As Gawker says, “You do not want to miss the weekly festival of swooning self-regard and misty incoherence that will be Peggy Noonan’s “Study Group” for undergrads this year, during her fellowship at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Let’s read the syllabus.”
The name of the study group is “Creativity in Journalism, in Politics and in Life – A Writer’s Perspective.”
It is a study group aimed at talking about the writer’s life, and a writer’s efforts, in three fields: column writing, speechwriting, and book writing. It is about what writers are, always, trying to do, and that is think it new, see it new, make it new. A writer tries to make clarity out of confusion, to capture reality, to see what is. A good writer is trying to be alive. A columnist says, “I think this is true, I want to tell you about it, please listen to me, let’s think about it together.”
It is often said that writing is a solitary act, and that is true – it’s you and your brain, your soul and your response to something that’s happening either in the world or in your head. And you bring to it, to this subject, what knowledge you have of life, and of man, and of history. But at the same time it is not a solitary act if you are lucky enough to have an audience for your work. Then a certain communion is created. Ronald Reagan was interesting as a political figure in part because when he spoke there was a quality of mutual listening going on, a listening so intense it was like a form of communication. He would make his case and illustrate his points and you’d sit in the audience and think, “Yes, that’s true, I agree” or, “Hmmm, I’m not sure.” But it wasn’t passive, this exchange, it was active, a real back and forth. In column writing you are always thinking, as you write your 850 or 1,260 words, of your audience, which you hope is reading and hope you will hear from. (There are a few columnists who never think, or say they never think, about the people reading. My first response to that is, “Really? How boring. This is an exchange.” My second thought is, “That would explain a lot.”) I get responses to columns from people stuck in traffic ten blocks away, and from people on other continents. The first response I get from a given column will come maybe 20 minutes after it’s posted online. The last will tend to be a few days later. (One lives in fear of a factual mistake, always, but readers catch them quickly and help you out. On the other hand one is rarely swept away by praise or devastated by criticism. Whitman called the sound of the American people a “great barbaric yawp” – a phrase that seems to me beautiful because it seems to be true. To me, modern reader reaction is thrilling and touching and infuriating and fabulous and out of bounds and deeply wise. And yet…you can’t let it shape your work. Trying to find, and to say well, what is true, is the only thing that can shape your work.
So: onward, to a writer’s life.
Introduction: An Overview:
Who I am. Where I am from. What I have done. My career. Being a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan; being young at CBS News when it too was young, and the Tiffany Network, and carried itself like the greatest army in the world, with spirit and élan and pride, and not a small amount of conceit. Being young and suddenly a colleague of Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America”; writing a daily commentary show for Walter’s successor as anchor of the Evening News,Dan Rather. Being taught to write by the men who were taught to write for radio by a gentleman named Ed Murrow, the inventor of broadcast news.
“What It Is to Work In a White House.”
You’ve seen the television show The West Wing, on which I was for a short time a consultant. You’ve read What I Saw at the Revolution, or should have, God knows. Is there more to say? Yes. Herein I say it. Here’s where I start: What a privelage, what a great exhausting drama, to do what you are doing, which is: Living History.
“What It Is to be a Speechwriter.”
The Challenger Speech and The Speech at Pointe du Hoc on the Fortieth Anniversary of D-Day, are two presidential speeches whose writing may tell us a great deal about what it is speechwriters do and are trying to do, and how the editing system works, and how the final draft becomes the final draft. So I am going to walk through those two speeches, and remember working on them.
“Knowing Five Presidents.”
Having knows the past five, some well, some slightly, and having observed them each at one point or another up close, some thoughts on the presidential personality, and on what appear to have been the specific talents of each man. Thoughts on Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, with perhaps a side trip to how hard it can be for a columnist who’s been a presidential speechwriter not to feel sympathy for presidents – and on why maybe that’s not a bad thing.
“What It Is to be a Columnist.”
“My column? I call it my pillar!” William Safire is said to have said. What columnists are trying to do. Why they do it. How they do it. Why it matters. Our guest will be, one hopes, a great columnist.
“What It Is to Write A book?”
To write a book is to swing for the fences. Books last. The great CBS News anchor Charles Kuralt once said in my presence, gesturing toward the television, “That doesn’t last, but this” – he gestured toward a book case – “does.” (Actually if Google has its way maybe this will change; maybe they’ll delete us.) But until they do, books are forever. I’ve written eight. All nonfiction. Let’s talk about them, about the writing of them, and let us have as a guest a great book writer. I have someone very specific in mind, and he’s said yes.
“Where Is America now, politically?”
And where exactly should it be? I have some thoughts. I also have some concerns, not only about the specific challenges we face as a nation (the Great Fraying, for instance — I’ll explain) but about facing them without the large, cumbersome, behemoth and yet, at the end of the day, ultimately constructive news media that dominated the American landscape the past fifty years. Is it good that what was essentially a media monopoly has been broken? Yes. And it’s bad, too. The down side here is the new absence of an old unifying force. Also…well, the old spent a lot of money paying for a lot of investigative journalism. Will it be a thing of the past? If it is, are we about to enter a golden age of graft, as local and state political figures get their hands on all the money sloshing through the governmental system, all the time knowing the old local news bureau has been closed, and no one’s watching?
“Wrap Up Session.”
What did we learn? What can we conclude about the writer’s life? What interests you about politics? What is good about modern media, and what is bad? Let us talk about journalism, politics, and life.
Like lotsa shit in post-secondary seminars, you really don’t need the other 7 sessions to answer the wrap up questions – well or badly- do you? Does either the parroting or the eviscerating of Noonan’s “thought” really take any effort at all? (And here, I merely parrot the far finer Gawker sarcasm.)