The Spirit of Post-Sept. 11 America


by Peggy Noonan Free Press, 2003 270 pages, $25

If you kept up with Peggy Noonan's weekly columns in The Wall Street Journal before she began her current leave of absence (in part, she says, to write a book about Pope John Paul II), you know at least two things about her. One, she's Catholic. And two, she's a big fan of President George W. Bush.

Given that she is a veteran presidential speechwriter — she worked in the Reagan White House ' her affection for the nation's present leader is not at all surprising. But it is born of much more than a professional understanding or shared political ideology.

Peggy Noonan gets George W. Bush because the two have a lot in common. On the surface, that may strike you as bizarre, especially if you were to play tapes of the two of them one after the other. Noonan is thoughtful, considered, eloquent. Bush is thoughtful, surely, but he expresses himself in a much more, well, earthy way. What they have in common, though, is a worldview. They see and understand current events from a closely similar vantage point.

A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag: America Today, Noonan's latest book, could easily have been the title of a set of diary selections from the president, or even excerpts from his post-Sept. 11 speeches. The book, a collection of her Sept.11-era columns (from September 2001 to September 2002), reflects what has been important to her since the attacks on her city, her nation and her life.

With a soul searching uncommon to mainstream editorial and newspaper-column writers, Noonan's columns — which are unchanged from when they originally ran in the days, weeks and months after the attacks — movingly tap the spiritual tone of the time. She understands what we were going through and writes about it as only one of us, living through it, could. She writes as a believer, as a New Yorker, as an American — and as a sister-in-arms to her fellow New Yorkers and Americans.

“[T]here's another thing New Yorkers are thinking,” she writes in a column written six months after the terrorist attacks. “It's that deep in their hearts they don't really think there is a safe place. They don't think there's any safety anymore. They only think there's time, right now, this second. So they have their nails done, and do their work, and go to the lunch, and file the story, and argue the case. There's a gallantry, a cool courage, to New Yorkers now, and I wonder if they see it, if they appreciate it in themselves. I do. It's part of why I want to call them my brother, and my sister.”

It was heartening to read these thoughts when they ran in the newspaper; rereading them now, all together, with much more time between us and the fall of the Twin Towers, what strikes me is how often Noonan returned to the cross. “It may become a terrifically tough time. But we are not alone, as you well know,” she writes in an entry from Oct. 26, 2001. “God loves faith and effort, and he loves love. He will help us get through this, and to enjoy Paris and New York again, and to breathe deep of his delicious, mansard-roofed world. Amen.”

Two years after that fateful day that changed everything, read A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag. You'll relive the intense 12 months that followed Sept. 11 — and you'll see that day in a new, hope-filled light.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.