Peggy Noonan Licks the Hand That Feeds Her

In 1983, George F. Will got into a moderate amount of trouble when it came out that he had 1) helped coach Ronald Reagan before a 1980 campaign debate with Jimmy Carter, and 2) subsequently praised Reagan’s performance as an ABC News commentator without disclosing his contribution. This was not unlike the time in 1945 when Walter Lippmann and James Reston had 1) ghostwritten the speech in which the previously isolationist Sen. Arthur Vandenberg announced his conversion to internationalism, and 2) subsequently praised Vandenberg’s performance in print without disclosing their contribution. (For details on the latter, and especially on Lippmann’s magnificent contempt for his puppet Vandenberg, check out Ronald Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Click here to buy the book.) 

A recent item in Roll Call (which Chatterbox seems to be reading a lot lately) hinted that the former Reagan and Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan might be guilty of a similar misdemeanor. The item was about former Rep. Bob Livingston, who, on the eve of being named House speaker, resigned because Hustler found out he’d been unfaithful to his wife (this all happened last December, you’ll recall, as the House was preparing to impeach Bill Clinton). Anyway, Roll Call recently found out and reported that one month after Livingston made his resignation speech–which Noonan praised in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed as a “breathtaking moment”–Livingston paid Noonan $9,000 for “consulting and speechwriting.” (The disbursement took place on Jan. 19, according to Livingston’s filing   with the Federal Election Commission.)

Roll Call quoted an anonymous employee at Livingston’s new lobbying firm as saying that Noonan did not write the resignation speech she’d so extravagantly praised. “No, he wrote that all himself,” the aide said. Still, Chatterbox was nagged by doubt: What Livingston speech did Noonan write?

“Here’s the story,” Noonan informed Chatterbox by e-mail:

Before Bob Livingston became speaker, in the days just after Newt quit, Bob called me and asked if I’d work with him on a speech to the GOP conference–the first speech he would give upon being elected, in effect, to the speakership by the Republicans, and so a significant speech, though not a public one. I said yes, and went down to Washington and worked with him on what he wanted to say. A week later I sent him a draft, he and his staff reworked it, and he gave a version of it a few weeks after that–this would be late November ‘98, not sure what day but it was the day he was elected speaker. I billed him for it, $9,000 … After I sent him the conference speech he called to say thanks, and then I never heard from him again until a week or two after he’d resigned, when he called to say it was nice to have worked with you.

As for the resignation speech she praised in the Wall Street Journal:

I had nothing to do with his resignation speech, and don’t think he had a speech–it looked to me at home like he had notes at the lectern, but the yelling from the Democrats and his holding up his hand was obviously spontaneous. I was floored when he said what he said, did not know he was resigning, didn’t know the facts. He never called me about it.

Noonan’s response seems to clear her of pulling a “Will.” But she still should have mentioned, in her Journal piece, that she’d just sent a bill to the guy she was praising. Here’s the Livingston passage from Noonan’s Journal Op-Ed (which ran Dec. 21 under the headline “The Good Guys Finally Won”):

It was strange and Druryesque that the most electric moment of the Clinton impeachment was the resignation of Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston, when he said of the president, “You, sir, may resign your post,” and the Democrats hissed, “You resign!” and he held up his hand, and looked at them, and told them he would. That breathtaking moment, the hooting and the hand and the announcement, seemed to me revealing of different styles, of almost characterological differences between Democrats and Republicans these days. The Democrats in Congress now are like the young Chuck Colson, partisan, ruthless and tough. The Republicans seemed like the young William Cohen, thoughtful and stricken. 

Noonan informed Chatterbox that she’s pretty much out of the speechwriting business these days; she only does it now for politicians or businessmen

when I admire them or we’re friends, meaning I admire and have affection; I’ve written about it in my last book, Simply Speaking, [click here to buy it] and referred to it some time this year in the WSJ–I always keep the price relatively low [!], but I always bill, so it’s always in FEC reports, which means it’s always in the papers, and magazines. I helped Steve Forbes with a speech in ‘95, and worked on one with George Pataki in ‘98. That’s it for politicians, but here’s a surprise for you: In many ways they seem better, I mean more serious and thoughtful, than businessmen. Maybe that’s not a surprise for you, but it was to me.

Chatterbox has no difficulty believing that Livingston was someone Noonan liked, but it would be inhuman of Noonan not to like Livingston a little more after she billed him $9,000. (Self-respect prevents Chatterbox from telling you how many Chatterbox items $9,000 would buy.)

But let’s get back to the speech Noonan did write for Livingston–his speech to the House Republican conference. Is Chatterbox to understand that it is now the norm for a member of Congress to require the services of a nationally renowned writer in order to speak to his colleagues in private? Should Chatterbox hire Noonan next time he wants to inform his Slate Washington colleagues–David Plotz, Will Saletan, and Eve Gerber–that he’s heading home early to attend a parent-teacher conference? (“My fellow journalists, we can hardly hold a light unto the world if we are to abandon our own children to the inky darkness of ignorance …”)

On the other hand, maybe Chatterbox shouldn’t be so surprised. About 15 years ago, Chatterbox was asked to ghostwrite a speech that a university president was giving to his own undergraduates. Chatterbox (who was not affiliated with the university in question) charged him $1,000 for about an hour’s work. Chatterbox hesitates to name the university president, because he rather liked him. The reason Chatterbox liked him was that he gave Chatterbox a thousand bucks.

[Clarification, 9/17/99: Peggy Noonan informs Chatterbox that she will probably do some more political speechwriting in the future.]