Peggy Noonan Surveys The Field

The columnist, author and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan has an item today in the Wall Street Journal in which she rates the current crop of Presidential candidates according to her slogan for 2008: “Reasonable Person for President”. She is herself a reasonable person, and while our assessments diverge in spots, I agree with much that she has to say. In particular I share her view of Hillary Clinton:

Hillary Clinton? No, not reasonable. I concede her sturdy mind, deep sophistication, and seriousness of intent. I see her as a triangulator like her husband, not a radical but a maneuverer in the direction of a vague, half-forgotten but always remembered, leftism. It is also true that she has a command-and-control mentality, an urgent, insistent and grating sense of destiny, and she appears to believe that any act that benefits Clintons is a virtuous act, because Clintons are good and deserve to be benefited.

But this is not, actually, my central problem with her candidacy. My central problem is that the next American president will very likely face another big bad thing, a terrible day, or days, and in that time it will be crucial–crucial–that our nation be led by a man or woman who can be, at least for the moment and at least in general, trusted. Mrs. Clinton is the most dramatically polarizing, the most instinctively distrusted, political figure of my lifetime. Yes, I include Nixon. Would she be able to speak the nation through the trauma? I do not think so. And if I am right, that simple fact would do as much damage to America as the terrible thing itself.

I do not expect Ms. Clinton to get the Democratic nomination; I think it will be Obama, about whom Ms. Noonan has, like me, a better opinion.

Given short shrift is Rudolph Giuilani, whom Ms. Noonan describes as “reasonable, but not desirable”, without further explanation. I’ll admit that I have misgivings about Rudy as well, despite having provisionally endorsed him in these pages a while ago. I think he has many desirable qualities, and has proven himself to be an effective administrator, but he is clearly an odd sort as well, and by all accounts a bit of a bully. I have supported him so far mainly because I see eye to eye with him on foreign policy: I consider directing foreign policy to be a president’s most important duty, and things are going to get even trickier (and uglier)now with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. But Peggy Noonan has some misgivings about him that she is reluctant to talk about; perhaps she has some personal quarrel with him, or maybe she just thinks he’s kind of nasty, as many people seem to.

Anyway, her article is worth a look. You may have points of disagreement, but she is an intelligent and articulate woman, and an astute and vastly experienced political observer. You can read the item here.

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  1. Charles says

    My worst nightmare would be if Hillary got the Democratic nomination and Romney got the Republican nomination. I could never in good conscience vote for either of them. I would have no idea what to do.

    Posted December 29, 2007 at 12:02 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I quite agree, Charles. I don’t think this will happen, though, as I rather expect Obama to get the Democratic nod. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, if Romney is the Republican champion.

    Posted December 29, 2007 at 12:53 am | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    Considering that Peggy Noonan was a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of George Bush, I’m not sure why anybody would care to find out what her preferences are this time around.

    In my view, people like Peggy Noonan, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz — who were so wrong about so much — ought to be in the penalty box for years to come.

    Her piece today was the usual twaddle which she produces. (John Edwards isn’t serious because he was videotaped combing his hair? It’s OK for Mitt Romney to take positions now which are diametrically opposed — but politically convenient — to his positions of a decade ago because “everyone in politics gets to change their mind once?”).

    However, her dismissal of Hillary has no substance besides Noonan’s obvious personal distaste for her. She concedes that Hillary possesses a “sturdy mind, deep sophistication, and seriousness of intent” (sounds like the definition of a reasonable person to me). This implies that Hillary has the characteristics which allow Romney to make the cut (“cheerfulness, personal stability and a good brain”), yet while these traits are good enough for snake oil salesman Romney, they are inadequate for Hillary.

    And why does Noonan dismiss Hillary as being not a “reasonable” leader? Because in Noonan’s view, she is “the most instinctively distrusted … political figure of my lifetime” More than Nixon? Agnew? Bush? Cheney? Alberto Gonzales? Oh, please. She got over double her opponent’s vote in the last election, in a state which seems to elect as many Republicans as Democrats for statewide office. Obviously her consituents have a different opinion.

    Moreover, Noonan will accept Duncan Hunter or Mitt Romney as a viable candidate, but not Hillary, because of Noonan’s belief that Hillary would be unable to speak to the nation effectively in the event of a national trauma. Oh really? And why is Noonan so sure that Hillary couldn’t provide leadership in a time of crisis? The reader is left guessing, as Noonan never explains why someone like Duncan Hunter can “speak the nation through the trauma” but Hillary cannot.

