When character was king.
A story of Ronald Reagan, 20 years later.
I bought the book when it came out in paperback, in 2002.
And then I set it on one of my bookshelves and forgot it.
And then six years later, I moved and didn’t take all of my books with me.
And then ten years later, while visiting the farm one weekend, I saw it high on the shelf, pages getting yellowed from the sun and covered with dust and cobwebs, and I pulled it down and took it back with me.
And then it sat there on my bookshelves again for a while until I stood before the shelves trying to decide which books to bring with me on vacation and—don’t laugh, but it’s true—asking God which to show me which ones to take.
And there it was, and it was old, and I wasn’t sure, but I felt strongly I was to take it, and I took it, and I read it.
Noonan’s writing is lyrical, and it’s not a typical biography of a political figure, but more of a profile that weaves history and stories and personal experience all together to get a sense of a person in the times they lived.
It was strange to read a book written about history that is 20 years old itself. Writers of history often have to tie up the book projecting into the future, trying to anchor the reader in the context of what lead up to the events, and where they might lead someday. It’s difficult to predict what that history will mean. To hear the hopefulness in her words of the post 9/11 flag-waving and see where we are at now, with Russia invading Ukraine, a global pandemic that crushed individual freedoms, and the U.S. back to a Carter-esque malaise, left an almost tangible pain to read about Reagan’s life, his hopeful outlook, the 1980s economic rebound, and his successful efforts to bring down the Soviet Union.
It’s like we erased it all.
At the end of the book, Noonan interviewed then newly-elected President George W. Bush, and they talk about Putin, Boris Yeltsin’s new replacement. He tells her of a story that Putin told him, how his mother gave him a cross that he always wore. There is a hopeful element of faith and belief in the story.
“I have pretty good instincts, and I found a man who realizes his future lies with the West, not the East, that we share common security concerns, primarily Islamic fundamentalism,” Bush told Noonan, regarding Putin. “On the other hand, he doesn’t want to be diminished by America.”
Bush went on to explain that Putin read a lot of history. “[H]e started talking about Russian history. A lot about Russian history.” Putin talked about all that Russia had given up, and that the changes towards freedom in the nation he viewed in the context of a debt.
When he was asked about his interest in history, Putin told Bush that he loved history. Then Bush told him that “…sometimes when you study history you get stuck in the past,” encouraging him to join him in making something new for the future.1
But now here we are, Putin invading Ukraine, our own nation divided, and when I read President Reagan’s final address to the nation, I teared up a little.
Shining city? Standing firm on the granite ridge? Not really.
The whole book, which I enjoyed reading because Noonan is word-painter and Reagan was larger than life, was intended to be hopeful when it was published. It was sitting there, on my bookshelves, for 20 years, waiting for the right time to be read and this was the moment, but now it is a heavy weight. Authoritarianism on the rise in what we thought were free western nations, new generations venerating socialism and communism all over again, and technology no longer the promise of a utopian future but a dystopian nightmare.
“I never thought of myself as a great man, just a man committed to great ideas. I’ve always believed that individuals should take priority over the state,” Reagan had written to Noonan years earlier. When she asked him how he wanted to be remembered, what his legacy was, he had a single sentence he’d want people to say of him: He tried to expand the frontiers of freedom, in a world at peace with itself.2
I read this book, and wrote this post, in a small rustic cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When I finished the book and put it down on my lap and looked out the window, I could see a cloud bank rolling into the valley below.
There I was, above the clouds.
The center cannot hold.
I really want to say something useful, meaningful, even helpful about the book, about the time it was written, about the words Noonan sent forward to me two decades later, but all I can tell you is it made me quite sad.
Noonan, Peggy. “Dubya Was Watching.” Essay. In When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, 304–6. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Noonan, Peggy. “The Old Man of St. Cloud Road.” Essay. In When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, 317–17. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.