Say it ain't so, Peggy!

Peggy Noonan is among the very best conservative commentators.  She is brilliant, insightful, and a masterful writer.  Her weekly column in the Wall Street Journal is a must read.  Unfortunately, her latest column, entitled 'A Separate Peace' and loudly proclaiming that 'America is in trouble,' is a complete disaster, full of gloomy prognostications and misguided historical and political analysis.  John Derbyshire of the National Review calls the column 'Peggy Noonan's end—of—the—world piece.' 

Ms. Noonan's main point is that 'the presidency is overwhelmed' by the sheer number, scope, complexity, and speed of problems facing the country today.  She fears that these problems have made it 'impossible' to govern effectively.  I disagree.  I think Ms. Noonan has fundamentally misinterpreted both the state of the country today and the source of the unease she obviously feels about the future.

Ms. Noonan begins her column with the eye—opening observation that 'a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks.  That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't any time soon.'  This uncharacteristically lazy assertion (which people? what things have broken down? how can a 'sense' be 'unnoticed'?) is not supported by any hard evidence that this truly is a nation in despair, let alone that there is any reason for despair.  Instead, Ms. Noonan simply catalogues the various social, political, and economic issues confronting the country today, from nuclear proliferation, Iraq, and natural disasters, to cloning, public education, and 'leaving our kids with a bill no one can pay.'  Indeed, Ms. Noonan asserts that literally 'everything' — 'the whole ball of wax' — contributes to this 'general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming.'

As a logical and factual matter, Ms. Noonan is wrong.  Everything that is going on in the country today — good, bad, or indifferent — cannot possibly contribute to the same 'sense' of gloom and doom.  And all of the 'bad' things combined do not come close to outweighing the 'good' things.  While there certainly are serious problems (at the top of my list are Islamic terrorism, high rates of illegitimacy, out—of—control immigration, a failed public school system, overweening government, and a debauched popular culture), the bottom line is that, by any historical standard, the vast majority of people in this country live decent, comfortable, fulfilling lives.  Whether measured in terms of per capita income, rates of homeownership, the spread of technology, or the amount of time and money available for leisure and entertainment, the United States is richer than it ever has been, with more opportunity, more choices, and more cause for optimism than any other country on earth.  The United States also is the most powerful and influential country, by far, and regardless what the naysayers and saboteurs in the mainstream media and leftist universities have to say, we can take pride in knowing that we represent a force for good in the world.

I think someone needs to give Ms. Noonan a pep talk. And while they're at it, maybe a refresher course in 20th Century American history.  For in her latest column, Ms. Noonan, who usually demonstrates an astute understanding of history, contends that the problems facing the country and President Bush today are 'much' worse than the problems that confronted previous modern presidents.  This position cannot withstand scrutiny.  For example, the problems facing Franklin Delano Roosevelt — in particular, the Great Depression and World War Two — dwarf anything that we face today.  And the problems facing John F. Kennedy — including civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war — are surely more serious than Hurricane Katrina or Iraq.  Then there is Ronald Reagan, who came into office when the nation's economy was wracked by debilitating stagflation, when communism was on the march in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, when 'mutually assured destruction' seemed inevitable, and when the national mindset was drowning in a sea of selfishness and self—pity.  Times were tough in the 1970s; they are not nearly so tough now.

What makes our current period different from these earlier periods is not that the problems facing the country today are harder — they aren't — but that the leadership coming from the White House is weaker.  As a strong supporter of President Bush in 2000 and 2004, it is painful to admit this openly.  But other than the War on Terror (about which I have had my doubts, see here and here), President Bush has not exhibited strong, principled, persuasive leadership on any of the issues that are important to the people who twice elected him president, most importantly, reducing the size of the federal government (President Bush has never vetoed a spending bill and the number of federal regulations continues to increase), appointing strict constructionists to the Supreme Court (the Harriett Miers nomination was a complete debacle), reforming federal entitlement programs (Social Security reform appears dead and an expensive prescription drug program was enacted), and securing our borders and controlling immigration (President Bush supports a guestworker/amnesty plan). 

