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Bidding a Sad Farewell to Peggy Noonan

I have a few sad thoughts to add to this more thorough, magisterial deconstruction of Peggy Noonan’s column today on Donald Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown.

Through the years I have tried to like Noonan, primarily because there are so few prominent female writers on major editorial pages, and even fewer that are conservatives. Also, as she frequently reminds us, she worked for Ronald Reagan and what is not to like about that?

Unfortunately, today’s column is so far beyond the pale that even these powerful attractions cannot redeem her in my eyes. Noonan goes after Rumsfeld, who she declares devoid of “guts” and “brains,” and his “stupid little” book too (I hope that “little” book didn’t make too big of a hole in her plaster when she threw it at the wall, but I digress). Her main beef is that Rumsfeld failed both to capture Osama Bin Laden and to understand how the American psyche needed his capture after 9/11. Since as she again likes to remind us Noonan was in Manhattan on 9/11, she has claimed the mantle of Everyvictim and knows what all of us need, much more than Rumsfeld who after all was only in the Pentagon that day. We are treated to Noonan’s OBL revenge fantasies, which involve scatological imagery and decapitation, and to her fury that Rumsfeld has not facilitated their satisfaction.

Noonan reserves, bizarrely, special vitriol for the documentation of Known and Unknown, and I may well take this part of the review personally since I have labored for some years in that particular salt mine. Noonan seems terribly put out that Rumsfeld has used a rich archive going back seven decades to document his book. She mocks and caricatures the effort–and darkly hints the memos might be falsified. She laments that “so many” Bush administration memoirs depend on primary documents (I can’t think of another with even remotely comparable documentation–certainly not one that offers the reader the opportunity to freely consult the documents–but again, I digress). In the end she finds their presence so odious that she wants to physically dismember the book–to literally break its spine–for so oppressing her. These memos, she rages, “prove nothing.”

I find all of this startling, since I generally consider it a good and useful exercise to go back to the original documents in order to build up thorough historical analysis. My complaints are reserved for those who selectively quote documents and then withhold the originals, so readers are forced to accept the writer’s conclusions. Given the advances in digital technology, Rumsfeld has decided to challenge this construct and not only quote and cite the memos in his book, but also release thousands of them on a free-access website where they are available to readers made of sterner stuff than Noonan as links in a facsimile of the endnotes while the larger collection is browsable in a library-style section.

What is so gob-smackingly awful about this? Why ferociously attack an effort at rigorous scholarship and documentary transparency? Who does it hurt?

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that it hurts Peggy Noonan, who has been trading on her “insider” status in the Reagan administration for decades now. She is the source, in her parlance the witness, and if people take to releasing the actual documents, her fly-on-the-wall reminiscences drop precipitously in value, especially if God forbid the two conflict.

Perhaps not coincidentally, another potential victim of Rumsfeld’s memo offensive is Noonan’s fellow perennial insider, Bob Woodward.  His stock in trade is giving the impression of revealing what should be hidden–accounts that generally confirm readers’ vague suspicions about what must be going on in government–thus making the reader feel smart and in the know, and making Woodward’s books sell.

Woodward, like Noonan, seems to feel threatened by Known and Unknown, and went after the book last week.  He called Rumsfeld a liar for writing in Chapter 31 about a meeting with President Bush on September 26, 2001, in which Bush asked Rumsfeld to review the Iraq war plan then on the Pentagon shelf. Woodward’s beef appears to be not with the wisdom of this order, but rather with the problematic fact that no account of it appears in Woodward’s books on the Bush administration, and he had made a great show of re-tracing the definitive Iraq timeline. Ergo, the meeting did not happen, and even if it did, Iraq was not discussed.

Unfortunately for Woodward, Rumsfeld had made a handwritten note about the substance of his meeting on his calendar for that day, which he promptly released. It matches in all details the account in Known and Unknown. Woodward appeared to have given up this line of attack–wisely, for what else is there to say?–until the Noonan column appeared today to denigrate and dismiss Rumsfeld’s documentation explicitly, and so to defend Woodward implicitly.

I have no insider information on a particular friendship between Noonan and Woodward, although she has been know to give Woodward’s books pretty fulsome praise. All I have is the widely-available public knowledge that Noonan and Woodward are regular co-panelists on “Meet the Press.” In late December, 2010, for example, they were on to discuss the general distastefulness that is Sarah Palin. Noonan had recently called Palin “ignorant” and a “nincompoop” for daring to tread where only Noonan is privileged to go–that is to discuss Ronald Reagan. Noonan could therefore be trusted to toe the MTP line, and she obligingly if revealingly referred to herself and her fellow panelists (Doris Kerns Goodwin, Tom Brokaw and Woodward) as people like us–people who are sophisticated enough to recognize Palin for what she is–while the rest of America who either admire her or don’t care much either way are them.

So for Noonan, Woodward is “people like us,” the special few who have the exclusive right to tell the rest of us what is really going on unhampered by things like proper documentation. In this context, no wonder she finds Rumsfeld’s archive so distressing. It hits her where she lives, threatening to reveal that her shtick, like Woodward’s, is based on self-serving, selective and unsubstantiated memories and, even worse, forcing her to do her homework if she wants to be considered in the same league.

True, documentary research is hard. It involves tedious work sifting through many, many irrelevant documents to find the few of importance. It requires you to check your cherished preconceived notions at the door and let the information in the documents guide your analysis, even if you uncover things you do not expect–or want–to find. And it forces you to admit, as Rumsfeld has so famously done, that there are things you did not know. But as difficult as the exercise might be, the end goal of trying to pass on to future generations direct observations of historical events accompanied by relevant primary documentation is in my opinion a noble one and well worth the effort. I don’t think I want to read anything else by someone so determined to discredit the attempt.

Farewell, Ms. Noonan, and good luck to you in this brave new world of history.

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