Is Peggy Noonan Turning Antiwar?

All my life, I’ve had distinctly minority positions on almost every issue. This started in high school. Whether the issue was Barry Goldwater (I found him intriguing, and he seemed far less corrupt than Lyndon Johnson), the rights of homosexuals (I was opposed to cops cracking down on them), or long hair in school (I thought a student in my government-run school shouldn’t have been kicked out because his hair was long), I was in the minority. When you have minority views, you can hold yourself apart and feel good about your purity or you can try to look for allies, even when they’re only partly allies. What I’ve learned to do over the years is look for allies. When I see a door that’s even just a little open, I stick in my intellectual crowbar and pry. I’ve been more effective that way. And there’s a door at the Wall Street Journal that’s more than a little open. That door is the columns written by Peggy Noonan.

I know that the dominant view at is that the Wall Street Journal is the “War Street Journal.” This view is understandable. Advocates of torture, of continuing the war with Iraq, and of attacking Iran get a lot of column inches on the editorial page of the Journal. But Peggy Noonan is different. A former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Noonan made her name with a book about that experience, What I Saw at the Revolution. In the last year or so, she has had a weekly column in the Journal, and there is a noticeable trend in her writing: Peggy Noonan is becoming increasingly critical of the warfare state.

She won’t say it that way. She performs some of the usual genuflections to some of the pro-war politicians. But the increasing power and passion in her writing when she talks about the government’s power and the general ugliness that war has given rise to are unmistakable.

I think it began almost a year ago, in her June 1, 2007, article, “Too Bad.” This was the key paragraph:

“The beginning of my own sense of separation from the Bush administration came in January 2005, when the president declared that it is now the policy of the United States to eradicate tyranny in the world, and that the survival of American liberty is dependent on the liberty of every other nation. This was at once so utopian and so aggressive that it shocked me.”

That’s not exactly subtle. It amounts to a total rejection of the neoconservative viewpoint on foreign policy.

Three months later, on Aug. 31, 2007, Ms. Noonan probed some of these issues again, with her column anticipating the much-hyped testimony of David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Ms. Noonan started by criticizing the pro-war forces. She wrote:

“From the pro-war forces, the surge supporters and those who supported the Iraq invasion from the beginning, what is needed is a new modesty of approach, a willingness to admit it hasn’t quite gone according to plan. A moral humility. Not meekness – great powers aren’t helped by meekness – but maturity, a shown respect for the convictions of others.

“What we often see instead, lately, is the last refuge of the adolescent: defiance. An attitude of Oh yeah? We’re Lincoln, you’re McClellan. We care about the troops and you don’t. We care about the good Iraqis who cast their lot with us. You’d just as soon they hang from the skids of the last helicopter off the embassy roof. They have been called thuggish. Is this wholly unfair?” (Emphasis in original.)

Implying that the pro-war forces are “thuggish” is strong stuff. Of course, Ms. Noonan is relatively evenhanded and lights into the antiwar forces too. But read the following and see if you notice the subtle difference between her attacks on antiwar and pro-war forces:

“The antiwar forces, the surge opponents, the ‘I was against it from the beginning’ people are, some of them, indulging in grim, and mindless, triumphalism. They show a smirk of pleasure at bad news that has been brought by the other team. Some have a terrible quaking fear that something good might happen in Iraq, that the situation might be at least to some degree redeemed. Their great interest is that Bushism be laid low and the president humiliated. They make lists of those who supported Iraq and who must be read out of polite society. Might these attitudes be called thuggish also?”

See the difference? With her use of “some of them” in the first sentence, she hedges, refraining from tarring all the antiwar forces with the same brush. Of course, she ends by suggesting that the antiwar forces are thuggish too, but remember that she’s writing for the Wall Street Journal and is probably trying to do a balancing act, both for her editors and for her readers. My own take, although I could be wrong, is that she’s more on the antiwar side. And certainly some of her criticisms of the antiwar side, especially the flabby, self-absorbed, Pelosi-ish Democratic politicians in Washington, are on target. Many of them seem to prefer a Bush humiliation to an actual pullout of troops.

In her next paragraph, Ms. Noonan writes:

“Do you ever get the feeling that at this point Washington is run by two rival gangs that have a great deal in common with each other, including an essential lack of interest in the well-being of the turf on which they fight?”

Well, yes. I think she stated it well, although she understated it. Not only do I “ever get the feeling” that “at this point” Washington is run by two rival gangs, but also I always have the thought that two rival gangs run Washington with only rare hour-long interludes in which they care about us.

Just one week later, Ms. Noonan wrote the best item on Ron Paul that has ever appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was commentary on one of the Republican debates. In her Sept. 7, 2007, column, “Off to the Races,” she wrote:

“The debate was full of fireworks about Iraq, about its essentials – the rightness of the endeavor, and what should rightly be done now. From the libertarian Ron Paul a blunt argument against the war: We never should have gone in and we should get out. ‘The people who say there’ll be a blood bath are the same ones who said it would be a cakewalk. … Why believe them?’ His foreign policy: ‘Mind our own business, bring our troops home, defend our country, defend our borders.’ After Mr. Paul spoke, it seemed half the room booed, but the other applauded. When a thousand Republicans are in a room and one man of the eight on the stage takes a sharply minority viewpoint on a dramatic issue and half the room seems to cheer him, something’s going on.

“Ron Paul’s support isn’t based on his persona, history, or perceived power. What support he has comes because of his views. As he spoke, you could hear other candidates laughing in the background. They should stop giggling, and engage in a serious way.”

