By Peggy Noonan
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New York Times bestseller The Time of Our Lives travels the path of Peggy Noonan’s remarkable and influential career, beginning with a revealing essay about her motivations as a writer and thinker. It’s followed by an address to students at Harvard University on the drafting of President Reagan’s speech the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Then comes one surprising chapter after the next including:
“People I Miss” — memorable salutes to the likes of Tim Russert, Joan Rivers, Margaret Thatcher, and others.
“Making Trouble” — Peggy’s sharpest, funniest and most critical columns about Democrats and Republicans, the idiocracy of government, and Beltway disconnect.
“I Just Called to Say I Love You” — Peggy’s most poignant writing capturing the country’s grief and recovery in the wake of 9-11, and clear-eyed foresight on what lay ahead in terms of war and sacrifice.
“The Loneliest President Since Nixon” — tracking hope and change as it became disillusionment and disappointment with President Obama.
And other sections where Peggy discerns the mood of the country (“State of the Union”), the melodrama of the historic 2008 election (“My Beautiful Election”), her battles with the Catholic Church (“What I Told the Bishops”) and lighter meditations on baseball, a snowy afternoon in Brooklyn, and motherhood (“Having Fun”).
Annotated throughout, The Time of Our Lives articulates Peggy’s conservative vision, demonstrating why she has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor.
Table of Contents
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The title of this book is derived from an observation of the writer Laurens van der Post: "We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time." This is an orienting thought: We are part of the era in which we live, we must fully see this and pitch in. This is often on my mind. So these days is the instruction of Pope John XXIII: "Do not walk through time without leaving worthy evidence of your passage." I saw the quote on the bottom of a street pamphlet when I went to Rome in April 2014 to witness his canonization. I wrote it down on an envelope in my purse, and it's taped now to my office door.
I think that's what all writers are trying to do, leave worthy evidence of their passage. Anyway, these quotes sum up where I am in terms of my work and the attitudes I bring to it.
* * *
Here are some of the times of my life:
My professional life so far has consisted in three parts. I graduated college in 1974, having begun Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, New Jersey, as a night student and then attending during the day; I was 23 when I graduated. A few months later I began my career at a CBS-owned radio station in Boston, and in 1977 I joined CBS News in New York. In both jobs I functioned mostly as a news gatherer (reporter is too grand a term and was not in any case my title), editor and producer of network radio news broadcasts, and writer of editorials and essays.
In the second part, in the 1980s, I worked in the White House of Ronald Reagan, where I was a speechwriter for the president and, in the decade following, a writer of books and freelance op-ed pieces and essays. The third part began in 2000, when I became a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. The parts have some bleed—I have written books and essays during my time at the Journal—but hold in terms of general outline. In 2014 a friend with whom I often discuss our work urged me to gather together essays and columns I'd written the past 25 years and put the ones I like best in a collection. And so this book.
You will find in it a bit of walking the hallowed halls of the White House, the plainer but still august halls of CBS News when, as we felt, it was the greatest of the three American news networks, and the wounded streets of New York during 9/11 and after.
* * *
Putting this all together involved hauling from closets and warehouses big white storage boxes that contained what I'd written and rereading every piece. In time I had three huge piles—the yes pile, which was small, the no pile, which was larger, and the maybe pile, which was growing. My editor and friends and I sifted, winnowed and culled.
Rereading what you've written over the years is an interesting experience. You find things you got wrong (they're somehow never a surprise—you always remember what you got wrong), things you wish you could rethink and rewrite, mistakes of tone and tenor. You find things that seem as pertinent now as the day they were published, and things that bring tears to your eyes like the tears you had when you wrote them. You find things you'd forgotten that in retrospect were prescient: In a Wall Street Journal column I'd wondered if a man named Osama bin Laden would grimly pop up in the background as Bill Clinton gave his farewell speech in 2000. I was surprised there were only a few pieces I'd forgotten—I thought there would be more—and surprised I felt attached to so many. "That said exactly what I wanted to say," "God, the reaction," "I had a feeling of failure after that one."
As I sifted I discovered some preoccupations I didn't know I had—with British politics and culture, for instance. There's a steady theme of the importance of work itself in the shaping of the meaning of a life. There were more pieces on baseball than I would have guessed. I saw preoccupations of which I am aware: with America, with its culture and with the nature and importance of political leadership. There was a lot on the excitement of politics and the meaning of the greatness game.
