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An atheist or Peggy Noonan is worth hearing

| Friday, April 5, 2019

Notre Dame announced that Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, best-selling author and speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan will deliver the principal address and receive an honorary degree at the University’s upcoming commencement ceremony. Noonan is of my political era — rooted in a time of fierce political rivalry, but one of truth, honor and compromise. While the 1980s was a drastically different social time that former Vice President Joe Biden is currently struggling to bridge in today’s #MeToo atmosphere, it was nonetheless an honorable time for both Democrats and Republicans. Given her connection to Reagan’s political philosophies, the University shrewdly chose a safe, but not groundbreaking speaker for the commencement stage.

Reagan’s election brought the first legitimate conservative government to lead our nation since before the Roosevelt New Deal. The Reagan Administration — not unlike today’s Trump Administration — stood on the foundations of smaller government and less taxes while ironically bulging the national deficit in the name of a “peace through strength” defense policy. Prior GOP Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon had viewed government as a useful tool for bettering society. After all, Eisenhower launched the costly interstate highway public works project after witnessing firsthand the freeway wonders of Europe. Nixon created a new federal agency known as the Environmental Protection Agency; Today, Trump’s pariah.

Under Reagan, Social Security and federal pension systems’ cost of living adjustments were delayed for three months from the fiscal year start at the beginning of October to the calendar year start of January. The ACTION/VISTA agency (a domestic version of the Peace Corps) was gutted in Reagan’s budget, and only survived when the House subcommittee, for which I worked, maintained its appropriation. Under the guise that states could better disperse funds, Reagan attempted to “block grant” funds to states rather than earmark them for specific programs. Unfortunately, states diverted funds to balance their budgets by redirecting such formerly earmarked line items as school lunches, food stamps, community policing and fine arts projects. Today’s GOP continues to maintain its rhetorical support identical to three decades ago.

As a charter member of those who opposed the Reagan/Noonan political stances, I note that Noonan now sounds like a voice of reason given the Trump chaos that rules today’s government. Truth and lies are the only sides of the same coin. One thing Democrats always knew about Reagan is that he never lied to them or reversed himself after agreeing on a compromise. To Reagan’s credit — and this writer hopes that Noonan had a hand in helping compose the Iran Contra Address to the Nation — Reagan admitted his mistakes and shouldered responsibility upon himself.

For example, Reagan famously admitted before a nationwide audience, “Your trust is what gives a President his powers of leadership and his personal strength, and it’s what I want to talk to you about this evening. … A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true; but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

For her part, Noonan echoes a moral perspective when she wrote in the Wall Street Journal on March 28, “We’re in a time of absorbed but subtle and not fully noticed shifts. Old-time liberals and conservatives seem to understand each other more deeply, more generously than they did in the past: In some new way they see the other’s basic political decency. On the other hand the parties they’ve been aligned with offer constant confusion and surprise.”

Certainly, Notre Dame chose Noonan for her grace, accomplishments and oratory prowess. But the University also chose her as a symbol that reaffirms their own “premier Catholic” core values, most notably abortion. It is safe for institutions of higher learning to feature speakers who do not challenge their orthodoxy, despite common affiliation like former Catholic Governor Mario Cuomo who refused to force his religion on his constituency. They also avoid campus demonstrations from hard-line zealots who disrespect the office of the presidency — the highest and most prestigious secular position in our nation — like during President Barack Obama’s 2009 visit when he represented the rule of law as defined by our Supreme Court.

However, Noonan can now become feckless while speaking in the spirit of Trump’s March 21 executive order that caters to the president’s conservative base. The order merely and symbolically reiterates Trump’s edict for schools to follow existing laws guaranteeing free inquiry and directs federal agencies that fund research to withhold funding from violators. That frees Noonan as a homeschooler to espouse atheism or the qualities of becoming a Muslim worshiper, of course without espousing Sharia law. Yet, she could so choose such an approach.

Ironically, while Trump’s new executive order governing campus free speech is more symbolism than substance, the eclectic Fox News crowd would be first to oppose listening to any scholarly reasonable stance on either atheism or other hot-button subjects like abortion. It is that type of audience that lives on the water but never learns to rock the boat. It is exactly for that reason that the imminently articulate featured commencement speaker, Peggy Noonan, should wield journalistic liberties at Notre Dame in May.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73 American Studies major, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him on Twitter: @GaryJCaruso or e-mail: [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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