The Heights: The Independent Student Newspaper of Boston College Since 1919
Columnist Offers Views on Leadership
By Daniel Tonkovich and Morgan Healey
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Peggy Noonan, columnist for The Wall Street Journal and best-selling author of eight books on American politics, history, and culture, addressed the Boston College community on Tuesday as part of the Winston Center’s Clough Colloquium speaker series. Noonan shared her views on leadership characteristics and flaws as exemplified by five presidents of the United States.
Noonan began her speech with tales of her time as a writer for President Ronald Reagan, speaking of the former president as a man capable of public speaking and engagement. Noonan said that although he publically showed interest in the issues at hand that provoked reaction, he was a person of occasional detachment and was best in small groups.
“In my view, Reagan was the last genuine man of American politics,” Noonan said. “He had great personal grace and public warmth. He never treated others as help. He employed old school courtesy.”
Noonan contrasted Reagan with President George H.W. Bush, whom she praised for his diplomacy and engagement in personal matters, but criticized for his failure to attend to public matters and recognize the importance of major events and opportunities.
“[Bush] was a diplomat, sensitive to the position and predicament of the Soviet leaders when the Berlin Wall fell,” Noonan said. “He didn’t want to rub it in, but he should have given thanks to the American people for funding almost 50 years of war, cold and hot, and the heroes of policy. With Bush, there was a failure of historical imagination, a failure to see the impact of major events in the context of history.”
Noonan used Bush’s failure in these respects to stress awareness and innovation. She asserted that successful leaders at all levels must not only be intelligent, but creative, intuitive, and in tune with the needs of the people at the time of their leadership.
“A great political leader has more in common with an artist than an economist,” Noonan said.
Related to her views on the importance of creativity in leadership, Noonan again used Reagan as an illustration of creative response to criticism.
“He took sting out of the attack, but not in defense,” Noonan said. “He accepted criticism while adding humor to the situation.”
Noonan also recalled the presidency of Bill Clinton to provide examples of success in leadership. Acknowledging Clinton’s ability at appearing natural in his energetic engagement with the public, she recalled her attendance at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in 1998, held during the same time as the Clinton impeachment proceedings before the Senate. She recalled his speech advocating for the forgiveness of others for transgressions.
“The speech was powerful, but it was too masterful and clever,” Noonan said. “Many left the room not stating that they got the message, but that the message delivered was clever and sly. Leaders are not sly. They must have honesty and integrity to get people to follow.”
Noonan said that she does not think students should be concerned with being sly or clever. Those behaviors may become habits, she said. “Habit becomes you,” Noonan said. “We are creatures of habit.”
Noonan also incorporated leadership views of figures outside of American politics, mentioning the leadership philosophy of Queen Elizabeth II, recounting an anecdote of a visit by Al Gore with the Queen.
“She surrounds herself with intelligent people and allows them to do, with freedom, what they do well,” Noonan said.
The formal lecture concluded with Noonan offering her analysis of President Barack Obama.
“He has gone from top of the world to bottom of the heap,” Noonan said.
She said Obama’s downfall is due to a failure to properly position himself. She said that his positioning failure will assist the Republican Party in gaining seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate in the upcoming November election.
“Pushing Obamacare, merits aside, when Americans were concerned with rising unemployment, was a political disaster,” Noonan said.
While she said that she admires Obama’s personal story, she also said that Obama’s process of self-development might negatively impact his ability to lead.
“He is focused on individual interests, relying on his own thinking,” Noonan said. “You need others’ input in a democracy.”
Noonan closed the lecture on leadership with a period for questions, during which she was asked if she continues to believe that there exists a spirit of America.
“In the America I was born into, you simply breathed in that, here, in America, you can become anything and accomplish anything,” she said.
“We have to prove to ourselves that we can rescue America [from the economic crisis],” Noonan said. “Protect your peace, protect who you are. Pay a lot of attention to your soul. Don’t let them remove your soul from you.”
Charles Clough, chairman and executive officer of Clough Capital and namesake for the Clough Colloquium, said he was grateful for Noonan’s insight into the development of her published opinions.
“This is a time when most political columnists are predictable, but Peggy Noonan always offers interesting insight, a different perspective,” Clough said.