Going through the boxes also gave me in a more acute way the sense of an arc. In the CBS boxes I saw scripts that reminded me I had been taught and mentored by the greatest broadcast news journalists of the 20th century. The boxes containing essays I had written in or about the White House reminded me in some new, fresh way of my good fortune in working for one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century, whom Republicans and conservatives see as the last unambiguously successful president of the modern era. Other boxes contained 15 years of work at one of the greatest daily newspapers on the planet, the Wall Street Journal.
Part of how I make my living is making speeches, and sometimes in introductions I am called a pioneer. This makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons, including the fact that "pioneer" sounds pretty old. And yet in those boxes there was a sense of constantly being in pioneer territory—part of the first, great wave of women to enter modern broadcast journalism in the 1970s, among the first to enter politics and the White House in the 1980s, and to write about the experience. Then, in 2000, I joined a pioneer generation of Internet columnists writing not for paper but for screens.
* * *
Over some months I put aside the pieces I liked most, cut and cut again. The last cut is this book.
There are essays and op-ed pieces that appeared in various publications in the 1990s, a lecture given at Harvard, and columns I have written for the Wall Street Journal.
Because they predominate a word on how they came about.
In the spring of 2000, Bob Bartley, then and since 1972 the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, called me at my home in New York. He said in his plain, spare way that there was this thing called the Internet and the Journal was going to have an online editorial page, and would I like to write a weekly column?
Sure, I said. Actually I probably paused a second so I'd seem deliberative but I didn't have to think.
He offered a monthly salary and I asked if we could add 10 percent so I'd be able to tell myself I'd negotiated toughly. He laughed and said sure. We shook hands over the phone, and later he would send me a letter of agreement. We were both sort of careless or lighthearted about it, but that phone call would change and add a great deal to my life.
I said yes so quickly because I had known Bartley for 10 years, had written op-ed pieces for his page and admired him. If he thought it was a good idea it probably was, if he thought I could do it I probably could. Also I knew something about him that I'm not sure he'd made generally known. He famously respected and was drawn to public policy and the political arena—his page was very much a center of the conservative political revival of the 1970s and '80s—but just as much he loved literature and writing. This suggested to me a spaciousness of approach on his part; it suggested it would be all right if I wrote a lot of non-column-like things. I had a sense that this would be important to me.
The first or second time I ever had a long conversation with Bob, about 1991, when we discussed my writing op-eds for the Journal, he brought along a paperback copy of a book, Mark Helprin's great novel A Soldier of the Great War. Bob had circled a long, descriptive paragraph. He held it toward me, tapped it with his finger, said nothing. But his eyes shined. He was saying: This is what I value, this is what I want. I took it as a charge: Write for our page but don't feel bound or constricted by thoughts of traditional form, approach, subject matter. Be yourself, like Mark.
The offer came at the right time for me personally. I had spent the previous 10 years working at home and bringing up a son on my own. He was now 13 and at school from 8 to 4 or later. I'd been offered columns when he was little by other papers and a syndicate, but I had the sense it would be too intense a professional life for me, too demanding in a daily sense when weighed along with being a mother. Better to be more low key and see if I could make a living writing books with long deadlines.
Now I could still work at home but I could go into the world more. In 1991 there was a book that made a particularly strong impression on me, in part because it told me something I knew I needed to hear. It was American Cassandra by Peter Kurth, a biography of the great midcentury newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson. She was a real world-changer and had a big public life—traveling to the front, giving radio addresses, exhorting America to join the Second World War. She was a friend and headache to presidents. Her only child, a son with Sinclair Lewis, got lost in the shuffle. While saving the world she forgot to save him. In time this caused her great grief. My son was almost four. Message received. Get the children thing right, as Jackie Onassis once said, and everything else will fall into place. I set myself to doing that and things fell into place.
But also, and I should have said this earlier, Bob's offer sounded great, like the perfect and obvious next step, just one I hadn't thought to move toward until he called. But how wonderful to have a regular place and space into which to pour my thoughts. How wonderful to finally have a home base, and at one of the world's great newspapers. How wonderful to have a column at one of the few mainstream entities with an editorial page where conservative thoughts would not be received as obnoxious but welcome.
I would write only online, but that too had its advantages. It was low profile so if I failed, my failure would be a quiet one. If I didn't like it I could withdraw pretty much unnoticed.
