The worst of Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan’s weekly Wall Street Journal column dated November 2 dispensed advice for Israel in its current fight for survival. Noonan advised Israel not to fight. I criticized the column for its stupidity yesterday. I can’t say it’s the most stupid column of the past 25 years, but it must be tied with others for that distinction.

While patently stupid, the column reeks of Noonan’s precious self-regard. She relishes every twist and turn of her thought. She seems to think that her saying makes it so.

In the November 2 column Noonan adopts the royal “we” (“We continue to think in this space”). Those unfamiliar with the usage may wonder for whom she speaks. One wonders if anyone at the Journal dares to edit Noonan’s column. One wonders if editors worry that they will be found guilty of lèse majesté if a word is altered.

All things considered, I contend that Noonan may be the worst columnist in the United States. However, stupidity is not the quality of her columns that sets her apart. It is her dishonesty with readers. I want to return to points I have made “in this space” over the years.

In her September 2, 2021 column reviewing the Afghanistan debacle, Noonan found President Biden wanting in judgment. She called our exit from Afghanistan a “fiasco.” She took the occasion to display her insight into Biden’s manifest failings.

I thought it was a good Noonan column and true even if it was Noonan speaking, but late and therefore hurried. Noonan was in a rush to make it clear she had seen what everybody else had seen about Biden in the debacle.

Noonan somehow omitted any mention of her support for Biden only a year earlier in her September 3, 2020 column, when the choice was between Biden and Trump. Conrad Black observed that Noonan had gone full metal-jacket for Biden. Black’s column has stood the test of time. Only a year later, Noonan’s was already obsolete.

In 2008 Noonan joined the crowd turning on George W. Bush in what I thought was (in Noonan’s case) a grossly unfair manner. Noonan wasn’t just unfair, she was also cowardly. Noonan identified herself with the public disapproval of Bush that April in the column “The view from Gate 14.” I took up Noonan’s column at length in “Season of the witch.”

Having turned on George W. Bush, Noonan moved on to support the election of Barack Obama later that year. Noonan all but endorsed Obama in her 2008 column “Obama and the runaway train.” The anti-Bush and pro-Obama columns fit neatly together. She wrote of Obama just before the election:

He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.

In a sense, Obama delivered, but in another sense Noonan got everything wrong. Obama certainly changed the direction and tone of American foreign policy, yet the change failed to yield the results Noonan anticipated. He betrayed allies and sold out to enemies for good measure, but for nothing in return.

Noonan then turned on Obama. In “The unwisdom of Barack Obama,” Noonan condemned Obama on one of the grounds she had supported him in 2008. It had dawned on her: “His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.”

In her defense, Noonan might have pleaded that she acknowledged the paltry evidence in support of her 2008 claim that Obama has “good judgment.” If “judgment” were the issue, perhaps the excuse would mitigate the verdict that Noonan herself is guilty of incredibly poor judgment.

In August 2020 a reader drew my attention to a Noonan column that represented her return to the mode of her 2008 Obama love in “The Rise of Kamala Harris.” Subhead: “The daughter of East Bay professors grew up to become an excellent performer of politics.”

Noonan’s August 2020 column elicited thousands of critical comments. They almost made the column worth reading. They were certainly more perceptive and realistic than Noonan’s column. I quoted four of them in “High Noonan.”

I also predicted at the time that we could look forward to the column in which Noonan turned on Harris without mention of her previous adulation of her. Noonan delivered on my prediction in her December 9, 2021 column “Kamala Harris Needs to Get Serious.” Subhead: “Her shaky standing is a danger to the country given the position she could be called on to fill.” A little over a year later it had come to this:

Expectations are low. Ms. Harris can use the time of her deadness to focus on why she’s failing. Those who know her doubt she is capable of deep change, and a reset would have to deal not with surface matters but those more fundamental. Still, she’d be staring into the abyss right now, and perhaps seeing this is her last chance to correct a bad impression.

Noonan offered Harris her best advice, culminating in this recommendation:

She could lend what skills she has to the public presentation of the administration’s stands. Mr. Biden isn’t strong there; he’s uneven in his attempts to explain and advance policy thinking.

To do this Ms. Harris would have to decide to become serious—to inform and immerse herself, meet with party thinkers, study her briefing books. Her current strategy, to the extent it exists, appears to rely on her sense of her own personal charisma—delighted laughter, attempts to connect personally, to convey zest.

She should speak instead with sincerity and depth. She shouldn’t confuse Happy Warrior with Hungry Operative.

Ms. Harris has never seemed especially earnest. This would be a good time for earnestness.

Noonan revisited these themes last week in “Kamala Harris Is Biden’s No. 2 Problem.” Yes, we can all see, Harris is not up to the job of vice president. Noonan’s verdict is harsh but true.

However, when the time was ripe — i.e., when Harris was up for election to the office — it had somehow escaped Noonan’s notice that Harris is a lightweight. That she is, not to put too fine a point on it, a moron.

If Noonan were to remind us of her poor judgment and confess error, we might wonder why we are reading her or why she writes with such complacency. Noonan’s popularity may justify the paper’s persistence in turning over the Journal’s valuable editorial page real estate to her on a weekly basis, but I trust the editors are embarrassed by it.

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