The Puzzlement That Is Peggy Noonan

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 11, 2011

My friend Victoria Coates rightfully wonders why Peggy Noonan decided to let her shoddy arguments find their way into a published Wall Street Journal opinion column:

I have a few sad thoughts to add to this more thorough, magisterial deconstruction of Peggy Noonan’s column today on Donald Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown.

Through the years I have tried to like Noonan, primarily because there are so few prominent female writers on major editorial pages, and even fewer conservatives. Also, as she frequently reminds us, she worked for Ronald Reagan and what is not to like about that?

Unfortunately, today’s column is so far beyond the pale that even these powerful attractions cannot redeem her in my eyes. Noonan goes after Rumsfeld, who she declares devoid of “guts” and “brains,” and his “stupid little” book too (I hope that “little” book didn’t make too big of a hole in her plaster when she threw it at the wall, but I digress). Her main beef is that Rumsfeld failed both to capture Osama Bin Laden and to understand how the American psyche needed his capture after 9/11. Since as she again likes to remind us Noonan was in Manhattan on 9/11, she has claimed the mantle of Everyvictim and knows what all of us need, much more than Rumsfeld who after all was only in the Pentagon that day. We are treated to Noonan’s OBL revenge fantasies, which involve scatological imagery and decapitation, and to her fury that Rumsfeld has not facilitated their satisfaction.

Noonan reserves, bizarrely, special vitriol for the documentation of Known and Unknown, and I may well take this part of the review personally since I have labored for some years in that particular salt mine. Noonan seems terribly put out that Rumsfeld has used a rich archive going back seven decades to document his book. She mocks and caricatures the effort–and darkly hints the memos might be falsified. She laments that “so many” Bush administration memoirs depend on primary documents (I can’t think of another with even remotely comparable documentation–certainly not one that offers the reader the opportunity to freely consult the documents–but again, I digress). In the end she finds their presence so odious that she wants to physically dismember the book–to literally break its spine–for so oppressing her. These memos, she rages, “prove nothing.”

I find all of this startling, since I generally consider it a good and useful exercise to go back to the original documents in order to build up thorough historical analysis. My complaints are reserved for those who selectively quote documents and then withhold the originals, so readers are forced to accept the writer’s conclusions. Given the advances in digital technology, Rumsfeld has decided to challenge this construct and not only quote and cite the memos in his book, but also release thousands of them on a free-access website where they are available to readers made of sterner stuff than Noonan as links in a facsimile of the endnotes while the larger collection is browsable in a library-style section.

What is so gob-smackingly awful about this? Why ferociously attack an effort at rigorous scholarship and documentary transparency? Who does it hurt?

Read it all.

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