Simply Speaking

Daniel H. Pink reviews Peggy Noonan's book "Simply Speaking: How to Communicate Your Ideas With Style, Substance and Clarity".

By Daniel H. Pink

Published March 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It's hard to admit this -- I am a liberal, after all -- but I have a thing for Peggy Noonan. The speeches she wrote for President Reagan are the finest that anyone in our shared profession has produced in the last two decades. And her first book, "What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era," is the most engaging political memoir I've ever read. Who else could capture an entire presidential administration in a single sentence? "Everyone wore Adam Smith ties that were slightly stained from the mayonnaise that fell from the sandwich that was wolfed down at the working lunch on judicial reform." And in the same book, the section "Three Phases of the White House" described a psychological progression instantly familiar to any staffer who's ever bounded up the West Wing's narrow stairways. The first White House phase, Noonan recalls, is to keep quiet so nobody figures out how dumb you are. The second phase is marked by the happy realization, "Hey, I'm as bright as the other guys." And "the third is, 'Oh my God, we're in charge?'"

All of which makes "Simply Speaking," Noonan's latest book, seem puny by comparison -- a sturdy George Bush following a sparkling Ronald Reagan. Her aim in this one is to teach readers how to craft and deliver a good speech, because these days everybody eventually ends up in front of a crowd. "Sooner or later," Noonan writes, "we're all on C-SPAN."

The advice she dispenses is sensible, if not scintillating. Speak for no more than 20 minutes. Write out your text. Include a dollop or two of humor. Instead of saying things in a big way, say big things. Don't ape someone else's style. ("You don't want to sound like other people. You want to sound like you, only a better, clearer you.") Forget intentional tugs at the heart. ("The most moving thing in a speech is always its logic ... A good case well argued and well said is inherently moving.")

Still, you get the sense her own heart's not really in such pedagogy. One indication: "Simply Speaking" is stuffed with more filler than a 50-cent hot dog. Noonan turns over authorship of 10 pages to former speechwriters for Dan Quayle and Bob Dole, a cruel bait-and-switch noted nowhere on the book jacket. She lets Art Buchwald write one chapter -- and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash. (of all people), another. She takes up three pages to reprint Nixon Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson's birthday toast to gossip queen Liz Smith. She analyzes and quotes at length two Reagan speeches she analyzed and quoted at length in "What I Saw." You can almost see her straining and huffing, glancing up at the mile markers, trying to calculate how much farther she has to go to reach the finish line.

But, hey, I've been there. I've written speeches with one eye on the word count, driven by no higher purpose than to crack the 2,200-word mark. As a great Democrat once said, I feel her pain. Besides, a race run half-heartedly is still more elegant and graceful when it's Peggy Noonan on the track.

Daniel H. Pink

Daniel H. Pink was chief speech writer to Vice President Al Gore from 1995 to 1997.

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