Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now, by Peggy Noonan

Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now - by Peggy Noonan

Early in Patriotic Grace, Noonan writes about being at Ronald Reagan's funeral in Washington, D.C. (Back in the day, Noonan was a speechwriter for Reagan.) She describes being with "a portion of the Old America, of people who'd been raised in the '30s and '40s and '50s and who knew, had been formed by, that vanished place" that June 2004 day in the Capitol. Suddenly, someone burst into the room shouting that the Capitol was being evacuated because of an incoming low-flying aircraft.

As they ran out of the Capitol, Noonan happened to turn around to see 84-year old wheelchair-bound Oatsie Charles at the top of the Capitol steps. Oatsie was "a fabled Washington social figure, pillar of the old Georgetown, friend to Presidents from J.F.K. on .... [s]he symbolizes for me the old bipartisan Washington, an old social ideal. "

Two uniformed officers eventually carried Oatsie, in her wheelchair, down the steps. For Noonan, this gesture symbolized something greater. "Before this is over we'll all be helping each other down the stairs."

The "this" that Noonan writes of can be interpreted a few different ways. She could be referring to the election (Patriotic Grace was written last autumn, just prior to the November 2008 presidential election, and in the book the outcome of the election is not known), or another terrorist attack against America that she opines is inevitable (more on that in a bit), or this particular time in our nation's history where we are pitted against each other in the name of politics. What is needed, Noonan writes, is a new kind of discourse and civility among Americans, one that returns us to the unity we experienced right after 9/11 but which withered away in the seven years of George Bush that followed. That unity, then, is what Noonan means by patriotic grace.

"... a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. What does this mean in practice? It means, to begin with, that we must change not only the substance but the tenor of our political discourse ...."

We need to get back to a time pf patriotic grace, to reclaim it and forge a new path because it is no longer morning in America. We aren't that shining city on the hill. We are divided among ourselves, disliked by other nations, and our dialogues have become reduced to talking points shouted at each other. We can't continue on like this, says Noonan.

I have great respect for Peggy Noonan, who also writes a column in the Wall Street Journal. I may not always agree with everything she says, but in Patriotic Grace, I agree with the majority of what she says. And to that regard, I liked the premise of this little book (and it is a little book, size-wise) and I think Noonan presents much to think about. There is, however, a slight rambling, off-topic tone at times to Patriotic Grace - and while I wouldn't go so far as to say it is a disorganized piece of writing, there are times in the reading where there's the tendency to wonder how we got onto a particular subject.

But, who can argue with the call for a kinder, gentler nation and the need for such? Who can argue with the notion that with both Bush and Clinton, the presidency became about the personality and how detrimental that was to the country? Who can argue with the possibility that another terrorist attack could occur? Noonan admits to a preoccupation with the idea that such a strike could come in the form of an attack on our "frail and vulnerable" electrical grid and systems. (I heard an interview recently about this very subject and was chilled to the bone listening to how unprepared we are in the event of such an occurance.)

"Everything in America runs on electricity. Communications - the phone, the TV, the radio, the Internet. The lights, the heat, the ATM, the bank, the pump, the refrigerator. The machines in the operating room, the lights on the runway. ... If something bad happens we will get information, instructions, inspiration and help from things that are plugged in. And we will be largely without information, instruction, data, assistance, and inspiration if everything goes down. Everything. Depends. On. Electricity."

Noonan continues: "There is near-universal agreement among experts that the national grid is in bad shape - aging, overstretched, overburdened, inefficient. And vulnerable not only in case of terrorist attacks but also to cyber attacks. ... And you know the American leader who has engaged passionately on this issue, with focus and leadership, breaking through as Mr. Electricity and forcing people to focus on the grid? Yes, I believe that would be: no one. You know how often Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have spoken of the national grid? Yes, I believe that would be: zero. Let's play nightmare. Something happens in New York. You've been watching cable TV, on CNN, from the Time Warner building. There's a sort of blip on the screen, and then it goes dark. You go to MSNBC, from out of Rockefeller Center. Blank. You go to a major network. Blank. You surf, looking for a news show based in Washington. The anchor is looking distracted and saying, "We've got reports of something going on in New York and we're - " And then that goes blank. Then a sputter, and lights out everywhere. Everything off. The radio? You forgot the batteries. The neighbors? They're stuck in the elevator. Darkness descends, no word in or out, streets dark ... and this goes on for days. Then weeks. Maybe at some point you'll get news of what happened: a suitcase bomb, a mass cyber attack, a terror event of some sort. And maybe by the time you get word, things will have turned very difficult indeed."

It begs the question: who, then, is going to be left to carry us down the steps?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

1 comment:

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

That question, "who will be left to carry us down the steps" seems to sum up this book, and is a great example of grace (patriotic or otherwise).

It's a picture I'll carry with me.