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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Broken News
Washington Undressed: Political Fictions by Joan Didion
by Lisa E. Reardon ||
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October 1, 2001

In the wake of "recent events," the speed and seeming facility with which so many well-crafted pieces of reportage, essay, opinion, and editorial have appeared in our media outlets has been astounding. The New Yorker arrives in our mailboxes one week after the attack, comprising almost entirely dispatches and commentary from an all-star line-up on what has come to be known simply as "September 11." Salon reports being "deluged" with essays, which they will continue to run "for as long as it makes sense." Daily developments and Op-Ed in the New York Times and the Washington Post churn out in workmanlike fashion. But despite the many considered, astute, and often thought-provoking perspectives of some of our most respected thinkers and writers, I still find myself musing, as I have so many times since I first picked up Slouching Toward Bethlehem, "I wonder what Joan Didion thinks about this."
     Ms. Didion is an elusive literary icon. A woman whom The New York Times Book Review called "an expert geographer of the landscape of American public culture," she is conspicuously distant from that culture. Her trademark dark sunglasses shield a good third of her face, and her visible (and admitted) discomfort in the public eye is almost painful to behold. Widely recognized as one of the most skilled and perceptive societal and political commentators of our time, she does not sit on panels at book or media-industry conferences and festivals, does not appear on the Sunday-morning pundit shows or weigh in on every blip on the pop-culture radar, and is rarely the subject of the highbrow glossies' profiles or interviews. She remains a private and seemingly remote figure, leaving her fans and followers watching, waiting, and wondering when she might speak to us apart from her work and tell us what it's really all about. Didion, we hope and expect, can penetrate this most recent surreal nightmare and make sense of events for those who find no inherent significance in flags and ribbons, no solace in federally mandated moments of mourning.
     But Didion's assessment of "September 11" and its aftermath is not likely to appear, if it does, anytime soon. The concern of her work has never been timeliness but understanding, interpreting, and uncovering the meaning of the subject or events under consideration. Rather than report and perpetuate an already established narrative, Didion steps back and dismantles the narrative itself, a painstaking enterprise not likely to yield fruitful results in hours or days or weeks.
     In the meantime, we have her new book, Political Fictions, from which to extrapolate. A collection of eight essays written for The New York Review of Books between 1988 and 2000, Political Fictions adds up to a stinging indictment of our nation's "political process," a process Didion finds not only impenetrable but "connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns."
     Followers of Didion's work will find much that is recognizable in Political Fictions: people everywhere missing points, wrapping themselves in narratives as familiar and comforting as soft blankets, and surrendering cognitive abilities to scripted rhetoric and sentimentality. These pieces, however, reflect a growing interest in the ways in which the "permanent professional political class" chooses, shapes, and reiterates these narratives.
     Increasingly, Didion suggests, our national discourse is controlled and limited by those who participate in and those who report on the process-a process so steeped in the factitious rhetoric of "family values" and "character" that little of substance remains. Of the 1988 Bush-Dukakis presidential race, Didion describes a discourse conducted "in a language I did not recognize" and that "seemed not to compute," so remote was the rhetoric from her own concerns or experience. The political process, she suggests in the first piece, "Insider Baseball," has indeed become "so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life."
     In every piece that follows, Didion works to reveal the very specific ways in which these narratives are constructed and perpetuated-from the "lonely quest" or "buddy mentor movie" that was Iran-Contra, to the Democratic "New Covenant" designed quite intentionally to pander to the Angry White Male vote, to Washington's insistence that a crisis of morals and character plagues a public that clearly, according to Didion, is not plagued.
     A Didion piece does not impartially "report," a dubious goal she asserts the media hides behind to obscure its own lassitude. Nor does a Didion piece hand-wring or agonize in the language of the narrative itself, in the tradition of a standard Op-Ed piece. A Didion piece, down to the last carefully sculpted sentence, asserts. What is astonishing about her work and increasingly rare in contemporary American commentary is the extent to which these assertions are so completely egoless. Free of the bellicose braying of a Camille Paglia or the righteous and suspiciously personal indignation of a Christopher Hitchens, Didion's dispassionate constructions employ well-chosen and self-skewering quotes, attention to the overlooked and misunderstood, and holistic connections between events that span years or decades to make her assertions self-evident.
