334. Letter From Peggy Noonan to President Reagan 1
Dear Mr. President,
These are my thoughts. The two things we absolutely have to do on this speech2 are:
- We have to say OLD THINGS in a NEW WAY to make people listen, and
- We have to remember that this is a tonal speech—a tone poem aimed at subtly reminding the people of what a giant you are, what a phenomenon your career has been, what you have stood for, and how much they will miss you. This is not a speech that argues and it is not a speech that defends; it is not a speech that feistily asserts that the deficit is the fault of Congress (you’ve already argued that successfully the past few weeks.)
This speech is bigger than that.
This speech puts the past 8 years in context by, in simple and clearly understood terms, summing up for the people of America what we have accomplished, what we have yet to do, what you’re proud of, what you regret, and how you feel upon leaving them.[Page 1552]
For make no mistake about it, the American people are being “left” by the first President they could manage to love since John Kennedy a quarter century ago.
They love you, Mr. President, but you’re still a mystery man to them in some respects. We’re going to reveal more of you than they’ve seen in the past, mostly by talking about big things in a personal and anecdotal way.
For instance: You told me, and you should say in your Farewell Address, that the twin triumphs of your presidency are the economic turnaround the people created, and the fact that America is once again admired in the world. To illustrate both assertions you are going to tell the story you told me about your first economic summit—that wonderful story about Helmut and Margaret and your saying, ‘My name is Ron’—and how, two years later, they turned to you and said, ‘Tell us about the American miracle.’
That little anecdote is a beauty; and it has the added benefit of subtly telling people “I’m just like you, I’ve had my uncomfortable moments too.”
In the same way, in the section on How We Should Deal With The Soviets, you will be saying a lot just to tell the story of what happened to you on Arbat Street—how the people reached out, but the KGB was still there and that’s a police state.
There will be a lot of people pressing you to be hyper-emotional in this speech. “Make us cry!” they’ll be thinking. (I think the show business phrase is “Eating the furniture.”) Well, I’m pretty good at making people cry and I promise that by the end half the people of our nation will get a small lump in the throat. But let’s try to resist the tendency to use over-emotional language and words that just about scream “Please, be moved!”
This speech shouldn’t be an emotional slob; it should be calm and clear and concise and warm as the man who’s giving it.
Some people will tell you this is the speech of your life. No it isn’t. The 800 speeches of the past 8 years were “the speech of your life.” This isn’t even the icing on the cake—this is a little nice pink flower in the corner.
Actually this is what I mean: This speech can do nothing to dim your luster, but yes, it can put a little extra high gloss finish on the shine that’s already there.[Page 1553]
We should, in this speech, go back to first principals like “City on a hill”. That’s your signature phrase, and you ought to leave the stage saying it. But beyond a few careful repetitions we shouldn’t keep saying the same old thing in the same old way because if we do, no one will listen. To grab and keep their attention we’ll have to reinvent a little. The way to do it is simply to say what you feel in a new way, with new words. This is the difference between “I love you” and “My God, I adore you”, a phrase which in my experience really catches the object’s attention, though it would probably be wrong to use it in this address.
The speech then:
We should open simply
briefly review the past eight years
mention the triumphs and the disappointments
talk about the future regarding the Soviets
talk about how leaving is bittersweet
say that in keeping with the tradition set by Washington and Eisenhower you have a warning to offer, and that it is that our children are not getting the grounding in love of country and understanding of democracy that we did, and how a little more attention to this matter would be in order,
and wrap it up.
I don’t know what the ending is.
The speech runs only 20 minutes. Ten pages. We can’t gluck it up with a lot of extraneous matter, and shouldn’t. Everyone in government will lobby to get you to mention their pet thing. You’ll have to fight to resist.
But you’ll also have to make some tough calls of your own. For instance: I know you’re interested in the problem of gerrymandering, but that’s an issue that takes roughly two minutes to set up adequately and include the argument for a remedy. Do you really want to give ten percent of your farewell to gerrymandering? I don’t think you do.
We don’t have to include in this address everything you’ll be saying on the mashed potato circuit a year from now. You’ll want THAT speech to have something new too.
These are my thoughts.[Page 1554]
One more word: in my experience speeches get invented at odd moments. All of a sudden it comes, and you write. Until that happens what’s in your mind just percolates. I’m still percolating. I’m not really ready to pour yet.