PROVO — Famed Reagan/Bush speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan told a BYU audience Tuesday that President Obama could have learned an important lesson from his predecessor.
"George W. Bush knew that on all big decisions, war and peace, huge spending or taxing policies, policies with real implications, what you did is you got everybody in on it," Noonan said. "George Bush did some dramatic things, but he went to the Democrats first and he got them on board.
"The biggest mistake of Mr. Obama's presidency was not winning over any of the opposing party on the central endeavor of his entire presidency, and that is ObamaCare. Now Mr. Obama is in a fix with no one to help him out."
Hammering Obama on the Affordable Care Act is a major topic for Noonan, whose Wall Street Journal column on Saturday ran under the headline "ObamaCare Disaster Recovery." But the woman who coined the terms "kinder, gentler nation" and "a Thousand Points of Light" for President George H.W. Bush spoke before an estimated 1,500 students, faculty and staff in the Marriott Center within the framework of her theme of unlearned presidential lessons.
She also had something to say about Mitt Romney when a student who said he is Romney's nephew asked a question during a question-and-answer session.
Noonan has known the last five presidents and said she has been thinking about "how each sitting president failed, as humans do, to learn one thing from his predecessor that, if only he had absorbed it, it might have made for a better presidency for him," she said.
She spoke lovingly of the elder President Bush and his real devotion to his family but said his kindness sometimes led to missed opportunities, such as when the Berlin Wall fell and he refused to "rub it in" the noses of Soviet leaders by making a major speech.
"What did my beloved Mr. Bush not learn from my beloved Mr. Reagan that he could have learned after he watched him so closely for eight years?" Noonan asked. "I think he should have learned maybe to savor the sweep of things, to be less tidy and more imaginative, to step back from his daily competence and take the longer view, to see the sweep of history, to capture it and define it and let it go, like a bird you just tagged."
Noonan said Bill Clinton, too, missed a lesson he could have taken from his predecessor, the first President Bush, "the old boring integrity, the modest sincerity of the old leadership class in America."
The difference between Clinton and the second President Bush was that while Clinton saw shades of gray and developed ambivalence about the wielding of power, "Bush was not like that at all."
"He was a leader at the desk," she said, "he knew what he thought and why. He was not afraid to make decisions, and he made them. You can argue about those decisions to this day, you can argue about so many of them. I have in my column, but he did go on to create a consequential presidency."
But George W. Bush may have been better off toning down his decisions, Noonan said.
"What did Mr. Bush fail to learn from Mr. Clinton that might have benefited him? The knowledge that not everything has to be big and consequential and history-making. You don't always have to make big history with the presidency. Sometimes you can calm down and not be dramatic. Sometimes you can go small. Sometimes you can go modest.
"Bill Clinton, whatever your views on him, had eight years of prosperity and relative peace until the end, and those things aren't so bad. I have become a fan of the idea of less drama coming from the presidency.
Noonan described President Obama as "intelligent, well-educated, smooth, dignified, confident, very confident, very, very confident."
"I think Mr. Bush might have learned something about programmatic modesty from Mr. Clinton," she said, "but Mr. Obama certainly might have learned a few things about compromise and collegiality and closeness with the other party from George W. Bush."
After her speech, one of the questions came from Josh Davies, a psychology major who said he is Romney nephew. What, Davies asked Noonan, does the country need in its next president?
"Sane, stable and modest would be good," she said. "Humorous, even-keeled and easy-going would be good. When I think of the future president, I don't so much think of the personality as I tend to think of what their experience might be that might be applicable to our needs at the moment."
For Noonan, that means a multi-term governor with a track record of deep executive experience.
"There's something that I think we haven't had in a president (recently) that I'm really hungry to see again," she added, "though I don't know if I'll see it again in my lifetime, but it's a man or a woman who has simple wisdom. Wisdom is what I miss."
Later, she said she had called the Romney campaign "a rolling calamity" and praised the Obama campaign for its ability to reach people. The praise set up another jab at the administration.
"These people know how to use a computer when the object is important to them," she said. "They've already won, I guess it's not important now as you set up a health care program, but it was important to them to use the Internet to win, and they won."
Called Reagan "the last, great, sweet gentleman of American politics in terms of great personal grace and a lovely public dignity."
Said she appreciated Reagan's merry disposition. "Clearly there is a power in merriness. It signals that you're on an even-keel, you have perspective, you get it about life. One of the things that concerns me about our current president is that he is a relative merry-free zone. We could use more merriness."
Expressed concern about what she sees in American culture in her travels: "There's a lot of drugs going on. There's a lot of porn going on."
Noonan arrived at BYU by way of Dallas, where she joined the CBS Sunday morning news program "Face the Nation" to help host Bob Schieffer frame the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination.
Her address came just weeks after another famous conservative columnist visited BYU. Nationally syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor George Will appeared on Oct. 22 and decried a decadent American democracy suffering from a growing, financially irresponsible government and the disintegration of the family, though he expressed confident optimism for the future. His speech also is archived on BYUtv.org.
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