'This American Moment' As Peggy Noonan Sees It Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, weighs in on the historical significance of the 2008 presidential election.

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95243137/95249542" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington D.C. Here are headlines of some stories we're following here today at NPR News. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly plans to seek a change to the city's term limits law so he could run for a third term. Bloomberg is expected to make an announcement tomorrow. And the United States Senate debates a measure that could open civilian nuclear trade between the United States and India. The Bush administration and senior lawmakers from both pasties support the bill. Critics say it would hurt global non-proliferation efforts. Details on those stories and of course much more later today on All Things Considered. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, Lynn Neary will be here as guest host. She talks with Marshall Brain, host of "Factory Floor" about how they make everything from beer to money to hotdogs. That's tomorrow's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Now, "This American Moment." Since the Democratic and Republican conventions a few weeks ago, we've been asking politicians, journalists, writers and thinkers to take a step back to put this election and this campaign season in context to tell us what's at stake, what this election means to them. In just a moment, Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street journal and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, joins us. In recent columns, she's written that supporters of both candidates may doubt that their man is up to the job, that she doesn't how either of them really thinks and about our shared sense that our great institutions are failing. We also want to know what this American moment means to you.

Our number in Washington, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Peggy Noonan is the author, most recently, of "Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now." She joins us today from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Ms. PEGGY NOONAN (Author, "Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now"): Neal, it's very nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: In one of your recent columns adapted from your new book, you wrote "our leaders are removed from life as we live it each day." What do you mean by that?

Ms. NOONAN: I mean that they are in Washington, D.C., in the whirl of the daily demands of government, the daily reality of government. They're almost caught up in the vortex of it and they lose contact with the American people and knowledge of life as it is lived on a normal daily basis by the American people. The example I use in the book, one of the things I go off on a bit, is one having to do with airport security. There's a regular- almost daily, if you fly a lot, humiliation involved with the fact that we are all spread-eagled and patted down and treated in a sort of demoralizing, and I think ultimately vulgar manner. In the security checks, so many of our leaders who go on TV and say, this is needed, this is good, this is fine, I understand what they're saying, but they don't live lives where they experience that. They live lives in private jets.

I don't mean this is an only populist sense. I mean they are literally detached. I think we saw - I mean, speaking of the moment in history we're in, I think we saw a little bit of this in the past few days when the - when I think we witnessed an epic repudiation of the Washington political class by the American people in the rejection of the bailout bill. You know, I think there's a real distance between the people and their governing class at this point.

CONAN: Well, as somebody who's already loosening his shoelaces on the way out to BWI after the program...

Ms. NOONAN: Right.

CONAN: I know what you feel.

Ms. NOONAN: I think we all feel that way. There is something- you know, we know it is intrusive. We know it is offensive, but there is something subtly demoralizing about it and about seeing the old person whose hip replacement is putting off the machine. And the thing that touches my heart and upsets me the most these days is seeing little parents. You know, we are a flying nation. Americans fly. A mom and two kids are there in the airport, on the way to Cincinnati. And you're seeing the kids being terrified by people barking at them and by the throwing of the bins and the, take off your shoes and, that little girl didn't take off her sneakers. My goodness! It's just awful. It's not what the book is about, but it is one of the things I go on a tear about quite regularly.

CONAN: What the book is about is patriotic grace. Tell us what it is and why we need it now.

Ms. NOONAN: Patriotic grace - well, let me back into it this way. This July, I cleared the decks. I sat and I wrote every day a very short book that was my own little barbaric yawp. It was my own little crying out of one message that I could never quite fit into one column, but that I wanted very badly to say and that I think it brings all of my thoughts about where we are as a country to the moment. This is what I think, look, as a nation we are facing the most extraordinary challenges. As I wrote it in July, I said, the banks may fail, this whole economic system seems to be build on faith. What if we lose the faith? Beyond that, we face the most extraordinary age in which not great nations states but independent actors and groups of actors can come and attack great nations. And if it happens to America again and all of the- you know, the great experts on this say, look of course, if you're leaving in this age, eventually something will happen.

