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of WHAT I SAW AT THE REVOLUTION A Political Life in the Reagan Era. By Peggy Noonan (Wilfrid Sheed, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of What I Saw at the Revolution A Political Life in the Reagan Era By Peggy Noonan (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: Joan Didion: Life at Court, NY Review of Books
What I Saw At the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era by Peggy Noonan
Jean Howard's Hollywood: A Photo Memoir
My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan by Nancy Reagan and with William Novak
At Reagan's Side by Helene von Damm
Behind the Scenes by Michael K. Deaver and with Mickey Herskowitz
Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches by Ronald Reagan
-REVIEW: of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness By Peggy Noonan (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS By Peggy Noonan (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of The Case Against Hillary Clinton By Peggy Noonan (Michael Oreskes, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of The Case Against Hillary Clinton by Peggy Noonan (Sean Elder, Salon)
-REVIEW: of The Case Against Hillary Clinton by Peggy Noonan Can Hillary Be Stopped? (Tim Wheeler, Intellectual Capital)
-REVIEW: of ALL THE PRESIDENTS' WORDS The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency. By Carol Gelderman (Michael Kammen, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Simply Speaking by Peggy Noonan (DANIEL H. PINK, Salon)
-REVIEW : of When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, by Peggy Noonan (Adam Liptak, NY Observer)