Perhaps equally frustrating for his supporters, President Bush has allowed the mainstream media and the Democratic Party to set the terms of debate — and to mislead the country about the strength of the economy, the success of the war in Iraq, the responsibility for the flooding in New Orleans, and other major issues.  This frustration (which I feel myself) is only intensified by the knowledge that the Republican Party controls not only the Presidency but both houses of Congress, yet too often acts like a minority party.   

Ms. Noonan apparently recognizes the weakness emanating from the White House.  She writes that 'some of us have felt discomfort regarding President Bush's leadership the past year or so,' and notes that 'he makes more than the usual number of decisions that seem to be looking for trouble.'  Nevertheless, instead of holding President Bush responsible for this lack of leadership, Ms. Noonan locates the source of the problem in history itself, and laments 'the impossible nature of everything, the realities so daunting it seems the very system is off the tracks.'  She even approvingly quotes Teddy Kennedy (!), who once told a gathering of family members that 'I'm glad I'm not going to be around when you guys are my age . . . [b]ecause when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.'  However, as a veteran of the administration of Ronald Reagan — who restored confidence and vitality to a nation that had been demoralized by the 'malaise' of the Carter years — Ms. Noonan should know better than to confuse a failure of leadership with the impossibility of leadership.  Surprisingly, this is exactly what she has done in this article.

I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Ms. Noonan not too long ago.  My essay is not intended as anything other than friendly, constructive criticism of the views she expressed in her latest article.  But I also hope it serves as a corrective to other conservatives who may become dejected over President Bush's manifold failures, and instead of redoubling their efforts to lead this country in the right direction, resign themselves to the view that (in Ms. Noonan's words) 'there is nothing they can do about it.'  This is the 'separate peace' that I am concerned about.  It is brought about by a lack of confidence in America's present and her future.  But Ronald Reagan taught us many years ago that there is no reason we should not believe in ourselves and in our capacity to perform great deeds and solve the problems that confront us.  All it takes is leadership.  As he proclaimed to the nation in his first inaugural address:  And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans.

Steven M. Warshawsky frequently comments on politics and current affairs from a conservative perspective.  He can be reached at smwarshawsky@hotmail.com.

Peggy Noonan is among the very best conservative commentators.  She is brilliant, insightful, and a masterful writer.  Her weekly column in the Wall Street Journal is a must read.  Unfortunately, her latest column, entitled 'A Separate Peace' and loudly proclaiming that 'America is in trouble,' is a complete disaster, full of gloomy prognostications and misguided historical and political analysis.  John Derbyshire of the National Review calls the column 'Peggy Noonan's end—of—the—world piece.' 

Ms. Noonan's main point is that 'the presidency is overwhelmed' by the sheer number, scope, complexity, and speed of problems facing the country today.  She fears that these problems have made it 'impossible' to govern effectively.  I disagree.  I think Ms. Noonan has fundamentally misinterpreted both the state of the country today and the source of the unease she obviously feels about the future.

Ms. Noonan begins her column with the eye—opening observation that 'a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks.  That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't any time soon.'  This uncharacteristically lazy assertion (which people? what things have broken down? how can a 'sense' be 'unnoticed'?) is not supported by any hard evidence that this truly is a nation in despair, let alone that there is any reason for despair.  Instead, Ms. Noonan simply catalogues the various social, political, and economic issues confronting the country today, from nuclear proliferation, Iraq, and natural disasters, to cloning, public education, and 'leaving our kids with a bill no one can pay.'  Indeed, Ms. Noonan asserts that literally 'everything' — 'the whole ball of wax' — contributes to this 'general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming.'

As a logical and factual matter, Ms. Noonan is wrong.  Everything that is going on in the country today — good, bad, or indifferent — cannot possibly contribute to the same 'sense' of gloom and doom.  And all of the 'bad' things combined do not come close to outweighing the 'good' things.  While there certainly are serious problems (at the top of my list are Islamic terrorism, high rates of illegitimacy, out—of—control immigration, a failed public school system, overweening government, and a debauched popular culture), the bottom line is that, by any historical standard, the vast majority of people in this country live decent, comfortable, fulfilling lives.  Whether measured in terms of per capita income, rates of homeownership, the spread of technology, or the amount of time and money available for leisure and entertainment, the United States is richer than it ever has been, with more opportunity, more choices, and more cause for optimism than any other country on earth.  The United States also is the most powerful and influential country, by far, and regardless what the naysayers and saboteurs in the mainstream media and leftist universities have to say, we can take pride in knowing that we represent a force for good in the world.

