Politics & Media
Jul 16, 2013, 02:15PM

Peggy Noonan Time Travels

The WSJ columnist may not realize that hardly anyone under 40 is familiar with John Profumo.

John profumo 1777781.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

As a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal since Ronald Reagan’s first election, I scratch my head these days, wondering what demographic the country’s most important daily newspaper is chasing. The same could be said for the Journal’s main competitor, the laughably out-of-touch New York Times—and aside from those two papers, do any other dailies really matter in 2013?—but that’s been the case since Arthur Sulzberger Jr. took over in the 90s.

The Journal’s weekly columnist Peggy Noonan wrote a mostly great piece last week about England’s shot-heard-round-the-world sex scandal that felled Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and not long after the Tory government of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. The very, very juicy political predicament was a gift to the UK tabloids (and broadsheets), and wasn’t brushed off in the 12-hour news cycle… because it all happened 50 years ago.

Noonan’s point—and it’s entirely sensible, if quaint—is that the repellent and scandal-marred duo running for office in New York City (Anthony Weiner for Mayor; Eliot Spitzer for Comptroller) might’ve, had they any sense of manners or ethics, followed Profumo’s example, left public life and dedicated themselves to low-profile charity work. Obviously, that hasn’t happened, and the only surprise is that Noonan could’ve expected otherwise.

You have to ask: what decade is Noonan living in? I suspect, like many people over the age of 50, she’s got one foot in the current decade, the other in the past. She concludes the column by offering advice to Weiner and Spitzer—and by extension, Mark Sanford, David Vitter, John Edwards (also attempting a comeback, which really takes balls) and on and on—which both men would probably laugh at. “You can do what John Profumo did. You can go away. You can do something good. You can help women instead of degrading them, help your culture and your city instead of degrading them. You can become a man.”

There are those on the left who indulge in cruel sport mocking Noonan—her goofy column about Elian Gonzales and dolphins in 2000 is the go-to starting point—suggesting that she’s prematurely entered a second childhood, but I’m neither on the left or contemptuous of this brainy and graceful woman.

But John Profumo? The man, who died in 2006 at 91, has zero relevance to the vast majority of Americans today, and that certainly includes those who practice journalism for a living. Never mind that you can count on one hand the number of intelligent men and women in this country under the age of 40 who’ve heard of Profumo; even those who are fully aware of the ’63 scandal and watched John Hurt play the doctor/pimp Stephen Ward and Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler in the outstanding ’89 film Scandal have tossed it in the bin of ancient history. (Mind you, when the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination is observed in November, it’ll overwhelm the media and what’s left of the book industry, with the inevitable BuzzFeed “50 Prominent Politicians Remember Where They Were When JFK Was Shot” crap and a slew of misty-eyed reminiscences about Camelot, all ignoring the plain that fact that had the US media been vigilant during Kennedy’s presidency, he’d have suffered the same fate as Profumo.)

Noonan’s elegiac column could’ve been a classic had it included even two paragraphs that, one, admitted her notion was quixotic, and two, that in this century almost no one cares what politicians do, almost no scandal is career-threatening and politics as entertainment has stripped the profession of morals or aversion to celebrity. That she romanticizes Profumo’s downfall doesn’t help: “Unlike modern political sex scandals, which are cold and strange, it was what a scandal should be: dark, glamorous. Human. No furtive pictures of privates sent to strangers, no haggling over the prostitute’s bill.” I doubt Harold Macmillan thought it was “glamorous.”

It was a column that had the air of a retirement from journalism; and if that were the case, and I’m glad it’s not, it would’ve been a stunning farewell. As it is, however, Noonan just gives more ammunition to her critics and leaves the rest of us wondering what’s going on in that head of hers.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • Never understood your description of her as "brainy" Don't get me wrong, as a speech writer I give her a lot of credit. As a writer of prose, she has her moments. But BRAINY???? She is simply a shill. You claim by extension Vitter etc. but does she? Where was her article about Vitter and Sanford not running in the last election for each (just a week or two before the election)? (By the way, neither would ever get my vote.) Why does she keep insisting that the IRS scandal is huge and much worse than anything Nixon did? Because Nixon only went after the powerful so that is not as bad as going after Rove et. al. This is not brainy, it is partisan hackery at its worst. As you even state in this article, what time period is this woman from? She doesn't understand that what Weiner did, although certainly tasteless and idiotic, is not even close to Vitter and Spitzer illegal prostitution proclivities? Her predictions for the last two or three election cycles have been abysmal and jaded by her own preferences not intellect (Just like Rove's predictions) That all said, I respect both your opinion and your tenure as a writer and business man. I'm sure you have your reasons for describing her as brainy. But, to declare that it is only people on the left who don't agree with your assessment is false and a bit scapegoat/straw manish. I don't like either party and don't lean in any particular direction. Left/right/neutral, doesn't matter to me if it is intelligent or thought provoking material. Usually Peggy leaves me wishing I had that reading time back. Please explain the brainy thing and how it applies to anything she has written in her column over the last 5 years. I'd love to be proven wrong.

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  • Speechwriters, Texan, can become effective columnists: Safire, Buchanan, Fallows, Hertzberg, for starters. Mind you, this wasn't a full-out endorsement of Noonan's column and I do wonder what audience she believes she's writing for. Predictions from pundits mean little: almost all the Dem pundits thought Kerry would win in '04. As for Noonan being brainy, her book on Hillary was terrific; and in person, she's very, very articulate.

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  • I agree with your comments on speechwriters as writers. I, in fact, think it can be a huge advantage since both are based in persuasion. As for Noonan, you answered my question. I've heard of many pundits/cable hosts/writers who come off quite differently in person than they do in their medium. Thanks for the explanation. Today's column certainly did not exemplify "brainy". I will give her Hillary book a try though (something I would not have imagined until your thoughts were expressed).

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