Season of the witch

In November 2001 Peggy Noonan was scheduled to appear as the featured speaker at the Center of the American Experiment’s “fall briefing” event in Minneapolis. A few days before the event, as I recall (I’m a member of CAE’s board and I am writing from memory), she informed CAE that she wouldn’t be appearing because of her fear of flying in the aftermath of 9/11.

It wasn’t much of an excuse to offer within days of the event. Nothing comparable has ever happened to CAE before or since. Newt Gingrich answered the call and filled in for Noonan on something like 48-hours’ notice, giving a brilliant talk with his usual ebullience on government in the age of terrorism. I haven’t looked at Noonan (or Newt) the same since.

This seems to be the season to bash Bush. At any rate, Noonan’s weekly Wall Street Journal column takes up the subject of airport security and takes the occasion to bash Bush. The column is titled “The view from Gate 14.” Noonan gives voice to the common frustration with post-9/11 airport security:

Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist, and you know I know you know I am not a terrorist? Why this costly and harassing kabuki when we both know the facts, and would agree that all this harassment is the government’s way of showing “fairness,” of showing that it will equally humiliate anyone in order to show its high-mindedness and sense of justice? Our politicians congratulate themselves on this as we stand in line.

All the frisking, beeping and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that common sense is yesterday. Another thing: It reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the phone. The middle-aged woman is the one spread-eagled over there in the delicate shell beneath the removed jacket, praying nothing on her body goes beep and makes people look.

On the one hand, Noonan holds President Bush responsible for the sorry state of affairs at Gate 14. On the other hand, Noonan has overcome her fear of flying. She reports the views of conservative Texans she vaguely encountered in connection with a speech she gave in Lubbock, Texas:

In Lubbock, Texas – Lubbock Comma Texas, the heart of Texas conservatism – they dislike President Bush. He has lost them. I was there and saw it. Confusion has been followed by frustration has turned into resentment, and this is huge. Everyone knows the president’s poll numbers are at historic lows, but if he is over in Lubbock, there is no place in this country that likes him. I made a speech and moved around and I was tough on him and no one – not one – defended or disagreed. I did the same in North Carolina recently, and again no defenders. I did the same in Fresno, Calif., and no defenders, not one.

He has left on-the-ground conservatives – the local right-winger, the town intellectual reading Burke and Kirk, the old Reagan committeewoman – feeling undefended, unrepresented and alone.

This will have impact down the road.

I finally understand the party nostalgia for Reagan. Everyone speaks of him now, but it wasn’t that way in 2000, or 1992, or 1996, or even ’04.

I think it is a manifestation of dislike for and disappointment in Mr. Bush. It is a turning away that is a turning back. It is a looking back to conservatism when conservatism was clear, knew what it was, was grounded in the facts of the world.

The reasons for the quiet break with Mr. Bush: spending, they say first, growth in the power and size of government, Iraq. I imagine some of this: a fine and bitter conservative sense that he has never had to stand in his stockinged feet at the airport holding the bin, being harassed. He 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.

Except by implication, Noonan never does give her own views regarding airport security. She implies that “the new fairness” in which all passengers are treated equally is absurd, but she does not say so. People like us are not terrorists, she says, so why the airport kabuki? Apparently, we learn at the end of her column, because President Bush hasn’t been subjected to it (and never will be).

Noonan seems clearly to be saying that our problem with terrorism derives from a subset of Muslims, so airport security should target them. But one must infer the proposition from her criticism of “the new fairness.” She refuses to state the implication directly or to draw the conclusion implicit in her observations.

I suspect that the reason Noonan doesn’t draw out the implication of her observations is that doing so would blunt the rationale of her column. It would temper the disappointment and frustration felt by many conservatives with President Bush, at least on this subject. Indeed, drawing out the implication of her observation — that airport security should target Muslims — would require an act of courage on Noonan’s part. Better to bash Bush from the perspective Noonan imputes to the weary travelers at Gate 14 than to help readers understand Bush’s predicament as a politician constrained by the consent of the governed.

The underlying political realities that give us the airport security system described by Noonan are related to the boundaries of political correctness that Noonan herself carefully observes in this column. But President Bush deserves some credit that Noonan does not. Included in the actions that Bush has taken to prevent a terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11 are those Noonan mocks in the column.

As a columnist, Noonan might try to rise above the frustrations of the moment to help readers arrive at a fair assessment of the Bush administration’s record. If she were to do so, the views that Noonan imputes to the travelers at Gate 14 might be raised rather than humored. Noonan instead uses the views she imputes to the travelers at Gate 14 to take a cheap shot at Bush. It is a cheap shot like the media-rooted myth that President Bush (41) was amazed at how grocery-store scanners work, feeding into the media themes that he was in a “bubble” and “out of touch” with how Regular Joes lived. The problem, as Lynn Davidson reminds us, is that the story turned out to be a fabrication of the New York Times.

On the credit side of any fair assessment of the Bush administration’s ledger is the record of its success in keeping the country free to date from a post-9/11 terrorist attack. Do the travelers at Gate 14 share that understanding, or blame the Bush administration for the absurdities of airport security? In this respect, at least, I think their view of the subject is likely larger than Noonan’s.

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