Professor Noonan? No Thanks

Peggy Noonan, a fellow at at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, is leading a “study group,” which I gather is kind of like a seminar combined with a writer’s workshop. It’s called “Creativity in Journalism, in Politics, and in Life.” Her syllabus is, without a doubt, the worst-written I have ever seen. But this should surprise no one. Noonan, a former speechwriter for Reagan and Bush I and a widely published author and columnist, is a terrible writer.

She introduces her study group thusly:

It is a study group aimed at talking about the writer’s life, and a writer’s efforts, in three fields: column writing, speech-writing, and book writing. It is about what writers are, always, trying to do, and that is think it new, see it new, make it new. A writer tries to make clarity out of confusion, to capture reality, to see what is. A good writer is trying to be alive. A columnist says, “I think this is true, I want to tell you about it, please listen to me, let’s think about it together.”

You may have noticed this is really bad writing. And yet I enjoy that sentence about trying to be alive. It’s just hanging out in there in that jittery, meandering commafest, and she’s right: Having a pulse is a crucial prerequisite to being a good writing. At the very least, it’s a worthy goal.

The rest of her syllabus is just as bad. If you read it, try not to focus on any specific problem. Set aside the total reliance on the passive voice, the inability to ascribe actions to actors and thoughts to people. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Instead, just let yourself savor the general meaninglessness.

Noonan attempts to elaborate on the literary process by name-dropping Reagan: “He would make his case and illustrate his points and you’d sit in the audience and think, ‘Yes, that’s true, I agree’ or, ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure.’ But it wasn’t passive, this exchange, it was active, a real back and forth.”

Unfortunately, she never actually explains why or how this was “a real back and forth.” She relies on the mysticism of Reagan. We are to just assume that there was some magic property in this politician delivering some unspecified speech, some special quality that made the experience truly participatory. Noonan just doesn’t say what that property was, or why it was there, or how it was there. It was just there. He was Reagan, The Great Communicator. He was magic. Just go with it.

Noonan goes on to gush that the “modern reader reaction is thrilling and touching and infuriating and fabulous and out of bounds and deeply wise.” She references Whitman’s “great barbaric YAWP,” such is her passion for the readership, even though she is “rarely swept away by praise or devastated by criticism.” In other words, the American public is this immensely wonderful, inscrutably awesome, intoxicating thing, but we don’t affect her all that much. We are ants in an ant farm: fascinating to watch, but not affecting, despite our, like, amazingly super awesome and friggin’ great reactions to Peggy Noonan.

At least in the lesson plans she makes an oblique case for why the study group is relevant or worth taking. She sells her personal experience as interesting and useful. Noonan name drops all the famous people she’s known and worked with and she promises other famous people as guest speakers. She is very famous and knows very famous people. She has occupied rooms in which important things were done, and she could probably even draw a little map of who was sitting where.

So attending the study group provides second-hand access to her second-hand access to decades of close proximity to important stuff and important people. It’s not a study group on writing or the journalistic process, it’s The Peggy Noonan Experience. At a time when the public’s trust in the mainstream media has declined to the point of open contempt, Noonan’s main message appears to be that the quality of one’s prose is linearly related to the size of one’s Rolodex.

Of course, Noonan has spent her career demonstrating that this distrust and disrespect are well-earned. Her writing traffics in the prosaic and the vague. She does not get to the point. Instead, she hovers above the point, looking down in a manner that is supposed to be magisterial and dignified. She sighs softly, clucks her tongue, and tosses words in the general direction of ideas.

Her speaking manner is similarly vague and meandering. Noonan comes across as a brain-fried New Ager, only one who sells antiquated Reagan-era political mysticism instead of DIY Buddhism and beads. She radiates all the sneering, vacant pretend benevolence of Reagan-era presidential public relations. Really, see if you can actually watch this Noonan interview to the very end. It’s punishingly insubstantial and slow. If you thought this was an unfair sample, check out her thoughts on investigating torture allegations. Apparently, some people enjoy that.

She always sounds like this, no matter the subject. Noonan never conveys any actual content. Instead, she communicates a feeling. It’s a droning ambiance, the promise that no matter what happens, everything’s gonna be okay. If whatever issue were really and truly dire, then of course Noonan wouldn’t even be there, because her very presence demonstrates that we’re not taking it seriously. She is simply incompatible with relevance and urgency.

There is certainly a lot for a prospective journalist or political writer to learn from Peggy Noonan. She is a case study on insubstantial journalism and on how to build a successful career as a political flack pretending to be a journalist. But I really can’t figure out what Harvard’s IOP was thinking bringing her on as a teaching fellow. With print journalism in free fall and cable TV news degenerating into a cannibalistic exercise in gimmicky brinksmanship, graduate programs need to think long and hard about how they train incoming generations of journalists. Professor Noonan is not going to cut it.

Randolph Brickey

Randolph Brickey is an attorney in solo practice in Northern Virginia.