I think someone needs to give Ms. Noonan a pep talk. And while they're at it, maybe a refresher course in 20th Century American history.  For in her latest column, Ms. Noonan, who usually demonstrates an astute understanding of history, contends that the problems facing the country and President Bush today are 'much' worse than the problems that confronted previous modern presidents.  This position cannot withstand scrutiny.  For example, the problems facing Franklin Delano Roosevelt — in particular, the Great Depression and World War Two — dwarf anything that we face today.  And the problems facing John F. Kennedy — including civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war — are surely more serious than Hurricane Katrina or Iraq.  Then there is Ronald Reagan, who came into office when the nation's economy was wracked by debilitating stagflation, when communism was on the march in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, when 'mutually assured destruction' seemed inevitable, and when the national mindset was drowning in a sea of selfishness and self—pity.  Times were tough in the 1970s; they are not nearly so tough now.

What makes our current period different from these earlier periods is not that the problems facing the country today are harder — they aren't — but that the leadership coming from the White House is weaker.  As a strong supporter of President Bush in 2000 and 2004, it is painful to admit this openly.  But other than the War on Terror (about which I have had my doubts, see here and here), President Bush has not exhibited strong, principled, persuasive leadership on any of the issues that are important to the people who twice elected him president, most importantly, reducing the size of the federal government (President Bush has never vetoed a spending bill and the number of federal regulations continues to increase), appointing strict constructionists to the Supreme Court (the Harriett Miers nomination was a complete debacle), reforming federal entitlement programs (Social Security reform appears dead and an expensive prescription drug program was enacted), and securing our borders and controlling immigration (President Bush supports a guestworker/amnesty plan). 

Perhaps equally frustrating for his supporters, President Bush has allowed the mainstream media and the Democratic Party to set the terms of debate — and to mislead the country about the strength of the economy, the success of the war in Iraq, the responsibility for the flooding in New Orleans, and other major issues.  This frustration (which I feel myself) is only intensified by the knowledge that the Republican Party controls not only the Presidency but both houses of Congress, yet too often acts like a minority party.   

Ms. Noonan apparently recognizes the weakness emanating from the White House.  She writes that 'some of us have felt discomfort regarding President Bush's leadership the past year or so,' and notes that 'he makes more than the usual number of decisions that seem to be looking for trouble.'  Nevertheless, instead of holding President Bush responsible for this lack of leadership, Ms. Noonan locates the source of the problem in history itself, and laments 'the impossible nature of everything, the realities so daunting it seems the very system is off the tracks.'  She even approvingly quotes Teddy Kennedy (!), who once told a gathering of family members that 'I'm glad I'm not going to be around when you guys are my age . . . [b]ecause when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.'  However, as a veteran of the administration of Ronald Reagan — who restored confidence and vitality to a nation that had been demoralized by the 'malaise' of the Carter years — Ms. Noonan should know better than to confuse a failure of leadership with the impossibility of leadership.  Surprisingly, this is exactly what she has done in this article.

I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Ms. Noonan not too long ago.  My essay is not intended as anything other than friendly, constructive criticism of the views she expressed in her latest article.  But I also hope it serves as a corrective to other conservatives who may become dejected over President Bush's manifold failures, and instead of redoubling their efforts to lead this country in the right direction, resign themselves to the view that (in Ms. Noonan's words) 'there is nothing they can do about it.'  This is the 'separate peace' that I am concerned about.  It is brought about by a lack of confidence in America's present and her future.  But Ronald Reagan taught us many years ago that there is no reason we should not believe in ourselves and in our capacity to perform great deeds and solve the problems that confront us.  All it takes is leadership.  As he proclaimed to the nation in his first inaugural address:  And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans.

Steven M. Warshawsky frequently comments on politics and current affairs from a conservative perspective.  He can be reached at smwarshawsky@hotmail.com.