Monday, October 06, 2008

Peggy Noonan: Patriotic Grace [Review]

Patriotic Grace - What It Is and Why We Need It Now
By Peggy Noonan

[Harper Collins]

In her new book "Patriotic Grace - What It Is and Why We Need It Now" [Harper Collins], Peggy Noonan seems determined to bridge many gaps. The first hint of that intent can be seen in the dedication of her book to, among a few others, the late Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert who bridged many gaps in his own all-too-short time. Noonan also dedicates the book to the two Senators running for President in the upcoming 2008 election. Despite many of her own opinions and statements of the past, which lean admittedly Conservative, it seems that she has written this book to encourage readers to open their arms to one another, whatever their philosophy or views. She forwards the belief that we're going to need each other to get down the proverbial stairs when a big issue faces the nation, as she believes it surely will sometime again in the future [using the stairs of the World Trade Center on 9/11 as a central analogy]. The current economic crisis might be a good example of such a large issue and, even though it wasn't as pressing an issue when the book was published, I believe Ms. Noonan has commented on the current crisis in light of her book's subject matter in some of her most recent appearances on television interviews about her book.

She describes patriotic grace as "a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment that we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative."

Speaking to Americans without trying to impress a deliberate aura of fear upon them, she uses stories of her own experiences and the experiences of some others to remind us of some big questions often remaining in the back of our minds because of the scope of their barely conceivable impact, such as another attack on America...only this time more destructive to human life and property than 9/11. If [or when] this kind of attack should occur, and given what Ms. Noonan calls the true and demoralizing legacy of Hurricane Katrina where even the baseline responsibility given by the public to government was not met despite all of the inspirational rhetoric we'd heard, she imagines the public asking, "Is anyone really in charge? Is there a grown-up in the house?" She believes that today's American citizens wonder if the nation will be "up to the challenge [..] equal to the moment if the moment is big."

Noonan shows deep regret for the kind of "partisan gamesmanship", the "pointless enmity", and the "focus-group cynicism" in politics that serves to divide Americans into base-groups. She refers to one of her own 2006 Wall Street Journal "Declarations" columns as an expression of a new commitment to non-partisanship and increased fairness-of-opinion borne of a good faith yet hard look at realities for the sake of grace-in-patriotism:

"Autumn is the true American New Year. This is when we make our real resolutions.

The perfect fall has two things, present pleasure (new exhibits, shows, parties) and something to look forward to--for the political, the upcoming election.

Which is my subject. My resolution is to try in a renewed way, each day, and within my abilities, to be fair. I find myself thinking so much of William Meredith's poem about the advice he'd received from older writers: "Look hard at the world, they said--generously, if you can manage that, but hard."

Noonan bemoans the roughness of the current Presidential contenders' campaigns and the level of rage among their respective audiences - not necessarily speaking of the candidates themselves, but more of their freelance surrogates in the age of YouTube, the anonymous and destructive side of the Internet, the political action committees, the "thirty-one-year-old campaign operative who's eager to make a name for himself as cunning and devious" who strives to "kneecap the other guy in the modern media age". She calls, instead, for a "renewed bipartisan spirit, a new openness to constructive ideas" because "the age we live in is real, the challenges we face are real, and before this is over we'll all be helping each other down the stairs."

She now offers a frank criticism of the Bush years, even though she'd admittedly argued many times in support of various policies of George W. Bush. She frames Election 2000 as a time of understandable pain to Democrats and damage to the winning Republicans because of the resulting drama and diminished public faith in the electoral system and trust in vote-counting. The Iraq war served to split the nation further along party lines - - more divided as the war went on with no sign of an exit strategy or a clear or consistent definition of victory.

Understanding that the Iraq war was a hasty and divisive undertaking when it was far more demanding of public unity, trust, and support - - especially with the crisis of traumatic impact following the events of 9/11, Noonan sees how a future strategic necessity may be harder when it comes to convincing the trust-damaged public. She asks, "What happens at some future date if America truly must move - militarily, urgently, for its security, for the crucial protection of its strategic interests?" She acknowledges the Republican party's missteps as a cause for the reopening of the wounds of division that national unity after 9/11 had begun to heal. Republican leaders pointed fingers at the leaders of the Democratic Party and raising public doubt about their patriotism as debates continued on in the halls of Congress on the Iraq War. It's an example of what Peggy Noonan seems to be saying that "patriotic grace" should never be about.

"One of the biggest political stories of the Bush era has been the Republican Party's squandering of its reputation for foreign policy sanity. It took fifty years to build it. More than fifty years. It is a tragedy to see it go."

One of my personal favorite lines from Ms. Noonan's book is: "If you want to be a beacon, it's actually a very hard job." She spends a good part of her closing chapter talking about US foreign policy and outlining the work that she believes America, if it's to be a beacon for the rest of the world, will entail. She recommends that America should "pick itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again." she continues, "We have lost some of our standing in the world. We have lost some of our authority. We have lost some of our friends." She advocates for a priority to be put on Civil Defense and to tend to the frayed ties that once bound us with good will as an American society.

I would have loved to have seen Tim Russert interview Ms. Noonan about her book. I wish we'd had the opportunity for that. Perhaps, in his memory, we can strive to better understand and act, especially in the way we choose to speak with fellow citizens [being no less than honest after a hard look, but with good faith and in the spirit of listening for the same from the other side] for what is truly important for the common good - and for our democracy's health - if we truly want to repair our relations with other nations and be a realistic inspiration to world citizens. We'll never be able to do that if we can't even talk to each other. I think we have nothing to lose from taking the advice and much more to lose if we continue to fray at the common thread.