* * *
A few weeks later Bob and I had another conversation in which we covered the particulars. How long, I asked, should each column be? Bob paused and said actually he didn't know. It was the Internet so there weren't any space limitations. "I guess as long as you want," he said. In time this would cause stress to the man who would become and continues as my editor, the writer James Taranto, for I took Bob at his word. From my first piece I proceeded as if 1,000 words just weren't enough for the Journal, it deserved more; less and I wasn't earning my way. This resulted in a lot of 3,000-and 5,000-word columns. But James was quick and thorough and made it work.
What was burdensome, he later told me, was my sense of deadlines. Bob had said each column would be posted online at 12:01 a.m. the day the column would run. What time, I had asked, should I file? Bob said, "I don't know. I guess before midnight, at some point." I'm afraid I took him literally there, too, and sometimes filed my 4,000-word pieces at 10 or 11 p.m. I'm amazed now James didn't kill me. It took me a while, a few years, to figure everything out and get the pieces shorter and the edit time longer.
I would start in the summer of 2000, during the national party conventions. What I remember was not my first piece going up but that I got an email from Bob a day or so after. He wrote one word: "Wow." From the taciturn Bob that was a lot. It was everything. I don't think he ever sent a reaction to one of my pieces again, ever, but that first was enough to propel me on happily for now 15 years.
* * *
Recently a friend, a fellow columnist, asked me if at the beginning I was afraid I wouldn't have a thought each week. I was startled and said no, that never occurred to me, I guess I figured there's always something going on. He asked if I set about to develop a "voice," a style. I was surprised again, and told him no, I hadn't given it a thought. Now he was surprised. He had worked hard to sound in his column exactly the way he sounded when he spoke, he said. I said it never occurred to me you could do it any other way. I had grown up reading Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton: They sounded exactly how they talked, which I would later find out in person, when meeting them, but somehow knew long before. After I had worked for Ronald Reagan I wondered if I would have trouble refinding my own sound, so used was I to working in his. But soon after I wrote my first book, and saw it was no struggle. You write as you, and sound like you, because you are: you.
Nor did I think about what kind of columnist I'd be, which is odd because there are a lot of different ways to be a columnist. I had a wonderful unconsciousness of various roles and approaches and didn't analyze or ponder them. A few months ago a highly regarded columnist announced to a luncheon group that when he sits down to write, he sort of tears open his shirt in his mind and puts on his Superman cape and sets himself to playing the part of a passionate, crusading columnist. He had to make believe he was somebody else before he could write as himself. He realized he'd said something startling and turned to me. Don't you do that? he demanded. No. But writing, I agreed, is hard.
I admire columnists because they operate under constant stress—what's the topic, the story, the idea this week? Where's the data, the evidence, the quote? What's the insight? They're doing what they do in public and when they fail will fail publicly. They feel the necessity to be original, they're working essentially alone, and none of them can ever say "The muse didn't come," or "I'm blocked." There's no crying in baseball and no blockage in journalism: You have deadlines, you meet them.
As to the many ways to be a columnist, you can focus on one area—foreign affairs, local city politics—or train your eye on whatever's going by. You can limn the known facts of a question, list the pros and cons, note that only time will tell. There are great reporter-columnists who are out in America finding stories with national implications or out in the world seeing what cameras can't tell you. There are those who borrow from their lives for their material and those who are all outward, not inward. It was said once of the wife of a prominent Washington intellectual that she had one job, carrying his head around and getting it to the next symposium. Some columnists are like that, traveling heads. There is the pure information columnist—data from the campaign trail, the latest from a pollster, a quote from a political scientist—who presents his reporting and, at the end, asks questions that reflect a certain philosophical, intellectual or ideological bent. There are liberal columnists who see no enemies to the left, and conservatives with no enemies to the right. There are mischievous wits, philosopher kings, village explainers and great arguers for a cause.
I did what was natural, which is what I had already been doing in books and op-eds: Here is what I think and why. Here is what I'm seeing, here's what I think is important. I would give my judgments in real time, explain my reasoning, make a case. I would not limit my subject matter; whatever is interesting to me would probably be interesting to at least some readers. (I learned that at CBS; I'll tell you about it soon.) I would be direct, as clear as possible.
We're all experiencing history each day; why not name what you think you are seeing?