Many parts of this are refreshing. First, she states Ron Paul’s argument accurately, without falsely accusing him of saying, “We deserved 9/11.” Second, she points out, as few other people in the mainstream press did, that half the room cheered on Ron Paul. Third, she calls out the other candidates for their disgustingly disrespectful, juvenile giggling. Who else in the mainstream press has done that? Fourth, she takes Ron Paul totally seriously, arguing that the others should engage him – something, by the way, that they never really did. It’s true that she doesn’t even whisper an antiwar word in this passage or elsewhere in the article. But maybe she felt constrained by the publication she was writing for. Or maybe she was feeling her way toward an antiwar position for which she fears she would get little support from most of the people who are her political allies.

Later that month, Noonan refused to get on the neoconservative bandwagon to attack the idea of having Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia University. She found it appropriate that people in a free society hear freedom’s enemies speak out. In her Sept. 28 column, “Hear, Hear,” Noonan compared having Ahmadinejad speak to having Khrushchev and Castro speak, writing:

“Khrushchev’s trip and Castro’s were all about propaganda, all about sticking it to Uncle Sam. And here’s what happened: Nothing. Their presence hurt our country exactly zero percent. In fact it raised us high, reminding the world we are the confident nation that lets its foes speak uncensored. As an adult nation would.”

Noonan continued:

“But this has been our history: to let all speak and to fear no one. That’s a good history to continue. The Council on Foreign Relations was right to invite him to speak last year – that is the council’s job, to hear, listen, and parse – and Columbia University was well within its rights to let him speak this year. Though, in what is now apparently Columbia tradition, the stage was once again stormed, but this time verbally, and by a university president whose aggression seemed sharpened by fear.”

That’s not quite true. Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson were the major violators in U.S. history, throwing many of their political opponents in jail. She went on to point out that Ahmadinejad stated that Iran had no homosexuals. Noonan wrote, “This won derisive laughter, and might have been a learning moment for him; dictators don’t face derisive from crowds back home.” She was a little off here. Although Ahmadinejad is a government official in a nation with substantial repression, he is an authoritarian, not a dictator: he was democratically elected.

Noonan also pointed out that it’s not good to insist on talking only with good people:

“If Jefferson had dined only with those who’d been a force for good in the world, Jefferson would often have dined alone. If we insist only good and moral leaders talk to us, we’ll wind up surrounded by silence. In fact, if we insist we talk only to those whose good deeds have matched their high aspirations, we won’t always be on speaking terms with ourselves.”

Fast forward to my favorite piece she has written in the last year, “The View From Gate 14,” April 25, 2008. Her column is filled with pure righteous indignation against the nanny-fascist state (my words, not hers.) She talks about America as if it’s an individual, but she really means a bunch of Americans, especially herself. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“America is in line at the airport. America has its shoes off, is carrying a rubberized bin, is going through a magnetometer. America is worried there is fungus on the floor after a million stockinged feet have walked on it. But America knows not to ask. America is guilty until proved innocent, and no one wants to draw undue attention. America left its ticket and passport in the jacket in the bin in the X-ray machine, and is admonished. America is embarrassed to have put one one-ounce moisturizer too many in the see-through bag. America is irritated that the TSA agent removed its mascara, opened it, put it to her nose, and smelled it. Why don’t you put it up your nose and see if it explodes? America thinks.”

In her next paragraph, she writes, “Another thing: It [the intrusive security state] reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman.” Here’s where she’s talking about herself. It would have been even nicer had she worried about the 20-year-old male who is completely innocent but who is subjected to humiliation, but, still, Noonan takes a big step here.

Then Noonan gets off track for a while, wondering whether Barack Obama loves his country. I’ve wondered that too: He certainly doesn’t seem to love the economic freedom that made this country great and whose reduction is making it less great. Then she strays into straight spin, writing of John McCain, “John McCain carries it [his appreciation of the United States] in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa’s knee.” How would she know? Has she ever talked to McCain for more than, say, an hour? Has she read his books or the books about him? McCain certainly doesn’t have much appreciation for the U.S. Constitution. He is hostile to the First Amendment, actually having said he would prefer “clean government” to the “First Amendment.” No doubt, that’s why government has gotten so clean since the passage of the anti-free-speech McCain-Feingold law of 2002. He seems to have no appreciation of free markets but, instead, has warriors as his heroes. And McCain certainly has no appreciation for America’s anti-imperialism, which dominated political thought for most of the 19th century.

In an April 2007 article, McCain biographer Matt Welch wrote:

“[He] pushed for the huge airline industry bailouts after September 11. He recently proposed legislation requiring every registered sex offender in the country to report all their active e-mail accounts to law enforcement or face prison. He wants to federalize the oversight of professional boxing. He wants yet more vigor in fighting the War on Meth. He has been active in trying to shut down the ‘gun show loophole,’ which allows private citizens to sell each other guns without conducting background checks. He has lauded Teddy Roosevelt’s fight against the ‘unrestricted individualism’ of the businessman who ‘injures the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit.'”

Does Noonan know any of this? Of course, her genuflection might be one that Noonan feels obligated to make. But she ends on a strong note, pointing out what a horrible president George Bush II has been and then pointing out how easy it has been for him to strip away our liberties because he will never have his own stripped away:

“He [Bush] has never had to live in the world he helped make, the one where grandma’s hip replacement is setting off the beeper here and the child is crying there. And of course as a former president, with the entourage and the private jets, he never will. I bet conservatives don’t like it. I’m certain Gate 14 doesn’t.”

Go, Peggy.

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at