A Conservative Reviews Life After the White House

PEGGY NOONAN, whose job it has been to put words in the mouths of public men, speaks under her own name now.

The former speech writer for Presidents Reagan and Bush told of her White House experiences in the popular 1990 book, ``What I Saw at the Revolution.'' Her second effort, based on her life since then as a single parent, New Yorker, and journalist, deals more (though not exclusively) with personal issues: family, friendships, religion.

``Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness'' is a collection of short essays, observations, and vignettes, perhaps the logical literary form for someone who spent years perfecting the craft of keeping it short, simple, and down-to-earth so voters couldn't miss the point.

Yet the overall effect is a Reaganesque ramble. We aren't completely sure what overarching themes she's espousing. The book could easily be deconstructed into a series of discrete opinion-page columns.

Still, Noonan says much worth hearing. She writes with both boldness and humility; it's the kind of wisdom that used to be shared across a kitchen table.

Some passages are unexpected, even startling, such as, ``Young black men will save our country. I'm not sure completely what I mean by this but - they're tough and smart and know how to survive.'' Some are vivid images - ``Your thirties are about ambition, your forties fruition. Sometimes the fruit is like the artificial apples and pears people kept in a bowl on the table when we were kids, shiny and succulent-looking but dry, and made of wood.'' A quick anecdote manages to contrast the Bush and Reagan White Houses in four sentences: ``The president picked up a phone and asked for tea. An hour later it still hadn't come. Nothing was working in this [the Bush] White House. If Ronald Reagan wanted tea and didn't get it, Nancy would have had a cook shot at sunrise.''

On politics, she preaches ``new conservatism'' (both fiscal and social). She critiques the field of 1996 presidential hopefuls (Bob Dole learned from 1992 and could surprise us) and suggests how President Clinton can be reelected (but warns pundits to keep their distance or be swayed by his personal charm). She offers a version of Jack Kemp's ``enterprise zone'' concept as a private-sector solution to inner-city decay.

She also casts a critical eye on the media, showing how reporters work sources against each other, helping to explain the kind of White House tattling that resulted in Bob Woodward's recent book ``The Agenda.''

Noonan shares an insider's perspective on why reporters at times file plainly wrong stories, sometimes relying on a single source. ``First, some stories are, in the famous phrase, too good to check - too funny, too interesting,'' she writes. ``Check such a story and it may disappear. (Which causes another problem: no byline tomorrow. And you just spent seven hours on it. A day wasted.) And if it doesn't disappear exactly it might become ... too interesting. Too shaded and layered, too ambiguous; it may become as interesting as truth. And you know what? It's hard to do truth in five hundred words....''

She says her generation is tired of the ``news'' it is offered. News becomes ``just a recitation of the daily `facts' of a flat and foolish world. The eternal things ... are more interesting. The day-to-day blends into larger themes, and it is the themes (the self-destructive impulses of man, the odd way individuals have of repeating the same mistakes, man's search for meaning) that are compelling.'' Her years spent mostly outside the belt-way have convinced her that real change is happening in our culture and churches, not at the White House and in Washington.

In the last third of the book she fearlessly plunges into the what-does-it-all-mean questions of life. Her revitalized practice of Christianity, returning to the Roman Catholicism of her childhood, provides comfort and meaning. Becoming a Christian, she realizes, is an ongoing process. ``Maybe I am converting from person who approves of Christianity to Christian,'' she writes, ``from person who agrees with something to person who seeks to be animated by it. Who seeks to live it.''

She is ready to search for something deeper, even if it seems out of step with current culture. Practicing Christians, she writes, are the real counterculture in this society. ``So why be disheartened by [Christianity's] low status among the elites, among the people who run networks and publish books, among the intelligentsia. Pagans have been trying to kill Christianity for two thousand years, and each day it dies, and each day it rises....''

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