Posts Tagged ‘Peggy Noonan’
The Gang of Six puts forward some ideas worth pursuing.
By PEGGY NOONAN
The Wall Street Journal JULY 23, 2011
It’s good, it represents progress, build from it. That would be a helpful approach to the Gang of Six proposal on the debt. Don’t deep-six it because it’s flawed. Flawless isn’t going to happen. There will be a big election in 2012. A lot can be settled then, and after.
The plan has already garnered a lot of opposition, much of it fair, but to quickly push it aside would be a real missed opportunity. Those who critique the plan can help it. Its cuts in entitlements and its attempts to reform them are unclear and appear insufficient. If the Senate passed a final proposal along Gang of Six lines, House Republicans would have to make the bill more concrete, more reliable in its mechanisms. And they’d probably have to make deeper cuts. Overshadowing all negotiations is the persistent threat of a credit downgrade. The senator at the bargaining table said that if a final bill doesn’t contain “at least $4 trillion in cuts,” we will get a downgrade, which would carry costs greater than the cuts in the Gang of Six plan.
Attempts to find a final compromise are delicate, with a lot of moving pieces. But the Gang of Six proposal is cause for encouragement. It could not be turned into specific legislation quickly. Gang of Six member Kent Conrad said Thursday morning it could take six months to get it all done and through the appropriate committees. But President Obama signaled this week, for the first time, that he might back a temporary debt-ceiling increase to allow work to continue.
That’s good. But a note on his efforts in the drama. It is time for the president to get out of the way.
For the longest time he wouldn’t engage, and now he’s engaged. For the longest time he didn’t care about spending, and now he cares about spending. Good, both in terms of policy and for him. But his decision to become engaged has become a decision to dominate, to have his face in front of the television cameras with his news conferences, pronouncements, and what his communications people are probably calling his “ownership” of any final agreement. He’s trying to come across as the boss, the indispensable man, the leader. And, of course, the reasonable one.
That’s all very nice and part of Political Positioning 101, but at this point it’s not helping. He’s becoming box-office poison. His numbers are falling. The RealClearPolitics composite job approval poll rating has him down six points since June 2, when the debt-ceiling crisis began. That fall, from 52% to 46%, exactly tracks his heightened media presence and his increased attempts to be seen as dominant. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, said that if he ran for president today he’d lose, that his job-approval numbers are “worse than they appear,” and that he continues to have real trouble with undecided voters.
And if you’ve watched him lately, you know why. When he speaks on the debt negotiations, he is not only extremely boring, with airy and bromidic language—really they are soul-killing, his talking points—but he never seems to be playing it straight. He always seems to be finagling, playing the angles in some higher game that only he gets. In two and a half years he has reached the point that took George W. Bush five years to reach: People aren’t listening anymore.
That approach includes “shared sacrifice, and everybody is giving up something.” He was like a mother coming in and cheerily announcing: “Dinner’s served! Less for everybody!”
We’re trying to begin a comeback, not a famine. We’re trying to take actions that will allow us to grow.
He’s like a walking headache. He’s probably triggering Michele Bachmann’s migraines.
The Gang of Six members themselves should have been given the stage to make their own announcement, and their own best case.
The president, if he is seriously trying to avert a debt crisis, should stay in his office, meet with members, and work the phones, all with a new humility, which would be well received. It is odd how he patronizes those with more experience and depth in national affairs.
He should keep his face off TV. He should encourage, cajole, work things through, be serious, get a responsible deal, and then re-emerge with joy and the look of a winner as he jointly announces it to the nation. Then his people should leak that he got what he wanted, the best possible deal, and the left has no idea the ruin he averted and the thanks they owe him.
For now, for his sake and the sake of an ultimate plan, he should choose Strategic Silence. Really, recent presidents forget to shut up. They lose sight of how grating they are.