    Nobody — not even Noonan — disputes that Hillary is bright, knowledgeable, and sharply focussed. Nor does anyone challenge her abilities as a Senator, or even her positions on the issues. Rather, people like Noonan — who just don’t like Hillary — are left looking for reasons to oppose her candidacy, so we hear how she is power-hungry (what politician isn’t?), partisan (ditto), or shrill (an adjective which would not be applied to a male candidate). Peggy Noonan enthusiastically supported George Bush because he was a “regular guy” who she personally liked. Look where that got us. Peggy Noonan ought to be less concerned with her personal likes or dislikes and more concerned with which candidate is best equipped to solve intractable problems — or, to use her own criterion, which one is the most reasonable.

    Posted December 29, 2007 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    What took you so long? I was getting worried.

    I’ll pass over the ad hominem barbs with which you open your critique; anyway, we already know that we disagree about how “wrong” the folks you put in the penalty box were about various things, so no point rehashing that stuff.

    If you had read the article more carefully, you’d recall that the issue wasn’t John Edwards combing his hair; he was poofing it, which is something else altogether, and hardly presidential.

    Politicians change their minds more than once, often enough; Churchill was a good example. He famously said “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.” But none of that has anything to do with why I won’t be voting for Romney.

    You’re right that Noonan concedes that Hillary possesses a “sturdy mind, deep sophistication, and seriousness of intent”, but she also mentioned other, less admirable traits, and it is those that queer the deal, as far as she and I are concerned. After all, Rudy G. has a sturdy mind, sophistication, and seriousness too, but those were hardly sufficient to secure him your endorsement, if memory serves.

    You might not be aware of this, but Hillary is indeed instinctively distrusted by a great many people, exactly as Noonan describes (I know, because I’m one of them.) I thought that the comparison with Nixon was a bit much, but I do know that lots of people have the same sort of visceral reaction to Hillary as you and I did to Nixon.

    No-one challenges Hillary’s position on the issues? This would be an unexampled political miracle, if true. To the extent that she achieves it, it is by her constantly trying to be everything to everybody, as witness that bloody Yankees cap.

    But we’re all entitled to our personal sympathies and antipathies, of course; Noonan’s for Hillary seems no less vitriolic than yours for Noonan, and so on. It makes the world go round.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 1:15 am | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    1) Whether John Edwards was combing his hair or poofing his hair is a distinction without a difference. He was grooming himself before making an appearance. News flash: so does everyone else. Mitt Romney puts some kind of lubricant in his hair which gives it that Eddie Haskell look. Is it automatic transmission fluid? We don’t know: it hasn’t been on YouTube yet. If we’re going to disqualify Edwards for hair-poofing, then let’s disqualify Giuliani for appearing in drag – that’s hardly Presidential. I’m not a big John Edwards fan, but dismissing him because of his grooming habits is asinine.

    2) Mitt Romney is a man of no discernable convictions, and the fact that he is spending a lot of time and effort trying to distance himself from what he said and did a decade ago is evidence of that. Noonan writes that Clinton adheres to “a vague, half-forgotten but always remembered, leftism” (I’m scratching my head to understand how something which is always remembered can be half-forgotten.) In Noonan’s world, the candidate who vacillates between one side and the other is somehow more serious than the one who keeps to long-held convictions.

    3) The “other, less admirable traits” which Noonan ascribes to Clinton can also be attributed to every other candidate for President, in this year or any other. What President or would-be President does not have “a command-and-control mentality” and “an urgent, insistent and grating sense of destiny?” For that matter, you could probably pick any world leader, good or bad – FDR, LBJ, Mao, you name it – and they would all share those traits. It’s in the DNA of those who try to climb up the greasy pole of political power. Noonan’s BFF, George Bush, has both qualities in spades. However, it’s no big deal if Bush has his “grating” sense of destiny, but if it’s Hillary….

    As for her remark that “she appears to believe that any act that benefits Clintons is a virtuous act, because Clintons are good and deserve to be benefited:” whenever a sentence starts with “appears” or “seems,” it’s a red flag that the writer has no facts to back up the assertion, as otherwise the qualifier wouldn’t be there. How do we know that Hillary Clinton thinks this way? Beats me: there is nothing to back it up, so we just have to take Noonan’s word for it.

