Peggy Noonan visits Scripps College

By Megan Petersen '15Editor-in-Chief

The eighth annual Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program brought former speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan to Scripps College Thursday. Noonan met with students for a question-and-answer session followed by a reception and dinner. The evening culminated with an address for students and community members.

Editor-in-Chef Aidan Harley ’16 attended the student question-and-answer session with Noonan, and said that questions ranged from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to Obamacare to Noonan’s thoughts on feminism. Noonan said she felt that Obamacare had failed for three reasons: the website’s crash and failure to log information entered when it was functioning; the fact that so many Americans lost their existing coverage or had their coverage changed in response to the law; and that the economy lost 2 million jobs in the bill’s wake.

In response to the question about feminism, she said that she felt that women deserve equality and that there were moments in her life where she felt disempowered as a woman, but that she ultimately could not be reconciled with the leftist positions of the feminist movement.

Noonan’s address focused on the personalities of the last five presidents and what each could have learned from his predecessor. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush she described as “two sides of the same coin”—she said they saw, understood, and reacted to the world very differently. In particular, she felt that Bush lacked Reagan’s “imagination to understand what [important moments, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall] would mean in the sweep of human history.”

Bill Clinton, Noonan said, was “disciplined,” “deeply articulate,” and a “great actor of the public role of the president,” something required “of all presidents of the media age.” However, Clinton could come off as sly. “Leaders aren’t supposed to be sly,” she continued. “You can hire people to be sly—that’s not your job.”

In contrast, George W. Bush, Noonan said, was not a great actor, but he was always sure of himself. She said that, at times, people expected little from W. Bush and his presidential opponent, Al Gore, but she emphasized that times change quickly. “One went on to have a deeply consequential presidency,” she said, “and one went on to receive a Nobel Prize. …You never know what’s going to happen.” However, she said, Bush failed to learn that “not everything has to be big,” and that Clinton’s time of relative peace was something admirable.

Noonan described Barack Obama as “dignified…educated, smooth, [and] confident,” but that he was, unlike some of his predecessors, “a merriness-free zone.” Furthermore, she contemplated that, were Obama asked what he could have learned from his predecessor, he might have said “nothing.” In fact, said Noonan, what Obama could have learned from W. Bush was his ability to get votes from either side, and often had Democrats co-sponsoring his key legislation, something Obama has failed to do. “He does not understand the hard, arduous work” of compromise, said Noonan.

Noonan answered questions from students and community members after her talk, which included her inspirations (she said former Malott series speakers David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, as well as Twitter, which she described as “the great bliss of my life”) and her thoughts on the Tea Party (she thought that their influence was “exaggerated but real”).  This reporter inquired what Obama’s successor could learn from him (to compromise), and what the future of journalism looked like (she was concerned about jobs for young people, but thought the internet was promising.

The program also included Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga, who introduced the series, noting that it was founded to “generate informed debates” on campus in the spirit of alumna Elizabeth Hubert Malott ’53 and to ensure that Scripps students were “empowered, proactive, [and] fiendishly bright” agents of change. David Brooks, who was the series’ speaker in 2011, called Scripps students “fiendishly bright” following his time on campus, and Noonan said that she would instead call Scripps students “devilishly brilliant.”

Ambika Bist ’15, a member of the committee which selects speakers for the series, introduced Noonan in place of Liza Malott Pohle, who was unable to attend due to winter travel delays. Bist listed Noonan’s many accomplishments, particularly her time as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and her “insightful and thought-provoking views” which make up her weekly columns featured in the Wall Street Journal.

The Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs program occurs every spring at Scripps, and the speakers are selected by a committee made up of board members, professors, alumnae, and students.