Europeans pay tribute to a great American—and long for another
The Wall Street Journal JULY 9, 2011
By Peggy Noonan
What brilliant good it can do a country when the world respects, and will not forget, one of its leaders. What was vividly true 30 years ago is true today: The world looks to America. It doesn’t want to be patronized or dominated by America, it wants to see America as a beacon, an example, a dream of what could be. And the world wants something else: American goodness. It wants to have faith in the knowledge that America is the great nation that tries to think about and act upon right and wrong, and that it is a beacon also of things practical—how to have a sturdy, good, unsoiled economy, how to create jobs that provide livelihoods that allow families to be formed, how to maintain a system in which inventors and innovators can flourish. A world without America in this sense—the beacon, the inspiration, the speaker of truth—would be a world deprived of hopefulness. And so we must be our best selves again not only for us but for the world.
These are the thoughts that follow eight days of celebration, in Eastern Europe and London, of the leadership of Ronald Reagan. History is rarely sweet, but it was last week when they raised statues of him in his centenary year. People old and young stopped for a moment to think and speak of him, and to define what his leadership meant to them and their countries. The celebrations in Krakow, Budapest, Prague and London were a reminder that we are all traveling through history together, that you are living not only your own life but the life of your times, as Laurens van der Post once said. And your era can actually be affected, made better, by what you do.
The subject matter was the fall of the wall, the end of communism, the reunification of Europe—those epochal events the world is still absorbing and that in retrospect seem even more amazing. Good people picked good leaders—the Big Three of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Reagan—and together they pushed until walls fell. Man is not used to such kind outcomes. A feeling of awe and gratitude colored the ceremonies: “My God, look what was done, I still can’t believe it. Let’s talk about how it happened and take those lessons into the future.” Now of all times we could use the inspiration.
In Krakow, the city from which Karol Wojtyla was called to Rome to become John Paul II, there was a thanksgiving mass celebrated by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who said in his homily: “President Reagan . . . took great pains to bring about the demise of that which he so aptly named ‘the evil empire.’ This empire of evil denied many people and nations their freedom. It did so by way of a pernicious ideology . . . the result of this experiment was the death and sufferings of millions.” “There can be no doubt,” he said, that Reagan and John Paul brought about “the collapse of communism.”
In Budapest, in a special session of the Hungarian Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen spoke of the end of Hungary as a captive nation and its beginnings as a democracy. Reagan, he said, “helped Hungary find itself.” Member of Parliament Janos Horvath spoke of Reagan’s style of peaceful liberation. What America did by being strong, by being serious in its focus, by speaking plain and true, not only inspired the victims of communism but weakened their oppressors. Reagan had “the imagination” to understand that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a historic event: “He kept quoting Harry Truman’s commitment to the liberation of the captive nations. That, for Reagan, was a more important thing than for other presidents.” Hungary knew Truman had been “infuriated” by what the Soviets did, “arresting people, including myself.” Reagan made clear he “felt the indignation.” And so, “Hungary took seriously what America meant—human rights, democracy.” It left Horvath an optimist. “I have faith that the right thing prevails. This is the Ronald Reagan mentality.”I asked a member of Parliament whether the people of Hungary had felt any bitterness over the fact that President Eisenhower did not commit U.S. military forces to help the Hungarians in 1956. At first he was puzzled. Bitterness? Any residual disappointment, I said. No, he said. “We understood your position.” Meaning, he explained, our position as a superpower in the nuclear age, and our position on freedom. They knew whose side we were on.
A veteran diplomat in the area, an American, said later that everything he’d heard in the speeches left him thinking how the great progress of the past quarter-century had been made not through warfare but through diplomacy, tough decisions, aid, encouragement and rhetorical clarity and candor.
Rather stunningly, the leader of Hungary’s government bluntly ended his speech with a sentiment often heard in Omaha, Tucson, Morristown and Tallahassee: “We need a Ronald Reagan. Is he there, somewhere, already?” The world misses him as much as we do. It misses grand leadership as much as we do.