    And as for her statement that Clinton is untrustworthy: in the past month or two, Mitt Romney claimed that he was a life-long hunter (he wasn’t) and his father marched with Martin Luther King (he didn’t). These are two statements which are demonstrably false. Yet Noonan blithely ignores these untruths, while offering not a single example of Hillary’s purported mendacity because she is “instinctively distrusted,” which in her world presumably carries greater weight than those who we know to be liars.

    4) I don’t dispute that Giuliani has “a sturdy mind, sophistication, and seriousness” – and also that I would never endorse him for President – however, these are Noonan’s criteria and not mine. These three things are necessary but not sufficient. I think whether the candidate is right or wrong about the issues is of much greater importance, not to mention other factors, such as compassion, flexibility, and the ability to bring people of diverse opinion together.

    5) The fact that you “instinctively distrust” Hillary Clinton does not prove the statement that “a great many people” also distrust her. We know that the overwhelming majority of New York voters seem to trust her, and they are presumably the ones in the best position to know. I think that a great many people dislike Hillary Clinton for a number of reasons. My guess is that Noonan dislikes her because she is on the other side of the cultural divide. Others dislike her because they dislike her husband, because she is a woman, or because she doesn’t take on the “regular guy” affectations which most politicians take (as, for example, when the patrician George H. W. Bush claimed to like beef jerky when he was running for office).

    So I think there is a visceral dislike of her which manifests itself in pieces like Noonan’s. Noonan ignores the fact that she has done a good job as a Senator, has the same detailed grasp of the issues as her husband, and is a passionate believer in the things she advocates. Nor does she mention that Hillary Clinton achieved something nobody else has: she is the first woman to be a serious contender for the Presidency. Noonan doesn’t challenge Clinton’s positions or ideology, her competence, or her understanding of the world. Rather, she dismisses Clinton because of her instinct and intuition that Clinton would be unable to lead the nation in a time of crisis. Given that her earlier instinct and intuition regarding our current President was so wildly off-base, I don’t see why anyone should place any credence in how she intuits the world these days.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Well, Peter, if Hillary is indeed as deservingly and universally beloved and trusted as you say, the polls ought to reflect it. (I’d expect there to be a big star in the East any day now, too.)

    I’ll bet you’re right: Peggy and I are probably the only ones who think she’s really creepy. Let’s wait and see.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 3:36 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    I completely agree: lots of people find her creepy, even here in Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, Micheal Moore ticket stub-holding San Francisco. My point is that people dislike her for reasons extraneous to whether or not she would actually be a good President, just as George Bush was elected because enough people thought he would be more fun to have a beer with than John Kerry.

    Some people dislike Hillary because they just don’t want to see a woman become President. My guess is that Peggy Noonan doesn’t like her because she is from the other side of the culture wars: when Noonan was a Young Republican, Hillary was off protesting the war in VietNam. Some people react to her like hearing fingernails on a blackboard. Maybe she reminds them of a third grade teacher they didn’t like.

    My point is simply that these things have little to do with whether or not she is up to the job, and she is rarely challenged on the things which really matter: ideology, competence, grace under pressure.

    You could have the perfect candidate for President, but if he looks and talks like Jason Alexander, he will never be elected. Americans have a template which they want their President to be: hence you have candidates like Fred Thompson, who has absolutely no substance but looks the part. Hillary doesn’t fit the template. We’ve never had a brainy, assertive, female Baby Boomer run for President before. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that, and would rather see yet another candidate who looks like he just walked out of a country club. Americans figure that the President will be in their living rooms for the next four years, so they might as well vote for someone they like. My point is that this kind of thinking gave us eight years of George Bush.

    Hillary is not my perfect candidate. I would much rather see Mike Bloomberg as President. However, the question is not whether she is perfect or not: it is whether she is better than the others she is running against. In my view, she would clearly be a far better President than any of the Republican candidates. If Peggy Noonan wants to make a reasoned case why Romney or McCain would be a better President than Clinton, then have at it. In the piece in yesterday’s Journal, she failed to do so.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Well, Pete, I’m glad that you concede that lots of folks find Hillary creepy. (Here’s one, for example.) If lots of people feel that way in San Francisco, just imagine how folks in Oklahoma must feel about her! So at least I can pass over point #5 in your previous comment.