All of those who know about it say it will happen but I sense that my country is not prepared for it. And frankly, I wanted to just speak about it and say, prepare, have better civil defense. We are America, we get through everything. We are going to get through this economic collapse, we are - if that is indeed what it is- we are going to get through the next time we are hit. But we shouldn't avoid these subjects, we should deal with them, and here's where the grace of patriotic grace comes in.

We must as a nation that loves to talk about politics and is always involved in politics, we must raise our games to meet this moment. We've got to stop dealing with small things, deal with the big things that hold us together, support those things that hold us together. Try to treat the other side with dignity and grace and a very hard thing, an assumption of good will. We got to raise our game and not devolve into what we saw, I think in Washington in the past few days in which people were, people on both sides, I think politically were sort of using each other as target practice and losing site of this big thing which is our country has needs, help the country, forget your nasty little party stuff.

CONAN: Who gets to decide, what are big things and what are little things? Because as you know, there's - a lot of people - many of our European friends for example say, what is this huge distraction you have in this country about the debate over abortion? This is something that should be decided by people and they can make up their own minds and as you know, certainly better than I do, there are people who think this is the issue.

Ms. NOONAN: Yeah. I think it is an essential, important issue because it is an issue that speaks of- I mean those who are very pro-choice and those who are very pro-life and I am one of them. This is big. It has to do with human life. It has to do with how we live as a society. It's big but it can always be discussed in depth with seriousness, with dignity and we can work it out. I happen to thank Roe, I mean this is only my opinion but I think Roe v. Wade probably took this inevitable debate and tugged it away from debate and tugged it into the courts and put it in a certain direction that was not helpful. It should have been solved democratically. It should have been solved, I think in my view, state by state by state.

There are some arguments that are inevitable, but not every argument is inevitable. Abortion is big, but an amendment to outlaw flag burning that ought to be put in the Constitution of the United States, that's not big. Do you know what I mean? There are things that are just small and that are one party playing games against the other. It is my feeling - I tend to be very liberal in my view of what people do in politics, by which I mean there's loads of mischief, there's loads of fun, there's loads of, get the other team. I understand that.

CONAN: Yeah. There are a lot of people who would sometimes prefer to have the issue rather than the bill. I mean they set traps for votes.

Ms. NOONAN: Oh, yes. There's mischief. This whole professional political advice class that we have in Washington, the professional political operatives, the so-called Republican strategists and Democratic strategists who show up on TV, the people on the airplane surrounding the candidates telling them, do this, do that. Oh my goodness. I think we just have a bit too much of that and it's rather coarse. But here's the thing. It's not 1972 anymore or 1988 or it's 1992. It's 2008. We've entered a new moment in history. The old way, the old mischief doesn't apply to this moment. I don't mean to be dreadfully sober and dull but I do mean a certain earnestness and seriousness is in order.

CONAN: We're talking with Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street journal as part of our continuing series, This American Moment. If you'd like join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Why don't we begin with a member of the audience here at the Newseum?

SARAH (Audience Member): Hi, my name is Sarah and though my father was born in D.C., I'm from the famous or infamous state of Ohio. And I've been watching Cleveland decay for years. What I see, although I would agree with Ms. Noonan on many points, is that in part because of the very sophisticated schemes we have for redistricting, we are losing all our moderates, all the people who might be able to build bridges. And so we are not- we've lost civil discourse and as a result, we're seeing a kind of tribalism arise in the United States as well as in many parts of the world where we are involved. I need not mention their names.

But this led to the collapse of both the Roman empire and the British empire. Their inability to govern in places where as human beings we seem to be very emotional and very attached to a kind of group, a collective groupism, nationalism, whatever you'd like to call it. And I see the same thing happening here and I don't see much hope of changing it except unless we go to, let's say, Iowa's system for determining congressional districts.

CONAN: Romans did a lot of things wrong. I don't think gerrymandering was one of them.

Ms. NOONAN: Can I say...

SARAH: They didn't manage that.

CONAN: Go ahead, Peggy Noonan.