In Prague they named a street for him. In London, on the Fourth of July, 235th birthday of the United States, they unveiled a statue in front of the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Two other presidents grace that square: a heroic FDR in flowing cape, and a steely-eyed Eisenhower in army uniform. The day was nonpartisan, non-narrow. A great American was being justly honored by his British friends who, as Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “will never forget” him. A statue, he said, is not just a remembrance. With statues we come “face to face” with the great men and women of the past, and ponder their greatness.
That night, members of Parliament gathered for a formal dinner in London’s magnificent Guildhall. There were speeches, some beautiful. Among the packed tables there was a former member of Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet, who in his day had taken heavy blows for his unrepentant conservatism. Now, white-haired, he listened to the speeches, as across the room a woman watching him remembered the greatest speech in English history: “Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day.”
And so Mr. Reagan’s centennial nears its close. We remember him—and Thatcher, and John Paul—for many reasons. To reinforce and reinspire. To keep fresh our knowledge that history can be made better. To be loyal to the truth.
And another reason. That night in conversation, former Prime Minister John Major asked how our teaching of history was in America. Not good, I said. He said in Britain it was the same, and it concerned him. We were across from a huge, heroic sculpture of the Duke of Wellington. If we don’t teach who he was and what he did, we will not make any more Wellingtons. Glory lives only when you pass it on.
By PEGGY NOONAN
FEBRUARY 26, 2011
Rhetoric’s renaissance may lead us out of the current crisis.
I was talking the other day with a new member of the U.S. Senate, and conversation turned to what had surprised him most in his first months on Capitol Hill. He said it was the number of people who still don’t seem to understand that we’re in crisis, that if we don’t move now on spending, it could do us in.
I’m always surprised when I hear this, yet I’ve heard it a lot. “There’s no sense of urgency up here.”
There are many reasons for this, and some, but not all, are political. If you are from the deep left, if you’re on the leftward ridges of the Democratic Party, you believe in high spending, higher taxing and a more dominant role for the federal government. So you wouldn’t be alarmed at the current crisis, you’d be more or less happy: You’re sort of getting what you want. If you’re told entitlement spending will ultimately force severe cuts in America’s defenses, you might think, “Good, fewer guns, more butter.” Since you likely think America is a prime source of trouble in the world, you wouldn’t be too concerned that nations that hold our debt might come to exert influence on our foreign-policy choices. In the new and emerging global world, what’s so bad about a more bridled America?
But that’s just the deep left. What about everyone else? How could a regular moderate Democrat, or an experienced old Republican bull, not be alarmed at spending projections and their implications?
I think some of the answer has to do with what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call crisis-ism. This is a condition in which you don’t know you’re in crisis because you’re always in crisis, you’ve always been in crisis, and you’ve always gotten through, so what the heck. Crisis-ism is the inability to apprehend that this time it’s different, that this time the crisis is an actual crisis.
There are senators and congressmen who’ve been on the hill for 10 and 25 years, and from the day they walked in, all they heard about was the budget crisis. “This spending will kill us.” But it never did. So maybe it wasn’t so bad, and, ergo, isn’t so bad. They are inured to warning. You can tell them 10 different ways that we’re in crisis and they’ll think, “Some think-tank guy told me that 20 years ago, and we’re still here.”
Another reason for budget denialism is that everyone now in Congress lived through the greatest expansion of wealth in the history of man on earth. It happened here, in America, in the past 30 years. And we were rich even before that. But when you grow up in a time of constant expansion, when you grow up immersed in the assumption that we are rich and will always be rich, that we’re powerful and will always be powerful, you start to think that America can take any amount of damage and still continue. This is called optimism, but it is not optimism, it is Rich Boy Syndrome. A boy is lucky enough to be born to rich parents who are themselves the product of generations of wealth going back as far as the eye can see. But he never got into the habit of making money, never learned to respect it, and never felt protective of the system that allowed it to exist. So the money went away. Rich Boy Syndrome is thinking wealth will just continue no matter what you do. A lot of members of Congress have Rich Boy Syndrome. They think they can do anything and America will always be rich.
