With her wavy auburn hair and confiding purr of a voice, Peggy Noonan is the Veronica Lake of conservatism. The former Republican White House speechwriter who gave George Bush his thousand points of light is herself all aglow in On Values: Talking with Peggy Noonan. Over the course of three hour-long episodes — which bear the titles ”Faith,” ”Family,” and ”Freedom” — Noonan performs the hoodoo that she do so well: She makes us nostalgic for stuff that’s still around. Like ”values.”
Noonan’s premise in this series is that sometime after the 1950s (i.e., after the birth of the baby-boomer generation, to which Noonan belongs), there was a breakdown in civility, generosity, and gumption in America, and that we’re all suffering as a consequence. What caused the breakdown? Under Noonan’s beatifically approving gaze, guests such as Catholic priest Father Richard John Neuhaus, cultural critic Stanley Crouch, and essayist Shelby Steele point fingers at the usual suspects: the ’60s counterculture, the mass media’s contempt for religious faith, the corruptive welfare state.
As predictable as these targets are, they nonetheless yield interesting gab, because Noonan has chosen articulate people who for the most part are rarely seen on television, and because she has packaged her show as a healing process rather than as a McLaughlin Group squabble. Her guest list is subtly shrewd — most of her interviewees are from the right, yet they are careful to toe a centrist line. No one can possibly object to what Noonan and her guests espouse — who wouldn’t want to live in a kinder, gentler America? (That’s what made her such a good speechwriter — she knows how to create the verbal equivalent of an iron fist inside a velvet glove.)
It’s so rare to have abstract principles discussed on television that even the ideologically rigged discussions in On Values result in compelling viewing. And Noonan herself comes off as a TV star in the making. Still, I wish she’d have acknowledged that dissent has some place in these conversations. B+