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Talking Presidential

Wall Street Journal columnist and presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan shares how the power of words can influence trust in government

By: Tom Walsh

From the presidencies of Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, no American political writer’s voice has been more prominent these past four decades than that of Peggy Noonan. She will bring that voice to the 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference, where she will speak on restoring confi dence in government, media and business to rebuild trust in society.

“I have never seen Americans so divided into different cultural and sociological camps as they are now, with different perceptions, media habits, and ways of getting their primary or beginning views enforced,” Noonan said in an interview with the Detroiter.

Viewed mainly as a political conservative after working for three Republican presidents and writing a book in 2000 titled “The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” Noonan emerged as a sharp critic of candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Her columns on the campaign for The Wall Street Journal earned her the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for political commentary.

Noonan has always had a way with words. As a speechwriter for President Reagan in 1986, she wrote his memorable address to the nation after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in fl ight, killing all seven crew members, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. In less than six hours after the shock and horror of that event, Noonan penned and Reagan delivered a masterwork that was at once somber and uplifting.

“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted,” Reagan said, “it belongs to the brave.”

Working years later for President George H. W. Bush, Noonan coined the phrases “a thousand points of light” and “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

A Wall Street Journal columnist since 2000, Noonan has also authored nine books on politics, culture and religion. Before writing speeches for Reagan, she wrote daily commentaries from 1981-84 for CBS News anchor Dan Rather. Later she was a consultant for the television drama, “The West Wing.”

Noonan said both the news and entertainment media bear some blame for today’s contentious state of public discourse. To a certain degree, the news media speaks about and refl ects “the divisions of on-the-ground America,” she said. But she also added that the news media seems “very upfront in a pretty daily way about its essential antipathy to (President) Trump.”

While describing herself as “Trump critic in the opinion space,” Noonan said, “I am not sure it does us any good as a nation that Trump supporters can legitimately claim that those in the news media are overwhelmingly against Trump” and therefore experience news about the presidency through that filter.

Entertainment shows with political themes also impact the nation’s psyche, she suggested. Over the past 10 years, shows like “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” and others “have been deeply cynical, deeply assumptive of the idea that those in politics are in it for the power, the money, the glory, the fame, and are essentially amoral,” Noonan said.

And she worries that “humans in America have become conditioned to see politics and its players in an even lower and more degraded form.”

Restoring public trust and confidence, Noonan said, begins with individual citizens.

“We’ve had democracy for a really long time,” she said. “Let’s talk about what’s good about it. A simple human, solitary attempt each day to try to be fair, not giving in to hating the other side, or looking down on the other side or sides – these individual things help. We all have a lot of power in our own hands as citizens.”
Comparing today’s political tumult with the nation’s mood under other recent leaders – Reagan, the Bushes, the Clintons, and Barack Obama – Noonan said the Trump phenomenon is hard to fi gure out. Is it a blip, an anomaly, or something worrisome, even dystopian?

“Dystopian is going too far for me,” Noonan said. “You never know with history. It takes its turns. Mr. Trump will not be here forever … and we will see as we come out if he has changed politics, in terms of the style and general approach to the presidency. We’ll see if he has changed it irrevocably or not; that will take time.”

One thing Trump has changed, she added, is the notion of who can become president.

“It used to be that in order to be an American president, chances were you had to be a senator or a governor, or perhaps in the case of Eisenhower, a great general,” Noonan said. “Trump’s background was utterly apart and different.”

“When I was a kid, we used to say, ‘Anybody can be president.’ Now we say it in a wholly different way,” Noonan chuckled.