Noonan vs. Palin

Peggy Noonan was wrong both when faking it and telling the truth.

This famous and uncommonly gifted Republican wordsmith, a former speechwriter now impersonating an opinion journalist, held forth in a column Wednesday morning.

She wrote in that inimitably engaging and smoothly flowing way of hers that Sarah Palin was a Hail Mary pass as John McCain’s running mate. Noonan wrote that Palin would offer no middle ground, no wash. Either she would succeed dramatically or fail abysmally.

So then MSNBC had Noonan on for some cable talk that afternoon with Mike Murphy, who was McCain’s campaign manager in 2000. That’s when Murphy and McCain were riding around together in a bus called the Straight Talk Express and making themselves permanently available to adoring reporters.

Murphy didn’t join the campaign this time because McCain went a different direction.

Noonan said forgettably neutral things in this segment. Then MSNBC cut away. But somebody left the microphones open. Suddenly viewers heard real talk rather than partisan pundit pabulum.

You see, these are two entirely different things: What partisan pundits masquerading as honest journalists say on the air or write for viewer or reader consumption and what they say when they’re just talking truth to each other. The paying customers get the lies. Somewhere along the way journalistic commentary and political spin merged.

Murphy and Noonan got down to it with these microphones off, or so they thought.

Murphy didn’t like the Palin selection at all and thought it exposed cynicism on McCain’s part, when, back in his day, McCain’s essence was an absence of cynicism.

Noonan said "it’s over" and that McCain had gone for "bullshit" of "narrative." By that she meant a dramatic personal political story. She said Republicans always founder when they go for narrative.

Maybe we can dismiss Murphy as a mildly disaffected former McCain insider. It’s human nature to think your successors aren’t as effective as you were.

But I’d touted Noonan for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. And I’m going to have to take that back. It’s a bit of a hat trick, being as wrong when candid as when you were writing your partisan column.

First, about that column: Palin will not necessarily succeed dramatically or fail miserably. Palin will either fail miserably or, if she performs well, as she did in her speech Wednesday night, amount to the very "wash" that Noonan said she will never be.

You see, Republicans can win if they make this race about a distrust or fear of Barack Obama. Palin threatens to divert attention from that objective by giving people something on the other side to fret about — that being what they’ll get if something happens to McCain.

If Palin can fortify herself as competent, then she can become all she needs to be, which is precisely the "wash" that Noonan wrote was out of the question. Then Republicans will stand a chance of making the race about whether Obama is ready.

Second, about Noonan’s honesty over the inadvertently hot microphone: Republicans love "narrative" and do well with it.

McCain is a candidate wholly of narrative. It’s his story of war heroism and maverick independence that has made him the nominee. Ronald Reagan was a "win one for the Gipper" narrative, so much so that the country was invited to confuse him with a movie role he played.

Palin can indeed be a "wash" because she is indeed a "narrative," a moose stew-eating gal from Alaska who shook up the old-boy establishment and runs for the regular folk against the Washington elite, meaning people such as Peggy Noonan.


John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@

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