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Peggy Noonan: ‘Will we ever have a ... president again who’s fully normal?’

‘There is something going on with elder Americans,’ said columnist and former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in Toronto this week for a speaking engagement. ‘There’s a greater anger than I’ve ever seen. They have this poignant, sad sense of losing their country, that it’s going down the wrong road.’

Jennifer Graylock/Associated Press

Peggy Noonan's mother is a Democrat to her bones. A graduate of the Massapequa Democratic Club, a woman who once wore a hat with the word "Kennedy" written in tiny black donkeys, a working-class Irish Catholic from Brooklyn: Democrat is what she breathes. And yet Mrs. Noonan, at the age of 86, is a woman on the verge of a Damascene conversion.

"She called me after the Republican convention," says Ms. Noonan, who is most definitely not a Democrat and who, as a speechwriter, put various famous phrases in the mouths of the Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

None of the words her daughter wrote had ever swayed Mrs. Noonan from her Democratic perch: neither "a thousand points of light," nor "kindler, gentler nation," nor "there is a profound moral difference in the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest."

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Then Mrs. Noonan watched Condoleezza Rice and Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico, speak at this year's Republican convention, and phoned her daughter: "I'm proud to tell you that I'm a Republican."

Ms. Noonan throws up her hands as she relates this story: She has witnessed a lot, survived the internecine wars of the Reagan White House, but she is still capable of shock. And she understands conversions. The young Peggy had two fish in her Brooklyn bedroom called Jack and Jackie; it was only when she began to read the National Review in college that she realized her political path diverged from her family's.

More important, her mother's about-face told her something about this presidential election – one of the more confounding, volatile, unsettling elections she has ever seen. "There is something going on with elder Americans," says Ms. Noonan, 62, who was in Toronto as part of the Salon Speakers Series this week. "There's a greater anger than I've ever seen. They have this poignant, sad sense of losing their country, that it's going down the wrong road."

Grey rage is only one of the oddities she has observed during Campaign 2012. Among the others: Why did the President not show up, metaphorically, for the first debate? (She thought he won the second this week.) How is an electorate in the grip of economic crisis so unstirred by either candidate? (She wrote about this in her Wall Street Journal column under the lovely headline, "Ennui the People.") Why is neither candidate talking about the looming fiscal cliff? How can they each talk to so much and say so little? Finally, what kind of weirdo wants to run for president anyway?

"I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were wondering, 'Will we ever have a man running for president again who's fully normal, you know, just a normal person?'

"Because you have to suffer such absurd insults, and also be the object of such over-the-top and sick-making veneration; you have to be a particular kind of person to do it. … I can't help but think that public life in America is essentially destabilizing to the inner person."

Of course, she worked for and deeply admired Ronald Reagan, a president whose normalcy was his political currency and who, she says, defied Lord Acton's credo that a man could not be great as well as good. In her bestselling memoir of her speech-writing years, What I Saw at the Revolution, Ms. Noonan quotes a friend of Mr. Reagan: "This is a man who can't afford to think bad things."

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In her Toronto speech (she was introduced by her friend Conrad Black), Ms. Noonan spoke of George Bush, whose first presidential campaign was bolstered by some of her most memorable lines. Mr. Bush was an old-school gentleman who once described America as "just plain the kindest nation in the world."

It hardly sounds like the Republican party of today, nasty and cutthroat and driven by suspicion of progressive politics. Ms. Noonan wrote of the "soft extremism" of the Democratic convention, but Democrats see nothing but extremism across the floor. Is the American electorate more polarized than ever?

Ms. Noonan considers the question. Before every response, she takes a moment to formulate her thoughts, to shape an anecdote or a metaphor in her mind. There is a remnant of the child who planned and polished her dinner-table conversation as miniature speeches. Words are of paramount importance; her son is also a writer.

"In some ways, it is more polarized than ever," she says finally. "But in America's daily life, Democrats and Republicans, lefties and righties, anarchists and libertarians all work in the office together, joke together, tease each other about their politics. In that way, there's something very stable in America. Difference is baked into the cake."

It might be crass to point out that Ms. Noonan possesses a level of grooming that screams, "affluent Republican." There is tasteful gold jewellery at her ears and throat, and her blond hair has a country-club bounce. But if you ask her, the Republicans' downfall is their failure to look beyond the country club. In her memoir, she talks about how the party needs to rediscover itself as the voice of the marginalized and the working class; how it needs to speak to the 10-year-old girl "in the tired, inexpensive coat." But hasn't it given up on being the party of the 47 per cent?

By way of response, she offers this anecdote: She was recently at a street fair in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the great melting pot spilled over. "Every ethnic group was there, every religion, every church, almost every cult. It was so rich. It reminded me again how America is changing. The party that talks to those people on the street in Bay Ridge, the party that wins them, wins the future."

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Who will win the future? She's not laying any bets. Mr. Black introduced her as a woman who "had a huge impact on the vocabulary of American politics," and later that evening, she watched the second presidential debate surrounded by dozens of Canadians. The atmosphere in the room was more civil than the one on screen. She was pretty sure the other guy won.

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