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Open Letter to Peggy Noonan: Are You Big Enough For This Moment?

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October 2, 2008
New York City

Peggy ---

You've been even busier than usual these last few days, so we haven't run into one another at the market. And I don't feel like shoveling a long thought into a box on a web site you may never look at. Anyway, there's nothing I'll say here that I couldn't tell you at the checkout counter.

I want to tell you a story and ask you a question.

Here's the story, from a diary on DailyKos. The writer is Dagan68, who describes himself as a 42-year-old ex-Republican with no great history of activism. For a few weeks now, he's been urging people in Dallas to register. Mostly, he talks with African-Americans and Latinos.

Here's his story:

Early on, my canvassing partner and I ran into two young black men --- bling, tattoos, etc. I try not to be racist, but it was all I could do not to be scared to death. They came up to us, and we introduced ourselves. The one gentleman's name is Kai. I asked Kai if he was registered to vote. He said, "No" and we discussed how he could register. He looked up at me --- and I swear he was tearing up in his eyes --- he said, "You are the first white man who has ever spoken to me with respect in my life. I appreciate all the work you are doing for Obama." He then asked for more registration forms --- he took about 100.

I understand from a friend at a local official registration location that Kai did indeed show up --- with about 50 of his friends in tow. I actually started crying.

I tell you this story because I think it would gladden your heart. We may not agree on the way to get there, but a love of country and a hope for a more perfect union --- these we share. And what patriot wouldn't swell with pride when people who have long considered themselves outside our system sign up to be part of it?

And I tell you this story because your recent commentary has confused me.

In your new book, Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now, you condemn "the politically cheap and manipulative." And you say: "We must now have our fights over big issues, issues of real consequence that are pertinent to the moment we're in. We shouldn't be fighting and hitting each other over the head over little things, stupid things, needlessly chafing ones."

And yet, in the last few weeks, you have been a cheerleader for the nastiest, most divisive candidates I've ever seen. Sarah Palin decided she couldn't be bothered honoring the terms of a formal debate, and you overlooked her anti-factual attacks on the Democratic candidate to applaud "a complete populist pitch. " Days after you proclaimed "she killed" and every major poll showed that what she seemed to be killing was McCain's approval rating, you were still high on Palin. And John McCain? For you, he's always a good and decent man to know no matter what vile untruths spill from his lips.

But now Palin's been unleashed, and it's impossible not to see that she's a demagogue in training who'd like to start her speeches with references to Rev. Wright and end them with --- well, we don't know how far she'll go, do we? And today John McCain asked a crowd "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and didn't stop to correct the jerk in the crowd who shouted out "Terrorist!"

Also today, a County Sheriff introduced Sarah Palin with these words: "On November 4, let's leave Barack Hussein Obama wondering what happened."

Tonight, you were on Hardball, and Chris Matthews asked you about that "Hussein" comment.

Your response: "They are not big enough for the moment."

I could say, "Good start," but you and I know that "They are not big enough for the moment" isn't much of anything. Considering the urgency of putting out this fire, it's a euphemism, a nice girl expression of disapproval. It doesn't separate you from McCain and Palin in any meaningful way --- it's a kind of acquiescence, a gentlewoman's quarrel with her political masters. No Sunday host need fear that you will wander off the reservation and create unscripted news, no party official should worry that you'll unload on McCain or Palin at a gathering of the faithful. "They are not big enough for the moment" is the remark of a tabletop ornament, a decoration --- the Republicans' very own maverick intellectual.

But here's the thing. You're not like the others who shill for McCain-Palin. Coulter, Hannity, O'Reilly, Ingraham --- they're operatives, easily replaceable. You're a writer, a real one, and when you put words in Ronald Reagan's mouth, he soared. You believe he was great; I contend you made him great. And even now, all these years later, I see in columns that mostly infuriate me a woman who cares deeply about her words and their effect on the world.

So "They are not big enough for the moment" just won't do. Not when McCain has announced that character assassination is his message for the final weeks of the campaign. John McCain a good man done in by his wicked handlers? Please. Aristotle --- you've read him, even if the others haven't --- knew what a canard that is: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit."

After tonight's debate, you'll probably be a talking head on some cable show. If not, in the final weeks of the campaign, I expect I'll see you often on my screen. So I ask you to think about those new African-American voters in Dallas who ought to thrill you and the Republican candidates who deserve your blunt, unequivocal condemnation.

And I put a question to you: This moment --- are you big enough for it?