Peggy Noonan, Reagan's storyteller, says Obama tells too many stories

Crafter of the Reagan Myth doesn\'t care for the president copying St. Ronald

Alex Pareene
September 30, 2011 7:25PM (UTC)

Peggy Noonan has diagnosed what is wrong with Barack Obama: He is too concerned with "telling stories," and not concerned enough with "leading." And Noonan should know, because she was a professional writer of stories for Ronald Reagan, the American president whose entire legacy is built around the fact that he was really super good at telling stories.

Noonan has been out in the "real" part of the country talking to people and she sees "a kind of new patriotism among our professional class" and it inspires her, but back East, where the bad politicians live, people are too obsessed with "The Narrative," which she knows because she read Ron Suskind's book:


Throughout the interview the president seems preoccupied with "shaping a story for the American people." He says: "The irony is, the reason I was in this office is because I told a story to the American people." But, he confesses, "that narrative thread we just lost" in his first years.

Then he asks, "What's the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?" He answers: "What the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people" about where we are as a nation and should be.

Tell a story to the American people? That's your job? Not adopting good policies? Not defending the nation? Storytelling?

Haha yes, that is a very sensible interpretation of the president's words, there. He doesn't care about "good policies" or "defending the nation" because the president's only job is telling stories. That is exactly what Obama meant.

The problem, of course, isn't that Obama is too concerned with the "storytelling" role, it's that he's too self-aware about it. He explicitly says, out loud, that he needs to tell stories better, instead of just telling stories better. The president does have this weird DC habit of being post-modern about his job as "president."

And Obama is obviously too focused on the DC media-driven "narrative," a stupid theatrical production that plays hourly to a marginal audience of people with no connection to the rest of the country. That has long been apparent and it is frustrating for people who don't care what Mike Allen or the people who talk to or read Mike Allen think. (Which is most people.)


But Peggy Noonan, a member of that class of people that the president pays too much attention to, is not actually criticizing Obama for paying too much attention to people like Peggy Noonan. She is just attempting to re-tell the Reagan story, with Obama as Carter.

Here's the problem: There is no story. At the end of the day, there is only reality. Things work or they don't. When they work, people notice, and say it.

Would the next president like a story? Here's one. America was anxious, and feared it was losing the air of opportunity that had allowed it to be what it was—expansive, generous, future-trusting. It was losing faith in its establishments and institutions. And someone came out of that need who led—who was wise and courageous and began to turn the ship around. And we saved our country, and that way saved the world.

Here is a gem of a good point: Reagan's sepia-toned deification is due to his stupid storytelling. But his electoral success was due to the fact that after Fed created a recession to tamp down on inflation, they stimulated the hell out of the economy in advance of his reelection campaign. Reagan (like FDR and Kennedy) is remembered as successful because of the media-driven "story" of his presidency, but he was politically successful because of economic factors. That's the actual lesson Obama has been slow in grasping about the Reagan thing. (Though Obama is right that Democrats are very poor at "selling" liberalism in simple, moral language, which has more of a bearing on the success of liberal policies than it does on Democratic party electoral success.)

But Peggy Noonan is full of shit if she actually thinks Obama highlighting the role of the president as a condescending storyteller to a nation of children is in any sense a misinterpretation of Ronald Reagan's legacy.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Media Criticism Ronald Reagan

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