The Manson family, Haight-Ashbury runaways, communist dissidents: the figures in Joan Didion’s essays of the ’60s and ’70s tended to be offbeat, morbid types that formed a backup choir to her well-wrought meditations on less tangible issues like isolation and cultural entropy. Politics had little purpose in the worldview of that writer, who seemed to find her lucidity precisely when she honed in on her own stare-at-the-wall turmoil. Balming her frayed nerves in Hawaii in 1969, she wrote: “Acquaintances read The New York Times, and try to tell me the news of the world. I listen to call-in shows.” She also fixated on a local news article about a couple who hurl their child and then themselves into a volcano. Even as late as her 1983 Salvador, Reagan’s malefic foreign policy played a subdued role in her reports, which tended to dwell more on the dread that one experiences–or, for the most part, that she experienced–in a country where disappearing was a daily possibility.
So it’s no surprise when, in the foreword to her latest collection Political Fictions, Didion tells us that she was initially reluctant to accept an assignment from the New York Review of Books to cover the 1988 presidential campaign. Some of her excuses were practical: She was selling a home in California, buying a new one in New York, hiring painters, and so on. But the real reason for hesitation, she confesses, was that she simply couldn’t pick up the frequency of American politics: “There remained about domestic politics something resistant, recondite…. The events of the campaign as reported seemed to have taken place in a language I did not understand.”
Not exactly reassuring words from someone about to cover a presidential race. But then again, as is so often the case with Didion, the personal anecdote is there for a reason–in fact, she converts her political disinterest into a strength. Even as she immerses herself in the politics of Bush, Clinton, Gore, Gingrich, and our current president, she clings to her early ambivalence like a deadly weapon, using it as if to say: There’s a reason I lacked interest, and now that I’m covering you insipid leaders, I demand more. This attitude, in her opinion, distinguishes her from other powerful political reporters who are too “inside” the process to demand the nuances she, a writer who opened her first book of essays with the Yeats line “the center will not hold,” so clearly craves. She also uses her early disinterest to identify with a large sector of the country’s populace, namely voters faced with a political system that has narrowed agendas to such an extent that only special interest groups and rich donors have a stake in an election.
When Didion dives in to the ’88 race, she finds that this pandering to target voters “had reduced the nation’s political dialogue to a level so dispiritingly low that its highest expression had come to be a pernicious nostalgia.” The resulting essay, “Insider Baseball,” gleefully picks apart the flimsy personal mythologies of both Bush and Dukakis. Of Bush’s “lived the dream” acceptance speech, big on bootstraps and sunbelt pedigree, she points out: “That George Bush might have thrived in Texas not in spite of being but precisely because he was a member of the Northeastern elite was a shading that had no part in the narrative.” Her description of Dukakis’s baseball toss with his daughter on a hot San Diego tarmac, staged for CNN producers and meant to reveal his “toughness,” underscores the meaninglessness of the gesture, even as the TV media laps it up. The electorate, she suggests, wants to know how the U.S. will face the challenges of a post-Cold War era. What the voters got, however, were Dukakis’s woefully pathetic stumping (“That’s what it’s all about… good teachers and good teaching”) and Bush’s attempts to play the values card and lay claim to initiatives like the drug war and the so-called Pledge of Allegiance issue.
This critique has, unfortunately, aged into truism, but this only strengthens Didion’s broader point: Americans want more, and they keep getting less. She hits her stride covering the Democratic convention of ’92, revealing in detail the ways in which Clinton’s “New Covenant” platform jettisoned his party’s “nominal constituency” and rendered words like “liberal” and “conservative” meaningless. The best passages here elucidate how the convention shunted secondary candidates like Jerry Brown (a friend of Didion’s) and women to the background. She reveals in detailed close readings how the Democratic party described policies in gnomic, coded statements that, while not explicitly racist, “took extraordinary care not to leave the impression that it was bending over backwards for blacks.” Discussions of the L.A. riots, a spike in bankruptcies, and rising unemployment are notably absent. The majority of people watching this on TV, she imagines, are reaching for the remote control.
