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Bathing in the River Lethe
Joan Didion's Political Fictions

by Charlie Onion

In her new essay collection, Joan Didion blisteringly demonstrates why we should all be depressed by the way image-obsessed, centrist-at-all-costs politics is run today--and in the process, she shows us why she is one of America's most engaging, intelligent essayists.

As the 1988 presidential campaign geared up in New Hampshire, Robert Silvers approached Joan Didion and asked if she would write an essay about it for The New York Review of Books. It was, she writes in the Foreword to Political Fictions, a superb new selection of the political essays she eventually wrote for Silvers, a flattering request. No one, after all, had ever asked for her written opinion on an election. Nonetheless, she hesitated. "The events of the campaign as reported seemed to have taken place in a language I did not recognize," she tells us. "The stakes of the election as presented seemed not to compute."

Happily, she eventually accepted the assignment, and the essay she wrote, "Insider Baseball," is among the best of the eight essays reprinted here. Its themes pointedly resonate throughout the collection: image management, story line manipulation, and the narrowing of the desired target voter's economic status and its effect on party centrism. It's heady, wonkish stuff, but Didion keeps it moving along like a practiced prosecutor hitting her stride. She's particularly good at underlining the disparity between the event she sees and the professional journalist's recounting of it. She tells us, for example, about one Dukakis appearance in "a dusty central California schoolyard":


Political Fictions
Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf
338 pp.
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The crowd was listless, restless. There were gray thunderclouds overhead. A little rain fell. "We welcome you to Silicon Valley," an official had said by way of greeting the candidate, but this was not in fact Silicon Valley: this was San Jose, and a part of San Jose particularly untouched by technological prosperity, a neighborhood in which the lowering of two-toned Impalas remained a central activity. "I want to be a candidate who brings people together," the candidate was saying at the exact moment a man began shouldering his way past me and through a group of women with children in their arms. This was not a solid citizen, not a member of the upscale target audience. This was a man wearing a down vest and a camouflage hat, a man with a definite little glitter in his eyes, a member not of the 18.5 percent [of American households tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Republican convention] and not of the 20.2 percent [of American households tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Democrat convention] but of the 81.5 percent, the 79.8. "I've got to see the next president," he muttered repeatedly. "I've got something to tell him."

"...Because that's what this party is all about," the candidate said.

"Where is he?" the man said, confused. "Who is he?"

"Get lost," someone said.

"...Because that's what this country is all about," the candidate said.

Here we had the last true conflict of cultures in America, that between the empirical and the theoretical. On the empirical evidence this country was about two-toned Impalas and people with camouflage hats and a little glitter in their eyes, but this had not been, among people inclined to the theoretical, the preferred assessment. Nor had it even been, despite the fact that we had all stood together on the same dusty asphalt, under the same plane trees, the general assessment: this was how Joe Klein, writing a few weeks later in New York magazine, had described those last days before the California primary:

Breezing across California on his way to the nomination last week, Michael Dukakis crossed a curious American threshold....The crowds were larger, more excited now; they seemed to be searching for reasons to love him. They cheered eagerly, almost without provocation. People reached out to touch him....Dukakis seemed to be making an almost subliminal passage in the public mind: he was becoming presidential.


And while the pundits raved about Dukakis's "electrifying," "Kennedyesque" speech at the Democratic convention, the ever skeptical Didion writes that the evening's real spark derived from the fact that "the floor had been darkened, swept with laser beams, and flooded with 'Coming to America,' played at concert volume with the bass turned up."

The refreshing quality of Didion's political essays comes partly from her being outside the 'specialist' circle of political journalists and partly from her never revealing herself to be a knee-jerk liberal--or a knee-jerk conservative, for that matter. It probably has something to do with her political history. While she grew up, she tells us, among California conservative Republicans ("this was before the meaning of 'conservative' changed"), she became a registered Democrat after Ronald Reagan replaced Barry Goldwater as the standard bearer of Republican conservatism, and in 1992, she and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, let Jerry Brown stay in their apartment while he campaigned in the New York primary.

For all of her acknowledged political migrations, her political dislikes are more apparent in these essays than her political preferences are. While she gets some good shots in on Dukakis, she's equally willing to slam Reagan (who was, she writes, reinvented "as a leader whose leadership was seen to exist exclusively in his public utterances, the ultimate 'charismatic' president"), Newt Gingrich ("A considerable amount of what Mr. Gingrich says has never borne extended study") and that non-Democrat's Democrat, Bill Clinton. Here, for example, is a nice Clinton slam from "Eyes on the Prize":


He frequently referred [during the 1992 campaign] to "my pain," and also to "my passion," or "my obsession," as in "it would be part of my obsession as president." He spoke of those who remained less than enthusiastic about allowing him to realize his passion or obsession as "folks who don't know me," and of his need to "get the people outside Arkansas to know me like the people here do"; most of us do not believe that our best side is hidden. "I can feel other people's pain a lot more than some people can," he told Peter Applebome of The New York Times. What might have seemed self-delusion was transformed, in the necessary reinvention of the coverage, into "resilience," the frequently noted ability to "take the hits."


But my favorite slams come in "Political Pornography," a blistering essay on Bob Woodward's journalistic efforts. Here's one of the better passages:


Mr. Woodward's aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play. Yet what we see in The Choice is something more than a matter of an occasional inconsistency left unexplored in the rush of the breaking story, a stray ball or two left unfielded in the heart of the opportunity, as Mr. Woodward describes his role, "to sit with many of the candidates and key players and ask about the questions of the day as the campaign unfolded." What seems most remarkable in this Woodward book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders' inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.



I admit it: I like an egghead's cat fight as much next as the next guy. But reading these essays together in book form rather than as freestanding articles produced over a period of years has a decidedly depressing quality, if only because the themes Didion works with again and again never get resolved by the process. She calls it, appropriately, Sisyphean:


Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill. The romance of New Hampshire would again be with us. The crucible event in the candidate's "character" would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that had become our national River Lethe.


It's not her fault, of course, if her subjects are depressing. In fact, this collection demonstrates that Didion is quite simply one of America's best essay writers, with a keen eye for detail and a knack for dogged deconstructive analysis--to say nothing of her writing style. Her elaborate sentence structures (she's particularly enamored of sentence-stretching parenthetical points) often read like intoxicating acrobatic maneuvers, and the points she makes with them are so carefully developed that one often feels they should be read purely for the pleasure of watching them work, no matter how depressing the subject.

But I pity the poor sap who finds himself sitting next to Didion at a dinner party and mentions, quite casually, that he's glad to see both parties are finally starting to pay attention to the long-neglected middle class. Click here to find any book!


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