Anatomy of a Column
eggy Noonan was drinking French 75s and humming vague tuneless Edith Piaf chansons at The Chelsea Pier, wondering what to say about the Paris attacks, now a week old.
Her favorite barkeep JC (his real name, Peggy knew, was Juan Carlos, but she thought of him as Jesus Christ, especially when he bent over to pick up one of her always falling cocktail napkins with her crabbed handwriting on them), refreshed her refreshment without even being asked. “You looked troubled, Ms. Noonan. Do you want to talk to me about it?”
After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
In the days after Paris Emily Dickinson’s poem kept ringing through my mind as I tried to figure out what I felt—and, surprisingly, didn’t feel.
JC nodded sagely and continued his bar prep. It was, after all, before the lunchtime crowd. “That song you’ve been humming, I remember it from a black and white movie? It’s french, right?”
Noonan gave him an enigmatic smile.
The sentimental tweeting of that great moment in “Casablanca” when they stand to sing “La Marseillaise” left me unmoved. I didn’t feel anger, really. I felt grave, as if something huge and terrible had shifted and come closer.
Noonan looked around the near empty bar and then declared to JC,
After the pain of previous terror incidents, from 9/11 straight through to Madrid 2004 (train bombings, 191 dead), London 2005 (suicide bombers, 52 dead) and Paris 10 months ago (shootings, 17 dead), the focus was always on the question: What will the leaders—the political and policy elite—think?
“Well, it could have been worse, Mommy. It could have been Beirut under my watch. 299 dead.”
Noonan was not startled that Ronald Wilson Reagan—the greatest president of the last half of the last century, maybe the greatest president ever—materialized next to her. He’d been showing up more and more often to console her lately. She signaled JC to give Reagan whatever he wanted. JC just shook his head and walked away.
What did surprise Noonan was the way no one else saw Reagan in all the sunny glory he radiated in the otherwise dark bar.
Peggy beamed at her drinking buddy.
Continued travels through the country show me that people continue to miss [your] strength and certitude. In interviews and question-and-answer sessions, people often refer to [your] “optimism.” That was his power, they say—[you were] optimistic.
Reagan smiled his 1,000 kilowatt best, and Noonan blushed.
“Now Peggy, remember the last time you told everyone that they wanted Mitt Romney elected? You know when you saw yard signs in Florida?”
Noonan’s hand fluttered, bird-like, up to her ever-present pearl necklace, a present from the great man himself.
No, I say, that wasn’t [your] power and isn’t what [they] miss. [Your] power was that [you were] confident. [You were] confident that whatever the problem—the economy, the Soviets, the million others—[you] could meet it, the American people could meet it, and our system could meet it. The people saw [your] confidence, and it allowed them to feel optimistic. And get the job done.
“Thanks, Peg. Your speeches always made me sound like I knew what I was doing.”
JC filled Noonan’s glass with water and closed out her tab, and then ordered a cab for her.
—Uncertain Leadership in Perilous Times, by Peggy Noonan
(New Readers: The Further Adventures of Peggy Noonan is a sometimes feature where we parody the much-quoted Reagan hagiographer Peggy Noonan to try to understand the genesis of her Declarations column in the WSJ. We do not know if Noonan’s quaff of choice is the Mai Tai or as in today the French 75, but to paraphrase the Great Writer herself, “Is it irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to.” – Bacardi Lifetime Achievement Winner, Peggy Noonan, Wall St. Journal, April 2000.)