Ms. NOONAN: Let me agree with something. I do sense, Neal, that our politics are becoming more polar, more extreme. I think there are a number of reasons for it. I think we see a reflection of it and an encourager of this tendency in the wildness of what is said in the anonymous post in the comment thread of the right-wing or left-wing blog in the Internet. You know I think there's a certain polarity, extremity and rage going on that you know, I know it existed 20 years ago and 30 years ago but it all seems so much more so.

A friend of mine recently, he is involved in a small effort to put forward a particular issue in Washington. It's not the most controversial issue in the world and he's trying to get support and he's trying to get a bill put forward. It's a very reasonable, moderate sort of thing. He told me once - I met up with him a few months ago. He told me that when he sends out a fundraising letter speaking of bipartisan support for the bill he supports and putting forward the nature of the bill and the nature of what he's involved in it in the most moderate tones, he gets no response.

You know, he's trying to raise some funds. He doesn't make any money, but when he gets extreme in his language and more or less puts this forward as a conservative thing and not a moderate or liberal thing, then he gets a big response. I know that is true on the other side, too. This is not to be encouraged, you know? This extremity and polarity is not what we need at the moment. The times are extreme enough.

CONAN: We're talking with Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, author of "Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's an email from, I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly, Cara in Tallahassee. While I would typically agree with your guest I have to point out that one of the reasons I was happy with Joe Biden as a vice presidential choice, he takes the train home like a normal guy. That says something to me. He, of course, the Senator from Delaware and takes the Amtrak train home to Wilmington every day. And that also leads to a questions about- you were talking about the kinds of politicians who live in a bubble and a lot of people thought a lot of the appeal of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential pick was that she seemed like somebody who was completely outside that bubble.

Ms. NOONAN: Yes, I think that's true, and she makes the great deal of it. She makes a great deal of hey, you know, this is my background is middle-class, it's Alaska. It's not in the bubble, but I think- I happen to be one of those who thinks that it is correct that a certain amount- Experience is not a bad thing. Experience is a good thing. Sophistication is not bad. Sophistication is good. It is a delicate balancing act for American politicians to retain the ways and values of and knowledge of the people at home. And the people who you represent while you must also have an expertise in legislating, in leading, standing for. So, I don't really like the polarity between, I'm in the Washington - I'm a Washington establishment figure versus, oh, no, I'm down home.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. NOONAN: Keep both of them. Keep them together. It doesn't have to be quite so extreme, it seems to me.

CONAN: And you've written about how you see liberals and Democrats trying to paint Sarah Palin as somebody extreme, strange, outsider, different. We've also seen from the other side the efforts to paint Barack Obama. Barack Hussein Obama, as some people insist on repeating, the same way.

Ms. NOONAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: All right.

Ms. NOONAN: Well, he is something new. What this two have in common is comparatively little experience in the - oh heck, in government. They're both very new on the scene and they're both by their nature dramatic figures, you know.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NOONAN: They're something new. They're something different. They draw all the eyes, so everybody's trying to figure them out. I understand that.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left. I should have not given you so little time, but I do need to ask you. What do you think is at stake in this American moment?

Ms. NOONAN: In a way in America, our continuance is always at stake. Do you know what I mean? We've had a long and fabulous history and we have faced crisis after crisis after crisis. We are a strong country. I would like us to remember that we are strong country. One of the things that I think that is important for us to remember, that none of our political leaders in the past few days and weeks have reminded us is, that we are America. You never bet against this country. We are going to get through this hard time. We are going to get through it whole, but it's going to take effort. There is a sense in the American democracy and the American experiment that we're always making it up each day and that is a good thing. This is a creative nation. I would like us to go forward with a greater sobriety, however, and a greater appreciation for the moment we are in.

CONAN: Peggy Noonan, thanks very much for your time.

Ms. NOONAN: Thank you, Neal, very much.

CONAN: Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, author of "Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now." She joined us from our bureau in New York. I'm Neal Conan. Lynn Neary is going to be here tomorrow and I will be in St. Louis for the vice presidential debate so, Lynn will guest-host for the next guest in our 'This American Moment' series, Ebu Patel will be joining us on the program tomorrow. And we'll continue the series up until Election Day. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.