The frustrating thing about Peggy Noonan is -- she is just so darn talented.
I really mean that. Damn it.
A good number of us can go mano-a-mano with those she generally stands with -- and I think win -- in the so-called "market place of ideas." A good number of us share her passion for and devotion to this country and a better life for its citizens. And the side most of us stand with has its share of bright minds and good writers. Frank Rich, Anna Quindlen and my old colleague, the peerless Molly Ivins, come to mind.
But Noonan, to my constant frustration for decades, does a better job than most journalists I read regularly when it comes to capturing the zeitgeist. She did it again this week in her column "Old Jersey Real: The Greatness of 'The Sopranos'."
As New Yorkers say, Ms. Noonan: Brava!
For a few exhilarating minutes, I forgot she was Ronald Regan's speechwriter. I forgot that she was so convinced that 2004 was the most important election in decades that she took a temporary leave to help the GOP. I was wowed, as I frequently am, by the effortless turn of phrase she still offers 20 years after her work for The Great Communicator -- this time describing the diegesis of this great, modern-American gothic:
"It was real, Old Jersey real (Satriale's butcher shop, not the mall) and primal," she wrote. "It was about big things, as all great drama is -- the human hunger for dominance, for safety, for love; the desire to rise in the world; the need to belong to something, to be a Jet or a Shark, a Crip or a Blood, and have mates, homies, esteemed colleagues or paisans; how we process the hypocrisy all around us, in our families and among our friends, as we grow up; how we process hypocrisy in ourselves."
The week before, she showed the same eye for detail and cultural context -- coupled with a prescience borne from passion and political experience - in a rare column that went surprisingly unnoticed by most of the chattering class. In "Too Bad, President Bush has torn the conservative coalition asunder," the woman who gave Reagan his public voice gave George W. Bush his public comeuppance.
Ms. Noonan called the Bushes -- the father and the son -- "great wasters of political inheritance." She wrote about the elder Bush receiving a vibrant political party shaped by Reagan's successes and the younger Bush being handed a nation totally united by the attacks of Sept. 11. Then she made an amazing confession: "The beginning of my own sense of separation from the Bush administration came in January 2005."
That statement stopped me cold.
January 2005 was eight weeks after that election Ms. Noonan left her job as a journalist to help. She and other conservative journalists were still in their metaphorical victory lap when she penned her column "He's Got Two of 'Em: Why I can't stop being happy about the election result." Consider its opening:
"Well, I just can't stop being happy. I don't mean elated ... but I continue to feel relief (the exit poll hives have gone down) and satisfaction (my countrymen, such good sense they have). So let's just let the mood continue and have fun."
In that same column, she offered a detailed account of remarks she made publicly at a New York political event, including her opinion that Bush won largely because he had "the better character of the two candidates" and "he was dependable and he was predictable."
Let me be clear, here. Seriously. I am not playing gotcha with Ms. Noonan.
Unlike those who attacked John Kerry as a "flip flopper" in 2004, I don't see anything wrong with a person changing his or her mind when presented with new information or better insight. I think willingness to re-evaluate a position shows intelligence and maturity.
What this shows, and why I genuinely am surprised pundits and analysis have failed to focus on this shift in editorial opinion, is that it is a marker. Something big -- something really fundamental -- is happening.
Ms. Noonan isn't one of "the screamers" - the group that reminiscent of the line from Casablanca "round up the usual suspects" -- we see "from the left" and "from the right" on the evening cable and Sunday morning talk shows. She doesn't relish quick hits by yelling over or interrupting someone with predictable canned responses. She wasn't part of the group who appeared on Crossfire or Imus in the Morning.
Ms. Noonan thinks before she speaks or writes, and clearly she has thought this one through.
Her description this week of Tony Soprano -- of him trying to hold onto a world he thinks is breaking to pieces ... his sense that the best times have passed not just for his culture but for the country ... and his belief that although he is rich and comfortable he is part of some long downhill slide that neither he nor anyone else can stop -- is dead on.
There was a reason Dallas and Dynasty were so popular during the Reagan years, and reading Ms. Noonan offers some insight into the reason The Sopranos was a classic of the Bush era. As she writes:
"One of the reasons the show was so popular -- one of the reasons it resonated -- is that it captured a widespread feeling that our institutions are failing, all of them, the church, the media, the law, the government, that there's no one to trust, that Mighty Mouse will not save the day."
It's a chilling note compared to Reagan's famous claim "It's morning in America."