A final reason is simply human. It is really convenient and pleasant not to see a crisis, because if you don’t see it, you don’t have to do anything about it. You don’t have to be brave, you don’t have to put yourself on the line, you don’t have to lead. You can tell yourself you don’t have to be brave and lead because really, at the end of the day, despite all the screaming, there is no crisis.
I end with optimism, as why not. One way to change minds about the current crisis is through information. We all know this, and we all know about the marvelous changes in technology that allow for the spreading of messages that are not necessarily popular with gatekeepers and establishments. But there’s something new happening in the realm of political communication that must be noted. Speeches are back. They have been rescued and restored as a political force by the Internet.
In the past quarter-century or so, the speech as a vehicle of sustained political argument was killed by television and radio. Rhetoric was reduced to the TV producer’s 10-second soundbite, the correspondent’s eight-second insert. The makers of speeches (even the ones capable of sustained argument) saw what was happening and promptly gave up. Why give your brain and soul to a serious, substantive statement when it will all be reduced to a snip of sound? They turned their speeches into soundbite after soundbite, applause line after applause line, and a great political tradition was traduced.
But the Internet is changing all that. It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech—a serious, substantive one—two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.
People in politics think it’s all Facebook and Twitter now, but it’s not. Not everything is fractured and in pieces, some things are becoming more whole. People hunger for serious, fleshed-out ideas about what is happening in our country. We all know it’s a pivotal time.
Look what happened a year ago to a Wisconsin businessman named Ron Johnson. He was thinking of running for the Senate against an incumbent, Democratic heavy-hitter Russ Feingold. He started making speeches talking about his conception of freedom. They were serious, sober and not sound-bitey at all. A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.” But the reason Mr. Sykes did it is that Mr. Johnson made a serious speech.
A funny thing about politicians is that they’re all obsessed with “messaging” and “breaking through” and “getting people to listen.” They’re convinced that some special kind of cleverness is needed, that some magical communications formula exists and can be harnessed if only discovered. They should settle down, survey the technological field and get serious. They should give pertinent, truthful, sophisticated and sober-minded speeches. Everyone will listen. They’ll be all over the interwebs.
JANUARY 27, 2011, By PEGGY NOONAN
The WallStreet Journal
The audience found it tiresome. Here’s why it was irksome as well.
It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It’s almost magical.
The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.
Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor “flat.” This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.
The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.
The central elements of the missed opportunity:
* An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America’s central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they’re cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.
President Obama’s answer is to “freeze” a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it’s not a package and it’s not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it “sad,” told a local radio station the savings offered “won’t even pay the interest on the debt we’re about to accumulate” in the next two years. The president was trying to “hoodwink” the American people, Mr. Coburn said: “The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It’s 27% bigger than it was two years ago.” Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it’s a matter of “urgency.”
• Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.
• An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we’ll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we’ll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we’ll get our fiscal life in order, we’ll save our country. Right?
Nah. We’ll focus on “greater Internet access,” “renewable energy,” “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” “wind and solar,” “information technology.” “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who’d say, “Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let’s discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!” A better priority might be, “Get the kids out and call the fire department.”
• Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn’t shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He’s going to rationalize government? He wants to “get rid of the loopholes” in our tax code. Really? That’s good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.
On education, the president announced we’re lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. “Race to the Top” isn’t the answer. We all know this.
As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. “American innovation” is important. As many as “a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.” We’re falling behind in math and science: “Think about it.”
Yes, well, all we’ve done is think about it.
“I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans.” But our deterioration isn’t new information, it’s a shared predicate of at least 20 years’ standing, it’s what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what’s in the national information bank.
He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I’s out of his speeches. We called his edits “I-ectomies.” Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does “I implants.”
Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That’s because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it’s not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don’t understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.
I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write “A Serious Man Seizes the Center.” But he was not serious and he didn’t seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that’s what centrism is.
The WallStreet Journal
JANUARY 7, 2011
Why Owen Honors had to go, and why a stammering monarch is a movie hero.
By PEGGY NOONAN
At a time of new beginnings in Washington, and as a new year starts, some thoughts on leadership that begin with two questions. First, why is it a good thing that the captain of the USS Enterprise was this week relieved of his duties? Second, why is the movie “The King’s Speech” so popular and admired? The questions are united by a theme. It is that no one knows how to act anymore, and people miss people who knew how to act.
Capt. Owen Honors, commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, was revealed to have made and shown to his crew videos that have been variously described in the press as “lewd,” “raunchy,” “profane” and “ribald.” They are. Adm. John Harvey, who Wednesday relieved Capt. Honors of his duties, said the captain’s action “calls into question his character and undermines his credibility.” Also true.
In a way it’s not shocking that Capt. Honors did what he did, because he came from a culture, our culture, in which, to be kind about it, anything goes. Mainstream movies, television, music—all is raunch. To say the obvious, John Paul Jones, Bull Halsey and Elmo Zumwalt likely wouldn’t have made those videos, if they could have. More to the point, some average, undistinguished naval captain in 1968 wouldn’t have made them either, because he would have had his mind and consciousness formed in the 1930s and ’40s, when our culture was more coherent and constructive. It can also be said that Capt. Honors’s videos were not extreme by the standards of our day. Even his bigotry seemed self-spoofing, as obviously nitwittish and vulgar as the character he was playing—himself—was nitwittish and vulgar.
But the videos were a shock in that this was a captain of the U.S. Navy, commanding a nuclear-powered ship, and acting in a way that was without dignity, stature or apartness. He was acting as if it was important to him to be seen as one of the guys, with regular standards, like everyone else.
But it’s a great mistake when you are in a leadership position to want to be like everyone else. Because that, actually, is not your job. Your job is to be better, and to set standards that those below you have to reach to meet. And you have to do this even when it’s hard, even when you know you yourself don’t quite meet the standards you represent.
A captain has to be a captain. He can’t make videos referencing masturbation and oral sex. He has to uphold values even though he finds them antique, he has to represent virtues he may not in fact possess, he has to be, in his person, someone sailors aspire to be.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is shown with her husband, King George VI, and their two daughters, Princess Elizabeth, center, and Princess Margaret, in 1937. (AP Photo)
A lot of our leaders—the only exceptions I can think of at the moment are nuns in orders that wear habits—have become confused about something, and it has to do with being an adult, with being truly mature and sober. When no one wants to be the stuffy old person, when no one wants to be “the establishment,” when no one accepts the role of authority figure, everything gets damaged, lowered. The young aren’t taught what they need to know. And they know they’re not being taught, and on some level they resent it. For the past 20 years I have heard parents brag, “I brought up my child to question authority.” Ten years ago I started thinking, “Really? Well good luck finding it, junior.”
In England this week the story continues to be Kate Middleton, who is not an aristocrat, marrying into the royal family. Meaning she’s about to become, in a way, a leader within her culture. Clever people on TV are giving her media advice. Be one of us, they say, lighten and brighten, bring in less formality and stultifying stiffness.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. If any family ever needed to be classed up it is Britain’s royals, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, that great lady. Kate should take her polite and striving middle-class upbringing and use it to add dignity and distance to the House of Windsor. They came close to losing public support for the monarchy the past 40 years, in part due to the advice of PR geniuses who told them, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, to get with it. Stop being fusty, be hipper, show your humanity. It seemed reasonable—Britain was exploding with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cool Britannia. The royals had to catch up. And so they showed their human side, and revealed over the decades that they were not better than anyone else, not more disciplined, serious, patriotic, faithful or self-denying. Intimate public confessions, raucous medieval tournaments in which they rolled in the mud, toe sucking. This is royalty? Then what are slobs for?
