Something about Joan Didion’s writing makes me almost believe every word. She’s so acridly disarming, so apparently prescient in her observations on American political life that I found myself doubting old standards – my belief, for instance, if not in the current man in office, at least in some Platonic form of the American Presidency. Her introduction to Political Fictions portrays her as so utterly outside the class she often refers to as “the insiders” of the political realm (she wanders around an airport with cryptic directions, looking for Jesse Jackson’s plane) that her insights and connections seem a kind of just, impartial oracle. Didion’s writing seems not uncalculated – she maintains a firm direction to her line of reason – but it does seem unbiased in its concern only to declare the unadulterated truth.
Didion herself would probably not attribute such a word as “truth” to her reconnaissance mission into the heart of the American political machine. Her stringent criticisms of everyone from Bob Woodward to Ronald Reagan to The New York Times, take the form more of Delphic pronouncements than any sort of prescriptive course of action. Political Fictions is a collection of nine pieces Didion wrote for The New York Review of Books between October 1988 and October 2000. The vignettes, bearing such natty titles as “Newt Gingrich, Superstar” or “Vichy Washington,” are linked by a general project of uncovering certain “stories” that the American public has been told by its politicians and the political insiders, the crafters of political fiction.
The scariest point Didion seems to be making is not simply that politics is a nest of lies, but that we buy into “the story” like any good novel. It is narrative in a completed, polished form. In “Insider Baseball,” which deals with the Bush-Dukakis campaign of 1988, Didion talks about controlling the image, the money shot, flawless delivery – the watchwords of the campaign production crew. She describes, with Twilight Zone effect, the experience of traveling with the campaign as an outside observer, watching the same “set” being shot against different backdrops across America.
Didion relates one incident in which Michael Dukakis gets out of his campaign plane at the San Diego airport and tosses a baseball back and forth with his traveling press secretary, Jack Weeks, as the cameras roll. News clips featuring this “ball-tossing on the tarmac” and articles using it as a plot point of “the story” abounded in the following weeks to follow. Didion observes:
What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too “naive” to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.
The narrative is made up of many such understandings, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line.
Those who stood on the tarmac with the creative understanding of symbolism in the ball-toss – the “insiders” who controlled the story – would never acknowledge the artificial air of the scene. Only an outsider, like Didion herself, or pretty much anyone outside the tight inner-circle of the campaign trail, would dare turn a critical eye to the subsequent columns, the photographs reproduced on the evening news, featuring this “unguarded” moment in the political narrative.
Political Fictions maintains its momentum with Didion’s refusal to pull any punches. She draws the connections that lie between the lines of politician’s speeches, behind polling numbers, behind the controlling hand of the media. She describes Ronald Reagan as a man whose most practical instincts had trained him to find the strongest possible narrative line in the scenes he was given, to clean out those extraneous elements that undermine character clarity, a man for whom historical truth had all his life run at twenty-four frames a second.
The temptation might be to chase down old footage of the President to see to what she’s referring. But her anecdotes tell the story for her: the quotes from aides; the facts of Reagan’s daily routine; his habit of following the schedule like a script, marking off completed items and drawing an arrow beside the next order of the day.
In the later pieces, Didion analyses the “disconnect” infecting politics of the last decade as the discrepancy between the political narratives delivered to the American public by the media, by the Washington establishment, and by the politicians, and in turn retold by Americans to themselves. During the Senate hearings for the Jones v. Clinton case, Washington’s talking heads, op-ed writers and spin doctors began to feel the gap between what they saw as a pivotal point in national politics and what most of America saw only as the excuse for meaningless, salacious, but unshocking, debate on the evening news. Didion writes that the “insiders”
did not know Americans at large. They occasionally heard from one, in a focus group or during a Q&A after a lecture date, but their attention, since it was focused on the political process, which had come to represent the concerns not of the country at large but of the organized pressure groups that increasingly controlled it, remained remote.
The politicians of the two “parties,” which are moving ever closer to the center, now fight over the holy grail of the “swing voter.” But as fewer people vote, Didion argues, the response of the American political gurus is not to woo back the voter, but to pandering only to those that still cast their ballot, thereby abetting the disenfranchisement of vast swaths of “America at large.”
Ultimately, Political Fictions emerges as a sad sort of revelation for both author and reader. Didion makes it nearly impossible to dismiss her observations, yet the only levity present in her work appears in small ironies or comic tragedies. She casts Reagan as the Wizard of Oz and Clinton as possessor of “the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent,” only to leave us in a shadowland of fallen heroes and disillusionment. She finds the kind of “human story” favored by reporters like Bob Woodward a “crude personalization” that “works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation.” Where then do we find respite from the political disease her book diagnoses?
Didion doesn’t say. Political Fictions works on one level like the kid in grade school who gathered everyone around at lunch to announce that your parents were Santa Claus – that you’d been duped. Maybe you’d guessed it already, but had preferred to keep hope alive. Didion takes it upon herself to remove the hope that we may have naively harbored about the ultimate justice of our political landscape. Having destroyed our illusions and raised political questions, Didion lets the answers fall to the elusive readers who constitute American at large.