In Peggy Noonan's eighth book, Patriotic Grace, the Wall Street Journal columnist and frequent TV pundit talks about the necessity of national unity (and maturity) in today's turbulent times. TIME talked to Noonan about sequestering Sarah Palin, her infamous "hot mike" incident and which real-life candidate would make the best fictional President.
Why did you decide to write this book now?
All I wanted to say was, Guys, trouble is coming and we've got to take serious constructive steps to deal with the moment we're in. Period. I swept the decks, took off from work, sat down in July and wrote roughly 30,000 words.
Tell me about the size of the book. Why is it so small? I happened to love books that are not huge, do not weigh 40 pounds and do not cost $40. I had one big thought and I just wanted to say it clearly and quickly. I wanted it to be a straight shot and not dressed up with other stuff.
The book has a message of unity. Can we emerge out of this Presidential campaign as a united public?
I certainly hope so. Looking at Washington right now, you see a lot of Senators and congressmen who I think want to do the right thing, but feel themselves under serious pressure in a highly political moment.
I think the election itself is going to continue to be the greatest political drama of our lifetimes. I've never seen a political year like this. I've never seen one with so many surprises. McCain rises from the ashes. Obama says nothing is inevitable. What a year! What a drama!
The big news right now is the difficulty in unity on the bailout bill. How would you characterize it?
There was a big meeting between the Speaker of the House and the leaders of Congress on both sides and Ben Bernake and [Henry] Paulson. They came quickly to terms with the problem and its dimensions. And they came quickly to the decision that they were going to have to do something. I think what happened in the days since is telephones began to ring. And they were calls from the American people saying, 'Whoa, I don't see this. I've got real reservations about this.' I think there's such a skepticism from the American people about Wall Street, which is utterly understandable, and toward Washington, which is understable. But at the end of the day, somebody's going to have to lead.
Do you think McCain suspended his campaign for the good of the bailout, or do you think it was a political stunt?
It is the sort of thing that does look too cute by half. Too cute by half is not really what a great nation needs in a crisis. I have an extremely liberal view of politics in that I expect a lot of mischief, but we've gotta bring our best selves and our most adult selves to this thing. We're a nation of people who turn 45 and want to dress like children. We're a nation of people of 50 who want to talk like children. Grow up!
In the book, you recount a conversation you had with Jon Stewart during a commercial break on the Daily Show in which you both agreed the campaign wouldn't get "disgusting." Were you right?
These men are really good men. They are not low, creepy, dark, gut players. You look at Obama and you realize he took down a machine without raising his voice. And you look at McCain and he's been the victim of dirty playing in the past. But I also think that in a brute contest in a 50-50 nation with so much power at stake, I have felt a lot of concern that things would devolve into the low, and of course they have.
You were caught in a hot mike incident on MSNBC saying, after the Sarah Palin pick, "It's over." Someone posted the audio on YouTube. Did that experience make you nervous about what you say? Did you pull back at all?
Anyone who speaks intemperately into a live mike bottom line, it's their fault. You gotta do your best every day and share your point of view, so you can't let it bother you too much. You just gotta push forward.
You said in a column that Sarah Palin's candidacy would be either dramatically successful or dramatically not. What's your feeling right now?
I thought she gave an excellent speech [at the Republican convention] and she is a moving and rousing figure. But I became concerned as the weeks passed at the manner in which the McCain campaign was treating her like she was a Fabergé Easter egg don't drop it! It might crack! I can tell you that her interviews to the extent that she has thought aloud have not been impressive.
The press has been a real player in this campaign. She walks into the house called America for the first time, puts down her bags and is greeted by an onslaught of the most personal kinds of criticisms and questionings. It was so offensive and wrong and it made people like me feel very protective of her. That having been said, we are the press the reporters of the United States of America. We have every right to question this Vice Presidential candidate as we do every candidate for that office. I'm sorry they blew it with the unveiling of Palin, but at the end of the day, that's no reason to sequester a candidate. It's not right and it looks vaguely infantilizing.
In the book, you write about taking your teenage son to Ronald Reagan's funeral, saying you wanted him to see history. How does your son influence the way you're looking at this election?
We talk a great deal. I don't want to share his views, but he is passionate about politics and has a young man's wonderfully interesting take on the personalities that waltz through American history. But mostly, as any parent of a young man or young woman will tell you, his great impact on me is to introduce me to Arcade Fire, to play his music and explain his generation's art.
You were a consultant on The West Wing. Aside from ideology, which candidate would be most like Jed Bartlet?
The great benefit of that old President Bartlet was pretty much every show was an arc about how he thinks, how he experiences his presidency, what he thinks he faces, what attitude he brings to crises that he faces. That was a President thinking aloud. We could use more of that.