     It is in fact this complete lack of assertion, or insight, or, as she laments in her discussion of Bob Woodward's The Choice: Inside the Clinton and Dole Campaigns, this "complete absence of cerebral activity" that Didion finds so distasteful and ingratiating about the mainstream media. In the name of "fairness," she asserts, Woodward diligently recounts events, anecdotes, and interviews without the slightest attempt at processing or interpreting what he has seen or been told. Journalistic fairness, she maintains, has become a convenient excuse for "a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking…a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured."
     Nowhere does Didion find this manufacturing of story and journalistic buy-in more evident than during the events preceding, encompassing, and following the Monica Lewinsky scandal-events to which two of these eight pieces are devoted. Of Newsweek journalist Michael Isikoff, largely credited with breaking the story, Didion writes, "a less single-minded reporter might well have let attention stray to the distinctly peculiar way the story was unfolding itself, the way in which corroborating witnesses and incriminating interviews would magically materialize." But Isikoff, she laments, cloaked himself instead in the guise of "an impartial fact-gatherer to whom speculative connections were anathema." Thus, as Didion points out, the graphic details of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's sexual encounters made headlines; the fact that by the time we first heard Linda Tripp's name "she had already testified in four previous Office of Independent Counsel investigations: Filegate, Travelgate, the Vincent Foster suicide, and Whitewater" did not.
     The role of the media, Didion asserts, has devolved to the point that they are largely complicit crewmembers in the theater of political campaigns and changing administrations. Political Fictions illustrates this point with a stunning and often humorous array of examples: Michael Dukakis arriving at a campaign stop, rolling up his sleeves, and tossing a baseball back and forth with an aide while forty reporters and cameramen, "all of whom believed it to be a setup" designed to depict Dukakis as "'just a regular guy,'" diligently record the scene; George Bush (Sr.) on a whirlwind tour of Israel, scheduled to visit, along with his camera crew, 32 locations "chosen to produce camera footage illustrating that George Bush was…'familiar with the issues'"; the unquestioned "transformation of two mature and reportedly capable women, Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Gore, into double-the-fun blondes who jumped up and down, clapped on cue, and traveled…with a hairdresser on the manifest for comb-outs."
     While her dead-on mockery and quiet sarcasm lend levity to Political Fictions, party loyalists of either stripe looking for a mouthpiece in Didion beware. Those who take delight at her unflattering portraits of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Kenneth Starr will find themselves taken aback by her equally scathing critiques of Bill Clinton, Joseph Lieberman, and the sold-out centrism of the Democratic Party she believes they embody. Where Reagan is depicted in one piece as a largely uninvolved, intellectually uncurious man acting out the last and greatest role of his career, Clinton is deemed in another "a personality so tightly organized around its own fractures that its most profound mode often appeared to be self-pity." To Newt Gingrich, Didion attributes "the drone of a small-town autodidact." And of the Gore-Lieberman ticket, she observes that their painstaking rejection of the Clinton legacy in a misguided attempt to seize "high moral ground" was an unforgivably stupid misreading of the American public that cost them the election.
     Despite Didion's protestation in an interview on C-SPAN's BookNotes that "cynicism is beyond me," this is at times a deeply cynical book. Consider her interpretation of the now famous image of young Bill Clinton shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. She asserts that Clinton can be seen "elbowing aside less motivated peers to receive the grail: the candidate's first useful photo opportunity." That this footage ultimately proved valuable to Clinton's campaign seems indisputable. That the sixteen-year-old's motivation for straining to shake the hand of his idol was quite so calculated, or that he is clearly "elbowing" anyone aside, does not.
     Political Fictions demands tenacity. Didion acknowledged on BookNotes a fascination with the idea of containing an entire piece in one perfectly arranged sentence. Readers straining to maintain and process the thread of her many half-page, multi-clause sentences may sometimes feel, unpleasantly, as though she has succeeded. But the rhythm and phrasing of these sentences soon establishes itself, and the reader is hooked as though on a mystery novel or a legal thriller by Didion's frequent urging to make connections and linger over telling details: "Examine this…This merits study…Consider again the sentence that appears on page 357 of Uncovering Clinton." Don't take my word for it, Didion is cautioning her readers, discover it and think it through for yourselves. Perhaps the great triumph of this book is that, where the reporters and the anchors, the politicians and the pundits fail in this task, the reader succeeds.

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