"Political Fictions" by Joan Didion

This cool, devastating look at America's empty political spectacles takes apart everything from Reagan's delusions to Clinton's impeachment.

Published October 24, 2001 7:58PM (EDT)

A few weeks back, on the season premiere of "The Practice," the writers took their cue from the headlines. The story, about a politician's adulterous affair and the cover-up that follows a murder, was the show's version of the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case. We've gotten used to seeing current events transmuted into TV drama. What was strange about this episode was that it seemed more real than the real-life drama it was riffing on. In the wake of Sept. 11, it's as if all of our recent political life can only be talked about as entertainment.

The opening sections of Joan Didion's new collection of essays, "Political Fictions," veer close to a similar irrelevancy. Didion began doing reported political essays for the New York Review of Books in 1988, when the magazine's editor, Robert Silvers, asked her to cover the presidential election. The book is dedicated to Silvers and to Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, who, she says, "lived through my discovering what he already knew."

That dedication is a key to what, in the beginning at least, feels off about "Political Fictions." In the introduction, Didion writes about her discoveries that "half of the nation's citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived, that the democracy we spoke of spreading throughout the world was now in our country only an ideality, had come to be seen, against the higher priority of keeping the process in the hands of those who already held it, as facts without application." She's writing about many things here: about the influence of big money on political campaigns, about the fact that a large segment of the population does not vote.

You see echoes of that everywhere today. You could see it two weeks ago in Texas Republican congressman Tom DeLay's craven attempt to stop airport security from being federalized, a stand, as he presented it, against that familiar conservative bogeyman Big Government." (Apparently, untrained, uninterested and underpaid "security" workers are fine with DeLay as long as it doesn't add to the federal bureaucracy.) Decrying the holdup of the proposal, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., asked how senators and congressmen could now go back home and face their constituents -- but you had to wonder when he or any of his colleagues were actually going to "face" the citizens back home. Sure, there would be angry letters and phone calls, most of them answered with form letters assuring writers that their elected official was sensitive to their concerns. But was Gephardt or any politician going to go into coffee shops or shopping malls -- or, more to the point, airports -- and bear the brunt of people's anger one on one? It's disingenuous at best to talk this way when you are operating in a system that effectively shields you from the people you represent.

Of course, that distance needn't keep politicians from serving the people who elected them. Interactions with voters are not as important as whether a politician's record reflects an awareness of his or her constituents' desires. Didion knows this. "This notion of voting as a consumer transaction," she writes, "might seem a spiritless social contract, although not -- if it actually delivered on the deal -- an intrinsically unworkable one."

The problem is that for all the astuteness of Didion's analysis, the opening sections of "Political Fictions" give off a disjunctive air of naiveté. Didion at times seems to be unwilling or unable to acknowledge the pragmatism of politics, even if she's not exactly breathing the ether that Saint Nader and his disciples are wafting around in. But she does buy into the notion that the combination of insularity and big money has succeeded in rendering party differences moot. (That notion has been most eloquently refuted by historians Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz in an article for Dissent earlier this year in which, by simply explicating the two major parties' positions, they made the idea seem so much nonsense.)

But Didion clings to that belief, and that's why "Eyes on the Prize," her piece on the 1992 Democratic Convention, feels so tone-deaf. Briefly, her thesis is that in reaching out to "middle-class" voters, the party abandoned its traditional base. Her claim, however, doesn't address why black and working-class voters still supported the Democrats -- unless you believe that such people are simply too scared or too foolish to understand which candidates will work in their best interest. (Determining that, apparently, is best left to white liberals.) Furthermore, the "abandoned base" theory also assumes that "middle-class" is a code word for racist, and that members of the middle class are exclusively white.

The same assumption is made by Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign manager, Susan Estrich, who told Didion that when voters in focus groups said, "I want to get a decent job, send my kid to a good school," they were really asking Democrats, "Are you the party that is going to bend over backward for blacks when the rest of us just want to walk straight?" Neither Estrich nor Didion entertain the possibility that by 1988, and certainly by 1992, with the nation facing a huge deficit and George Bush unable to exert Ronald Reagan's narcotic effect, the middle-class voters who had flocked to Republicans in the last three elections were no longer able to believe the GOP cared a damn about their economic well-being. Of course Democrats attempted to broaden their base, and of course they moved to the center to do that. But Didion can't support her notion that middle-class voters concerned about getting a better job or sending their kids to good schools, or even about just having something left over at the end of the month, wanted to pull themselves up by standing on the necks of blacks.

Fortunately, given how remote the questions above may seem, the meat of "Political Fictions" lies elsewhere: in Didion's pieces on Ronald Reagan's dedicated alienation from reality, on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, on "insider Washington," on the introduction of "spirituality" into the 2000 presidential race. "Meat" is not a word that springs to mind when talking of Joan Didion, whose prose can appear as deceptively fragile as the author's birdlike frame. Sarah Vowell nailed it when she called Didion's novels "an aesthetic Death Valley"; they don't suck in her readers as much as suck us dry. Didion puts the prose of her novels through the Hemingway juicer and then meticulously arranges the dry pulp.

