February 26, 1990 12:00 PM

It’s on its way to becoming a neo-conservative legend. How, in early 1988, Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speech-writer, was driving to the supermarket with her mother, Mary Jane, and her then 8-month-old son, Will, when she heard a radio report that George Bush was in trouble in the primaries. “I turned to my mother, and I said, ‘Mom, could you take care of the baby?’ ” Noonan recalls. As soon as they got home, Noonan put in a call to the Bush campaign and said simply, “You guys need me.”

She was right. In the following months Peggy Noonan showed George Bush the light—a thousand points of it. And it was she who wrote his dazzling acceptance speech for the Republican National Convention—the one calling for “a kinder, gentler nation,” the one that made the reedy-voiced, malaprop-prone George Bush sound eloquent and confident.

Such is Noonan’s talent, in fact, that she makes speechwriting seem almost dangerous. In her new book, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, Noonan, 39, describes her potent art: “A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

Remarkably, Noonan’s sprightly prose and clear-eyed candor also have the power to make dance her account of what turned out to be a frustrating experience: writing speeches for a man she rarely saw and never completely understood. “When we young folks came to work for Ronald Reagan, there was a certain revolutionary spirit,” she says. But the White House policymakers wore her down, clipping her poetry and deadening her sentences. After two years, passed over for the chief speechwriting job, Noonan quit. “It’s not fun anymore,” she told her boss, Pat Buchanan, in 1986. “And speechwriting here is finished.”

But Noonan wasn’t. Once George Bush was elected, she resumed work on her book, in which she tries to explain, among other things, how a child of crusty, Irish Catholic Democrats ended up working for Reagan. The third of seven children of a furniture salesman and his wife, Noonan was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then above a candy store in Rutherford, N.J. Her parents were staunch New Dealers, and young Peggy plastered her bedroom wall with photos of the Kennedys.

“People always ask me how I came from my generation and became a conservative,” she says. “It’s hard to pinpoint where the rebellion began, but I can tell you the moment I knew I wasn’t of the left.” It was the spring of 1971, and Noonan was riding with some of her fellow students from Fairleigh Dickinson University to an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C. As student leaders attacked America as racist and imperialist, Noonan began to feel alienated. “I was more moved by the tough, working-class grunts who fought the war,” she says, “than by their more affluent brothers and sisters on the bus with me.” Speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike, Noonan decided that “from here on in, I would use my McGovern button as a roach clip.”

After graduating in 1974 with a degree in English literature and journalism, Noonan took a job writing radio news in Boston during the painful first years of court-ordered busing. She was appalled, she says, that “a judge almost blithely tore a world apart” and then withdrew to his affluent suburb. “I was seeing the wrong solution put into place.” By the time she was hired to write copy for Dan Rather in the early ’80s, Noonan relished the role of house conservative. Her life was not all politics, however. “Peggy had quite the reputation as a party girl,” says Terri Belli, a former colleague at CBS.

This casual personal style was one of several things that didn’t sit well at the Reagan White House, where Noonan was hired as a speechwriter in 1984 after lobbying a few of her conservative contacts. On one occasion, she writes, “a young woman took me aside and said, ‘I heard you had wine in the mess…and smoked cigarettes.’ ” On another, Noonan’s walking shoes and wrinkled khaki skirt drew a look from Nancy Reagan that was clearly meant to wither the plants.

Noonan also ran afoul of policy bureaucrats—known as “the mice”—who nibbled away at her prose. When the crew of the Challenger space shuttle died in a fiery blast, she wrote, for Reagan: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them—this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth [to] touch the face of God.’ “—quoting the poem High Flight. A National Security Council staffer, Noonan reports, tried to change the ending to “reach out and touch someone.” Noonan hit the roof, and her words survived.

Noonan describes some of those attracted to the Reagan revolution as “creepy little men with creepy little beards who needed something to seethe on.” Yet she says she never lost faith in the Reagan agenda or in the elusive man who responded to her resignation note—studded with XXX’s for kisses—with a letter signed by the autograph pen. “Reagan was the big, strong elephant that trampled down the high grass and flattened the bushes to ease the way for the younger, quicker animals,” Noonan says. Still, her loyalty to the President never blinded her to absurdities in his Administration. “She has a blessed irreverence that’s hard to come by in White House staffers,” says William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter.

Now in the midst of a divorce from Richard Rahn, 48, chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whom she met and married during her White House tour, Noonan has moved back to New York City, where she’ll write a novel and TV dramas. “Life is great,” she says, dismissing the collapse of her marriage and recent reports linking her to ABC’s Jeff Greenfield. “There is steak, there is ice cream, there is a lot of laughter, good times and good books. So what’s to complain about?”

—Ken Gross, Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington, D.C.

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