Faith and patriotism after Sept. 11

“This is a book about love,” writes Peggy Noonan in the preface of her poignant new book, A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag. “That’s an odd thing to say about a collection that spans 9/11/01 to 9/11/02 … but the primary emotion I felt in those days was a love, or a tender sense of appreciation, for everyone who played a part in the drama.”

In this compilation of her post-Sept. 11 commentaries gleaned from the pages of TheWall Street Journal, the bestselling author of the fawning Ronald Reagan biography When Character Was King proves to be an essayist of honesty and compassion, demonstrating significant insight into post-Sept. 11 American life.

This cross at the site of the World Trade Center disaster was fashioned from beams recovered from the collapsed buildings.

Regrettably, compiled in a book, Noonan’s essays, while often touching, can also prove to be distracted, exasperatingly righteous and filled with saccharine declarations.

On the day that terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, the former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, like almost everyone in New York, was worried about a loved one or friend. For the author, it was her son. Once his safety was assured, she began observing and writing about the aftershocks of a landmark event in American history. Noonan walked the streets of Manhattan, paying marked attention to the people, the media, the mood and the “post-incident heart-ache” that most of America suffered.

A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag
America Today

By Peggy Noonan
270 pages; $25
Wall Street Journal
Books, 2003

During the subsequent year, she penned a popular weekly column for the Journal. Many political columnists, understandably, took the devastating trauma of Sept. 11 and applied it to furthering their ideologies and worldviews. More often than not, Noonan, a well-known Republican, was surprisingly personal and apolitical.

That is not to say the author does not convey opinionated pronouncements or romanticized events and leaders. She is a columnist, after all.

But A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag is more an authentic documentation of the post-Sept. 11 mood, the rediscovery of camaraderie, faith and patriotism — a practice that she believes shouldn’t be considered “a faux pas, or evidence of limited intellect” — than a partisan ode to Republican leadership.

Notwithstanding its relative political benignity, Noonan certainly doesn’t go out of her way to be magnanimous to those she disagrees with on the left, and she never tempers her passionate and well-known affinity for President Bush. Her view is that the president rose to meet the challenges of terror and impending war. Noonan compares Bush to Harry Truman, an improbable leader, a “first-rate second-rate man,” who did the “the right tough things at a terrible time.”

But if historical context is what you’re looking for, rarely will you find it in this collection. Unlike Victor Davis Hanson’s An Autumn of War and Thomas Friedman’s Longitudes and Latitudes, both collections of columns that examine the military and political implications of Sept. 11 and the ensuing war on terror, or Steven Brill’s After, which investigates how Americans dealt with the changes brought about by the terrorist attacks, A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag rarely provides anything more distinct than Noonan’s instant and brief observations. Noonan writes that some of those flaws “of tone, language, and emphasis were true to the events, that they reflected the jaggedness of the time.”

Additionally, the book does lose focus when taking on other miscellaneous issues: a Mexican vacation, Enron, the Pope, the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals, or how Raisa Gorbachev flirted with Kevin Costner at a high society Time magazine party. The columns themselves are pleasant enough, but they are incompatible as part of this collection.

Noonan titled her book A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag because, she writes, “those were the things that rose from the rubble. The heart stands for those who were brave for others. ... The cross stands for a rediscovered respect and gratitude for religious faith. The flag was the renewal of American patriotism that followed the terrible day.”

Few can argue with those sentiments. But like many remembrances of that day and its consequences, A Heart, A Cross, and a Flag is often touching but rarely satisfying. Noonan’s thoughts are heartwarming and optimistic, and she vividly illustrates what’s right with America. But without taking a step back, the events of Sept. 11 can never be put in proper prospective.

David Harsanyi is a writer living in New York.