    You seem to think that there is nothing more to any of this than an instinctive dislike, or that she reminds them of a teacher they had(!), or the fact that she’s a woman. What about the possibility that in addition to finding her personally repellent, as you acknowledge many of us do, we simply don’t see any reason to imagine that she’d be a good president, or that, based on her past actions and those of her husband, we don’t trust her, or that we’d rather not extend the unimpressive Bush/Clinton dynasty to 28 years? I’ve been rather casual and flippant so far in this thread, but there are plenty of substantive reasons for a thoughtful and informed person not to vote for Hillary Clinton. You may not agree with them, but there is a lot more to it than a mere disaffectation of personality. (You needn’t make any further comparisons with Romney; you can rest assured I won’t be voting for him either, particularly since he declared folks like me to be enemies of America.)

    But I will cheerfully concede, if you like, that Noonan’s piece made few substantive arguments, and was really just a list of her personal reactions. I linked to it because some (not all!) of them coincided rather precisely with my own.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  9. the one eyed man says

    Fine: if there is a substantive case to be made why another candidate would be better than Hillary, then I’m eager to hear it.

    However, while it’s perfectly legitimate to look at “her past actions,” I think it is unfair to consider “those of her husband.” Just as it is unfair to give Hillary credit for balancing the federal budget, it is also unfair to tar her with her husband’s recklessness. Hillary is not Eva Peron or Lurleen Wallace running for office to save her husband’s seat — she deserves to be evaluated on her own merits, independent of Bill.

    As for the “unimpressive” Bush/Clinton dynasty” the twelve Bush years were unimpressive, but the Clinton years were pretty good. It’s hard to beat eight years of peace and prosperity. The fact that they were bookended by two Bush administrations is irrelevant to whether or not Hillary is the best candidate available. I don’t think that unfamiliarity is a good reason to elect someone President.

    A friend of mine, who is not especially political, saw Hillary speak recently. She was very surprised at the disparity between the Hillary Clinton which is portrayed in the media and the one she saw. She described Clinton as soft-spoken, sensible, and reasonable — hardly the Lady MacBeth she expected to see.

    In my view, the chief reason why America suffers from unimpressive political leadership is the elevation of the trivial over the substantive. Whether John Edwards poofs his hair, Mitt Romney wears Mormon underwear or not, or Rudy Giuliani bunked with two gay lovers when he left Gracie Mansion is spectacularly unimportant. Far more important is how they would solve the problems we are faced with and whether they have the character and leadership to be effective in the world’s most difficult job. We’ve had very successful Presidents with far greater flaws than these. Peggy Noonan is correct that reasonableness is a good starting point, but then she undercuts her argument by dismissing Edwards for a triviality and Clinton because of her (unreliable) instincts. The stakes are too high to make decisions based on such piffle.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    I quite disagree that it is unfair to associate Hillary with her husband. She has been selling herself on the basis of her “experience” in the White House, and anyone who doesn’t think that we are going to have plenty of Bill Clinton in a Hillary Clinton administration is unmoored from reality. I also do not share your rosy assessment of the Clinton administration, in particular regarding foreign policy (think of Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, etc.) and more specifically Islamic terrorism, to which he paid scant attention even as we suffered repeated attacks. (No need to sing the Bush/Iraq song in response, please.) Some of us would simply like some new blood in the White House after 20 years.

    While I agree with you that here in America we are righly known for focusing on the hat rather than the cattle, some “trivialities” are important indicators of a candidate’s nature. To give just one example, Mitt Romney’s wearing of Mormon underwear indicates that he is credulous enough to swallow the preposterous fabrications of that convicted flim-flam man and serial despoiler of underage girls, Joseph Smith. For me at least, that hardly enhances his resume.

    Fortunately, I don’t expect that Hillary is going to be the one getting the democratic nod, so with any luck this disagreement will be moot anyway.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  11. the one eyed man says

    Despoiler of underage girls? You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    As far as Bill and Hillary: if people associate Hillary Clinton with her husband, then she will be a shoo-in. Bill Clinton left office with a 65% approval rating.

    Posted December 31, 2007 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Well, at least you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

    Posted December 31, 2007 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  13. the one eyed man says

    I’m not so sure about that. The 35% who disapproved of Clinton probably voted for Bush.

    Hopefully (to quote Roger Daltrey) we won’t get fooled again —

    Posted December 31, 2007 at 10:16 am | Permalink