What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan
The Reagan era was a heady time for young conservatives. The 1980 election and the first Reagan administration seemed to signal that a new age had begun in America, and they could say, with Wordsworth, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!"
In What I Saw at the Revolution, Peggy Noonan beautifully captures the feel of that time. Noonan, who worked as a Reagan speechwriter from 1984 to 1986 and a Bush campaign speechwriter in 1988, chronicles life in the Reagan White House, good and bad. She shows us the signs of that time: young aides discussing conservative ideas in the White House cafeteria, the excitement (and disillusionment) of being at the center of power, battles between moderate "squishes" and conservative "extremists," and, above all, the sunny and optimistic character of Ronald Reagan.
Noonan also gives insight into the thinking of "Reagan Democrats" such as herself. She describes her alienation from the Democratic loyalties of her parents, and her feeling that the Democratic Party had left her rather than she leaving it. Noonan also provides a sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant look into how the working-class Catholic sensibilities of most Reagan Democrats clashed with the upper-class WASP traditions of the Republican party.
An interesting and recurrent theme in What I Saw is Noonan's attempt to understand who Reagan was. How could someone who projected such a warm and loving image (and who was such an unfailingly courteous man) be so often distant and uninvolved in private? Noonan recounts biographical details of Reagan's life and comes to some persuasive answers.
My major reservation about this book is that Noonan, while portraying her book as a frank look at her White House experiences, is obviously currying favor with people who, in 1990, could still assist her career. George Bush and Richard Darman, both then influential, were very favorably portrayed. Bud McFarlane, Donald Regan, and Regan's aides, who were completely out of power, were pilloried.
Aside from that caveat, I strongly recommend this entertaining, well-written, and poetic look into life as a young conservative in Washington in the 1980s. It captures the spirit of the time as no other book I've ever read has.
Review posted 12 July 1998