Some columnists don't declare their essential political persuasion. I already had in the Reagan years and my writing since, and would of course continue. My general view is that it's not polite to try to hide where you stand or shade what you're about. At the same time I understand and respect the desire not to be categorized and appreciate the fact that not everyone has a fully formed political philosophy, or wants one.
That I am politically conservative labels me, can be alienating for some readers and can allow my views to be dismissed—"That's what they think." It is complicated, too, in other ways. We live in an intensely polarized time. If you are conservative you are considered by other conservatives, rightly, to be part of a minority within the mainstream press. And you never let down your minority group, it's poor form. But what if you have an opinion that is heterodox, against the grain or surprising? Your readers may not like it. You let down the team, you're a coward and a cur.
But I can't do my job—I could never do my job!—unless I say what I really see and think. And sometimes what I see and think is against the grain or heterodox. You can't at that point bow to the feelings of the crowd, even when the crowd is full of people you like, and sometimes love. The minute you do that you're a hack, not in the good way of working scribe but in the bad way of slob. So you do it your way. And then duck.
Bob asked for a title. I thought for a few days and looked at the names of other columns, really wonderful ones—"Liberties" by Maureen Dowd, "Wonder Land" by Dan Henninger. Mine would be "Declarations."
* * *
I want to take a minute to talk about my view on writing. To me it is a full-body exercise: What you write comes from your brain, heart, spirit, soul and psyche, you hold nothing back, all parts are engaged. When you're writing you give the creative part of your brain full sway, you let it dominate, you don't let your critical side mug it or slow it down. Later, in editing, you bring your critical self to the fore, question the assertion, kill the aside. But the point is you give your writing everything you have at the moment you're doing it and rethink when the page has cooled.
I have always thought writing must somehow show great energy, the prime force of life. You are asking people for five minutes of their time to read you. They're busy. You have to show them from the top that you're engaged, that you mean it, that there's something you think is important that should be said. You don't "grab them by the collar"—I don't know how to do that and am never sure what it means since one person's collar-grabber is another person's snooze, and everyone in America is in any case tired of having their collar grabbed—but you do have to be clear, serious and not waste time huffing and puffing.
Nietzsche, in 1882, did "10 Rules for Writers," confining himself to the subject of style. I saw the list about a year ago when a friend sent it from a culture site and instantly recognized and responded to four points. His first rule: "Of prime necessity is life: a style should live." Yes, what you write must be alive. He said, "The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything—the length and retardation of sentences… the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments—like gestures." This, too, seems to me true though I never would have thought of it in precisely this way. I do something with what I write, always have, that I think is unusual. I read it from the top in my mind, with my voice though I'm not actually speaking. I do this over and over. If I stumble—if something stops me, if something makes me lose the thought I was trying to develop, if my mind wanders or jolts away—I go over it again to figure out what the problem is and how to refigure things to get it right.
Another: "Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it." Yes, exactly, completely true. It matters that it's not all dry and only cerebral, it matters that an idea is so real to you and so true to you that you feel it, and try also to communicate that feeling.
"Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it." Yes. I'm not even sure in a practical sense what this means but yes, I know what he means. Don't get too fancy, too show-offy, too obscure, too reaching for the exquisite or unusual. That just removes you from your purpose. It's a column, not a metaphysical exercise.
* * *
My editor said here that you want to see my writing. I don't think you do. Do you? I am writing all week in that I am thinking all week and making notes on thoughts, conversations, events, observations. By Wednesday I usually know my topic and have begun typing my notes into a file. Thursday all day I write the column, and file about 5 p.m.
It is my belief that deep down no writer knows precisely what he's doing and is simply thinking, thinking, thinking—testing a thought and writing it down as quickly as possible so it doesn't blot.
Wherever I have lived I've always had a desk (in the living room, bedroom, TV room or now in a small home office). The desk is usually covered with pictures, drawings, mementos, quotes. The walls are covered in pictures of friends and people I admire, quotes tacked and taped up and some framed honorary doctorates to impress the stupid, including me, and in a way to impress my ancestors: We did OK.
I look at the blank screen, the antic blinking cursor, glance at my notes, put my hands on the keyboard and go. I become good at the point my interest in what I'm trying to say overwhelms anxiety about how to say it. Desire to make a point defeats self-consciousness and lets things begin. "The words flow" is not something that happens to me. They never flow. They come out, are not right, are corrected. Or they come out right and are corrected into something inferior, at which point I try to remember what I originally wrote.