The only good advice would have been: Stay boring, strive to appear to be persons of rectitude and high morality, don’t be modern, stand for “the permanent against the merely prevalent,” love God and his church, don’t act out and act up. Be good.
That, looking back, is all Britain needed. But it’s what every nation needs, now more than ever, from its leaders. Which gets us to “The King’s Speech.”
It is England, the 1930s, a time of gathering crises. The duke of York, a shy man with a hopeless stammer, is forced to accept the throne when his brother abdicates. “I am not a king,” he sobs; he is, by nature and training, a naval officer. Hitler is rising, England is endangered. The new, unsure king’s first live BBC speech to the nation looms.
He will stutter. But he is England. England can’t stutter. It can’t falter, it can’t sound or seem unsure at a time like this. King George VI and his good wife set themselves, with the help of an eccentric speech therapist, to cure or at least manage his condition.
He sacrifices his desire not to be king, not to lead, not to make that damn speech. He does it with commitment, courage, effort. He does it for his country.
He and his wife aren’t attempting to be hip, they are attempting to be adequate to the situation. The king is aware of the responsibilities of his position, and demands a certain deference. When his therapist tells him they must work as equals, he stammers, “I’d be home with my wife and no one would give a damn, if we were equals.” As for personal style, the great scene is when the king, on the prompting of the therapist, screams every low curse word he knows. It’s funny because it’s obvious he doesn’t say those words. He is a person of restraint, and old-fashioned ways. He doesn’t want to be one of the guys.
And audiences love it. The Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called the movie “simply sublime,” and it is, for some simple reasons. It’s about someone being a grown-up, someone doing his job, someone assuming responsibility. It is about a time when someone was taking on the mantle of leadership, someone was sacrificing his comfort for his country.
Someone was old-school. Someone wasn’t cool.
What a relief to see it. No wonder at the almost-full 4:45 p.m. showing at an uptown Manhattan theatre on Wednesday, they burst into applause, and some, you could tell, wanted to cheer.
DECEMBER 31, 2010
The origin of the New Year’s anthem—
By PEGGY NOONAN
You know exactly when you’ll hear it, and you probably won’t hear it again for a year. The big clock will hit 11:59:50, the countdown will begin—10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4—and the sounds will rise: the party horns, fireworks and shouts of “Happy New Year!“
And then they’ll play that song: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?”
It is a poem in Scots dialect, set to a Scots folk tune, and an unscientific survey says that a lot of us don’t think much about the words, or even know them. The great film director Mike Nichols came to America from Germany as a child, when his family fled Hitler. He had to learn a lot of English quickly and never got around to “Auld Lang Syne”: “I was too busy with words like ‘emergency exit’ on the school bus,” he told me. “As a result, I find myself weeping at gibberish on New Year’s Eve. I enjoy that.”
The screen and television writer Aaron Sorkin, who this year, with “The Social Network,” gives Paddy Chayefsky a run for his money, says that every year he means to learn the words. “Then someone tells me that’s not a good enough New Year’s resolution and I really need to quit smoking.”
“Auld Lang Syne”—the phrase can be translated as “long, long ago,” or “old long since,” but I like “old times past”—is a song that asks a question, a tender little question that has to do with the nature of being alive, of being a person on a journey in the world. It not only asks, it gives an answer.
It was written, or written down, by Robert Burns, lyric poet and Bard of Scotland. In 1788 he sent a copy of the poem to the Scots Musical Museum, with the words: “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, has never been in print.” Burns was interested in the culture of Scotland, and collected old folk tales and poems. He said he got this one “from an old man”—no one knows who—and wrote it down. Being a writer, Burns revised and compressed. He found the phrase auld lang syne “exceedingly expressive” and thought whoever first wrote the poem “heaven inspired.” The song spread throughout Scotland, where it was sung to mark the end of the old year, and soon to the English-speaking world, where it’s sung to mark the new.
