WASHINGTON – More than a decade ago, long before Peggy Noonan would emerge as one of the most prominent conservative critics of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the two sought to make history together.
Romney, during the run-up to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, wanted someone to help draft the remarks he would deliver to billions around the world as part of his welcome in the opening ceremonies.
Noonan, a well-known speechwriter for President Reagan with a knack for lofty phrases that live up to major moments, was a logical choice.
So she came up with a draft speech. Romney decided to scrap it.
When he walked to the podium in Salt Lake City, wearing a puffy jacket over his coat and tie, the text he carried in the binder under his left arm contained his prose, not Noonan’s.
“It was an absolutely beautiful, gorgeous speech,” Cindy Gillespie, who has been a top Romney confidant and worked closely with him on the Olympics, said of the draft that Noonan wrote. “But, you know, Mitt wrote his own at the end of the day. And that speech sums up his feelings of the Olympics.”
Romney wanted his speech to be more heartfelt, Gillespie said, something that would capture his own feelings about the Olympic spirit he had come to love. It was a theme that would emerge later in Romney’s political career – rejecting others words for his own – and it’s unclear how Noonan felt about the decision.
Noonan didn’t return a message from the Globe seeking comment. Several Romney campaign advisers also didn’t return messages. Gillespie recounted the details several months ago, related to a story about Romney’s role in running the Olympics.
If Noonan was bothered, though, it didn’t show in some of her political analysis. Several months after the 2002 Olympics had ended and Romney had returned to Massachusetts to run for governor, she was on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” offering commentary on election night.
“To me, one of the signal races of the evening, really revealing: Mitt Romney, Republican, winning in a blow-out in the state of Massachusetts,” she said. “He wasn’t—it was supposed to be, first of all he was supposed to lose. And then it was supposed to be really close. It’s a blow out. I don’t know what the latest numbers are, but his win is big.”
After his speech on religion during his first run for president in 2008, Noonan was complimentary. She called his text “warmly cool,” his approach “calm, logical, with an emphasis on clarity.”
“How did he do?” she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column. “Very, very well. He made himself some history. The words he said will likely have a real and positive impact on his fortunes.”
During the early part of his 2012 presidential campaign, she continued to praise Romney. He was a better candidate than he was in his first campaign.
“This year he looks slightly older, maybe wiser, maybe a little more frayed than in 2008,” she wrote in June 2011. “Which is good. Since 2008 everyone else is more frayed, too.”
But, in some early signs of criticism, she also noted several of Romney’s shortcomings in connecting on the campaign trail.
“His seamless happiness can be grating. People like to root for the little guy, and he’s never been the little guy,” she wrote. “He has in him that way of people who are chipper about each day in large part because each day has been very nice to them. This makes some people want to punch him in the nose.”
In May 2012, Romney got on the phone with Noonan.
In a column headlined, “Mitt Romney’s Moment,” she revealed that he was keeping a campaign journal on his iPad; that he couldn’t recall the last time he woke up unhappy; and that he doesn’t think his father’s comment in 1968 – that he had been subjected to a “brainwashing” by American officials in Vietnam – figured into his own guardedness on the campaign trail.
Noonan the next month began lightly urging Romney’s campaign to begin thinking broadly. Their decision to de-emphasize Romney and put the focus on Obama was working in the short term, she wrote, eventually they’d have to start talking about their own ideas.
“It’s working, but won’t for long. People want meaning, a higher and declared purpose,” she wrote, in a June column with the headline, “Once More, with Meaning.” “With just more than 130 days to go, Mr. Romney has to start pulling from his brain and soul a coherent and graspable sense of the meaning of his run. ‘I will be president for this reason and this. I will move for this and this. The philosophy that impels me consists of these things.’”
By July, she was still lamenting the state of the campaign, saying even Romney may not know what he would do as president. By August, she was urging him to be firmer under Democratic attacks, writing that conservatives wanted to urge him, “Wake up, get mad, be human, we’re fighting four our country here!”
Over the past two weeks, the warnings to Romney have grown even more dire. Earlier this week, she said he needed an “intervention,” that his campaign has “always been too small for the moment.”
“This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite,” she writes in a column today. “I really meant, ‘rolling calamity.’”
Now, Romney’s campaign advisers are pushing back.
“I wouldn’t hire Peggy Noonan to run a campaign,” John H. Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, said on MSNBC. “I don’t ask her to have me write her columns.”