Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Review of What I Saw at the Revolution by Peggy Noonan



When I was in college, I studied as a political science major for two years before switching my major. Though I don't remember much about the particular lessons I learned in those two years, I do recall having to write numerous essays and analyses of political events. At that time, the country had recently embarked on Clinton's first term, so the events and policies of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations were the topics that I regularly researched and wrote about. That's how I came across a gem of a book called What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era by former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

As you can certainly gather from the title, Noonan's book gives reader's a glimpse of what it was like to work for President Reagan. Her tales of daily activities in the White House are thoroughly engaging and entertaining. Having reread the book recently, I was surprised at how well it has held up over the years, and how Noonan's vivid descriptions of some of the defining moments of the Reagan administration have the power to transport the reader back in time. I discovered that I was unconsciously nodding at several points throughout the book, thinking to myself, "Oh, yes. That's exactly how I felt too."

If you're one of those people who prefer not to read books that have the slightest political connection, I have news for you: don't dismiss What I Saw at the Revolution so quickly. Of course politics and world events play central roles in Noonan's memoir; however, the book covers such a range of topics that it's difficult for me to pigeonhole it as simply "political." For example, Noonan discusses a few of the challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated field, and manages to get through these discussions without whining or a sense of entitlement. These kinds of lessons, and Noonan's general observations about people's natures and the working world make the book worthwhile even if you are not very interested in politics.

As I said, though, there's no escaping the politics in the book. For me, Noonan's tales of meeting and interacting with Reagan and Bush elevated What I Saw at the Revolution from "just another book about politics" to a wonderfully personal, touching anecdote-filled portrait of a White House staffer. Yes, her conservative ideals and opinions are sprinkled throughout the pages, but that's to be expected in any work written by someone involved in politics.

I was surprised to see how many of the most famous speeches from the Reagan and Bush administrations Noonan either crafted herself or helped develop. For example, when the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy struck in 1986, it was Noonan's words that helped comfort and console the entire nation. If you read the book, you'll see many more instances of how Noonan's ideas and sentiments were turned into political catchphrases that we remember even to this day ("a thousand points of light").

Noonan writes in a very conversational tone throughout the book, which I greatly appreciated. It made her words more sound more sincere, her emotions more heartfelt, and her ideals more earnest. Plus, it's just a lot more fun when you read about a presidential speechwriter whose first glimpse of the man she worked for amounted to seeing his foot! Noonan didn't actually stay in the White House for very long, but she certainly managed to accomplish a lot while she was there.

As with most books, I found that it wasn't perfectly suited to my tastes. Noonan occasionally lapses into policy discussions on issues that I didn't understand or that I didn't find very interesting. In addition, it was sometimes difficult for me to remember the controversy surrounding certain events Noonan discussed. And without knowing the cause of the controversy, the impact is somewhat diminished.

Overall, I highly recommend What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era as an excellent way to get a glimpse of what really goes on in the West Wing and the Oval Office behind closed doors. Noonan is a very engaging and charismatic writer, and I think you'll enjoy this book whether or not you are a political junkie and regardless of your ideology.


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