Didion once claimed that “a writer is always selling someone out,” and one of her major complaints in Political Fictions is that this dictum doesn’t apply to enough of the U.S.’s powerful political reporters. Journalists “inside” the process, she says, overlook contradictions, take political platforms at face value, and rehash politicians’ narratives “not as a story the campaign wants told but as fact.” She showcases her refusal to play by the rules in a scathing chapter about Newt Gingrich, concluding that the one-time Speaker’s occult outlines for renewing America had a “scent of failure.” But her real ire is for the people who write about politicians. She gives the loathsome Dinesh D’Souza a dressing down for his revisionist history of Reagan. She attacks The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward for his remarkably passive books on Clinton and Dole, noting his reluctance to question anything he’s told and his general “disinclination… to exert cognitive energy.” Finally, she execrates Time’s Michael Isikoff for failing to investigate whether Linda Tripp, the main source for his Lewinsky story, had ties to the independent counsel, provocatively suggesting that the reporter was seriously played.
The Lewinsky story reverberates through a handful of the chapters in Political Fictions, representing, for the author, just how much the media has bought into the Republican Party’s values-driven platform. Didion’s claim that the majority of Americans lacked interest in the scandal feels a little false, but she’s right to point out that most didn’t think it reflected poorly on Clinton’s ability to govern the country. The majority of Americans rejected the push for impeachment, she points out. This, it turned out, only gave pro-family politicians reason to turn their backs on the country at large:
“The electorate, as anyone who had turned on a television set since the spring of 1998 had heard repeatedly, was ‘complicit’ in the ‘corruption’ of the president, or of the administration, or of the country itself, which was therefore in need of the ‘purging’ to be effected, as in myth, by the removal of the most visible figure on the landscape.”
This attempt to label the electorate as co-conspirators boomeranged in the ’98 midterm elections, in which Repub-licans lost five congressional seats. But in Didion’s eyes the stain of impeachment prevailed in Washington, leaving Clinton enfeebled and setting the stage for George W. Bush to unleash his plans for compassionate conservatism. If Bush’s philosophy remains vague, Didion goes to the source, University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky, a one-time Communist turned inveterate Christian who apparently can’t visit a program meant to rehabilitate criminals without wondering, “Where’s the Bible?” What strikes her as especially tragic about the 2000 race is that Gore responded with his own pro-values tune, teaming up with do-gooder Joe Lieberman and thereby distancing himself from the president who saw crime and unemployment drop and household median incomes reach their highest ever. Didion’s argument comes full circle once again. By focusing on the values platform of his opponent and distancing himself from a successful president, Gore, along with Bush, estranged a huge swath of voters, especially young ones, most of whom never really cared about Clinton’s affair in the first place.
Just as this genealogy of voter discontent starts to seem incontestable, it betrays an excessive reliance on a relatively amorphous, even imaginary concept of the American body politic. That Didion, whose main venues of publication these days are the NYRB and The New Yorker, positions herself as an outsider is just one failure of self-recognition that lends her book a slight air of ridiculousness. And what of these insiders and outsiders, voters and power players? Even when Didion gives examples of leaders who ignore the general population, one suspects that her book is a little too manicured, and that she uses the categories of “voter,” “leader,” and “the process” like chess pieces in a complicated argument to reach her checkmate. She rarely suggests that other journalists, whether inside or outside the mainstream media, are up to the task of relaying worthwhile information to the public. And as for the category of the voting public, her notions of it, aside from one man at a Dukakis rally who bears a slight resemblance to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, are based on the frustratingly abstract statistics presented in the papers she constantly complains about.
But vagueness aside, Didion’s populist spirit and relentless analyses are admirable and a pleasure to read. She does us the favor of puncturing the inflated rhetoric of politicians and eloquently squeezing all the air out. Pragmatists will complain that she doesn’t offer enough answers. It’s true, she presents no map for political perfection. But she wouldn’t want to anyway. Her solution is to rigorously question politicians, to demand competent arguments. And one could do much worse than to follow her example.
Michael Miller is an editor at The Village Voice.