The question it asks is clear: Should those we knew and loved be forgotten and never thought of? Should old times past be forgotten? No, says the song, they shouldn’t be. We’ll remember those times and those people, we’ll toast them now and always, we’ll keep them close. “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet.”
“The phrase old acquaintance is important,” says my friend John Whitehead, fabled figure of the old Goldman Sachs, the Reagan State Department, and D-Day. “It’s not only your close friends and people you love, it’s people you knew even casually, and you think of them and it brings tears to my eyes.” For him, acquaintance includes, “your heroes, my heroes—the Winston Churchills of life, the ones you admire. They’re old acquaintances too.”
But “the interesting, more serious message in the song is that the past is important, we mustn’t forget it, the old has something for us.”
So does the present, as the last stanza makes clear. The song is not only about those who were in your life, but those who are in your life. “And there’s a hand, my trusty friend, and give a hand of thine, We’ll take a right good-will draught for auld lang syne.”
To Tom Coburn, a U.S. senator from Oklahoma, the song is about friendship: “I think it’s a description of the things we lose in our hurry to do things. We forget to be a friend. We have to take the time to make friends and be friends, to sit and tell stories and listen to those of others.”
Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said he always experienced the song as celebratory and joyful until something happened in 2004. Mr. Daniels was running for office, and it became a new bonding experience for him and his father, who followed the campaign closely: “He loved my stories from the road.” The elder Daniels died unexpectedly in August, “50 days short of my election as governor.” At a New Year’s party, the governor-elect heard the song in a new way. Ever since, “I hear its wistfulness.”
Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes,” enjoying one of the great careers in the history of broadcast news, thinks of childhood when she thinks of “Auld Lang Syne”: “I see New Year’s Eve parties going way back, all the way back to when we were little kids and you had to kiss someone at midnight and you had to sing that song.” She interviewed Mark Zuckerberg recently. “Maybe in the age of Facebook you don’t lose old friends,” she says. “Maybe it’s obsolete.” Maybe “they’ll have to change the song.”
For the journalist and author Marie Brenner, the song didn’t come alive until she moved from her native Texas to New York City, in the 1970s. That first New Year’s in town, “Auld Lang Syne was a revelation to me. . . . I thought, this is beautiful and maybe written by a Broadway composer, by Rodgers and Hammerstein.” She saw people singing it “on the street, and at a party in a bar downtown.” There was “this gorgeous moment when everyone seemed to know the words, and people looked teary and, yes, drunk.” They played the song back in San Antonio, “but it took me coming to New York to really hear it.”
The song is a staple in movies, but when I asked people to think of the greatest “Auld Lang Syne scene,” every one of them had the same answer. Not “When Harry Met Sally,” not “Out of Africa,” not, for film buffs, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.” The great “Auld Lang Syne” scene in cinematic history is from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which Mr. Sorkin puckishly describes as “Frank Capra’s classic tale of an angel who takes up the cause of a progressive in order to defeat a heartless conservative. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting the movie, but the song still works.”
The scene comes at the end of the film. Friends surround George Bailey, recently rescued by an angel. Someone bumps against the Christmas tree and a bell ornament makes a sound. George’s daughter says, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings,” and George looks up and winks. “Thanks, Clarence,” he says, as the music swells. God bless the baby boomers who discovered that film on TV after their elders dismissed it as Capra-corn.
Tonight I’ll be at Suzie and Joe’s, with whom I worked at CBS News in auld lang syne. I’ll think of some who won’t be entering the new year with us—big, sweet-hearted dynamo Richard Holbrooke, and Ted Sorensen, counselor to presidents, whose pen was a terrible swift sword. I’ll take a cup of kindness yet for them, for all the old acquaintances in this piece, and for the readers, for 10 years now, of this column. We mark an anniversary. Thank you for being in my life. Happy New Year.