While I work I listen to the news on TV or to movie music, the scores of films. This has been my habit for a quarter century. Why movie music? Because it is meant to help a story along and not be the story itself. If you're listening to George Gershwin or Stephen Sondheim or a show or opera or album you love it's too powerful, you'd listen and stop writing. Movie music is moving but doesn't take you away from your work. All my life I have been moved by movie music—I mean from a young child watching endless repeats of 1930's and 1940's movies on "Million Dollar Movie," broadcast on a local New York television station.
* * *
People ask the difference between column writing, book writing and speechwriting. In one sense they're not different: You're writing. You're laying pipe only the pipes are thoughts, as John Gregory Dunne once said. But the best definition of writing I ever heard came from the great historian David McCullough, who said, in conversation, "To write is to think, and to write well is to think well." You think about what you want to say, you clarify it, question it, then say it.
A book demands a subject or theme that can be sustained over a few hundred pages. A book allows you to fully play out a thought, explain your ideas, establish a thesis, create a world the best you can. When I wrote What I Saw at the Revolution, my first book, I was trying to capture a whole world, what it was like to be in Washington, in the White House, at a dramatic time in history and see it truly but from the vantage point of an unimportant person, or an unknown one. It couldn't have been a column or an essay—a world takes time.
A book has a porous deadline. It's not due at 5 p.m. Thursday, it's due next April. This allows you to smooth out your work. Smoothing out for me means getting most quickly and directly to the point. A book is a more finished product but a less immediate one.
A column is more immediate but in terms of space more confined. You have a given number of words to introduce a subject or subjects and convey your views. Columns are more distinguished by what you leave out. Their immediacy is both a boon and a curse. You're in the fray, your thought is a provocation, maybe an addition, but you may get it wrong, and so wrong that two days later you're sitting there with your head in your hands, moaning. When you get it right and you think you've added to the conversation, even expanded it, that is satisfying in a way that is hard to explain. But you feel you made a difference.
A speech is a best-case case for somebody else, said as you think he or she would say it. What you bring as a writer and thinker is what you believe your principal agrees with and believes. You can take chances. If it's not what they think, they'll cut it. (There's a chapter here on the writing of the Challenger speech; it includes a story of taking a chance based on a hunch that turned out to be right.) If you are writing for a president or major political figure, the impact of your work will be broad and deep—the words will be remembered, because everything a president says is historically important and is heard.
But at the end of the day, it's all writing.
* * *
I want to go back to my early time writing a column on the Internet. As I said, I did not understand at the time that I was joining a pioneer generation of columnists, one whose readers read them only on screens, not in a paper. I was present at the creation of a new way of being a columnist. (At the same time, just after I began, a longtime syndicated columnist welcomed me to the ranks by noting I'd joined the last generation that would be able to make a living writing columns, because of the increasing number of voices freely available on a multiplying number of Web sites and platforms. So I'd be both a pioneer and one of the last of the Mohicans.)
For perhaps a century a newspaper column was usually 800 or 900 words long, and was subject to strictures and limitation in terms of space and to some degree subject matter. If the columnist pleased or angered readers he would get letters. A reader would sit down, write a letter, find out where to send it, make out the envelope, get a stamp, walk down the street, mail it. It would be a private communication between the reader and the columnist.
In the new world I could write as long as I liked about pretty much anything I liked, within the knowledge that this was going onto the site of the Wall Street Journal, which is not an antic publication and which, like the Times and other what-used-to-be-called broadsheets, has an appropriate sense of its own dignity.
But letters were now comments, and they were immediate. If the column went up at 12:01, the first comment was online at 12:04, and would be followed by many more. No one had to get the piece of paper, find the stamp. They just had to hit reply and send. And the comments were public, listed under a column one after another, on comment threads. And more often than not the commenters wrote under anonymous names.
I had been on the Web long enough to know this in the abstract, but when I first saw the comments under one of my columns all I could think was: Wow.
What I was looking at was a whole instant community. Hundreds and then thousands of people wrote in to agree or disagree, to say "great piece" and "stupid dumb article," to add experiences, insights, witticisms. And they didn't just disagree with me, they disagreed with each other and had flame wars. It was all kind of startling and wonderful.
- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 400 pages