But in the political reportage that has engaged Didion over the last 12 years, that spareness works wonders. She doesn't so much state an idea or a position as build it, line by line, recontextualizing the copious quotes she uses so that the speakers become her unwitting accomplices, giving themselves away with every utterance, affirming the portrait Didion is constructing of them. She is, at times, a dour Cheshire cat of a writer, regarding everything with a sardonic grimace but never quite giving the game away.

Certainly no one has written more devastatingly of Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff. In her review of Isikoff's "Uncovering Clinton," a book hilariously subtitled "A Reporter's Story," Didion turns Isikoff's description of how covering the Paula Jones story led him to Kathleen Willey, who led him to Linda Tripp, and so on, into the story of a hapless Hardy Boy who, he claims, never suspected that the revelations were being orchestrated for his benefit. If you're lucky enough to see Isikoff turn up on "The Larry King Show" or "Hardball" or wherever soon after reading Didion's piece, he'll seem to be shrinking before your eyes, less a reporter than an unwitting star in his own boy's book adventure: "Dondi Goes to Washington."

Didion's meticulous attention to words is what has allowed her to become such a superb parser of political language. At times "Political Fictions" seems to be the work of a writer who has internalized every sentence in George Orwell's great essay "Politics and the English Language," his demonstration of how the lexicon of passivity and imprecision both shields and, to those who bother to go beyond the words, reveals the real agenda of politics. Language is key to "The West Wing of Oz," in which Didion details the language of official denial used by the Reagan administration to cast doubt on reports of the U.S.-supported Salvadoran Army's December 1981 massacre of civilians in the village of El Mozote. In the essay's second half, she extends her notion of Washington as fantasyland as she dives into the overworked metaphor of Reagan as star in his own self-created movie with more bite and originality than anyone has yet managed. And language is also the key to "Political Pornography," a cool demolition of the bland acceptance that characterizes the thimble-deep investigative tomes of Bob Woodward.

As well as anyone, Woodward stands for the particular process of corruption that concerns Didion in "Political Fictions." Starting well outside Washington's insider circles, Woodward, working with Carl Bernstein, was able to break the Watergate story in a way that an "insider" reporter couldn't have. (They didn't believe Watergate was a story.) Now, Woodward has become one of the most prominent of that class of journalists. And it's that group of Washington insiders, which encompasses the press as well as politicians, that concerns Didion in the final sections of "Political Fictions."

The gap between the press coverage of Clinton's impeachment and the public's continuing support for him provides Didion with her strongest example of the "vassal" relationship between the public and the government. "No one who ever passed through an American high school could have watched William Jefferson Clinton running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent." That humdinger of a sentence sets up the main thesis of the essay "Clinton Agonistes": that everything that followed in the wake of the Lewinsky revelations was already known about Clinton's character from the beginning. In contrast to Hillary Clinton's charges of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," Didion illustrates what might almost be called a provincial conspiracy. And hardly even a conspiracy, because even the press, spurred by the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and its own loathing of Clinton, was predisposed to treat the story, in Jules Witcover's words, as "a fast-breaking, incredibly competitive story of major significance."

Again, pay attention to the language that Didion chooses to quote, which is derived from paperback thriller blurbs and '50s movie trailers. It's a short leap from Witcover's breathless description to Sam Donaldson proclaiming that Clinton's presidency's days were numbered, and to the presumption that the American people are innocent bumpkins, which itself was the flip side of the presumption that Clinton was a degenerate dogpatch uncle luring young girls into the hayloft. "People are not as sophisticated as this appears to be," said that grinning epicene of the right William Kristol in response to the public's continued support of Clinton. Didion counters by listing such facts as the average age at which Americans first have sex, the commonality of sex before marriage, the national divorce rate and the role extramarital affairs play in that. On the program "This Week," Cokie Roberts announced, "I approach this as a mother," which raises the question of why ABC News didn't bounce her ass off the air until she could approach the story as a reporter.

The process Didion details here is less a matter of reporting the news than of inventing it. And she seals the point in her final essay, "God's Country," in which she cites one report or editorial after another telling us that Al Gore's choice of that constipated scold Joseph Lieberman for vice president reflected the public's disgust with the behavior of Clinton. The fact that this "disgust" never materialized in any significant form doesn't prevent it from being taken for granted, nor does it prevent commentators from stating that it was a factor in George W. Bush winning the 2000 election. (That's a double myth, since Bush did not win.)

Given the changes of the last month, the abrupt exile of all preceding political drama to part of a distant past, what allows "Political Fictions" to escape irrelevancy? It may be even harder to answer that now, when there seems so little separation between what the news media is reporting and the public's attitude toward events. (What disconnect there is lies between intellectual pundits, who claim to see a state of grotesque war fever among the populace -- something that's invisible to anyone who spends some time on the streets -- and the average citizen, who seems well aware of the complexities of fighting this war.) I think the answer lies in Didion's demonstration of how lulling the "script" of politics can be. The current state of concord (at least among a wide percentage of the population) about what's now happening and what needs to be done will not last. Whether it breaks down over our actions overseas or over some other issue, it will break down. And it's those times of breakdown that Didion's writing prepares us for. In a way, Didion is saying that staying informed is like always being a good English student, a never-ending assignment to spot unreliable narrators, practice close reading and intuit what lurks between the lines.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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