Toward the end of every winter, sometime after Groundhog Day, nearly all the president’s men and many of his opponents dutifully troop in white tie to a hotel ballroom in Washington to hear themselves lamely satirized by some of the capital’s most self-important journalists to the tune of ancient Broadway musical numbers. The Gridiron dinner, as the affair is known, drags on for about five hours, enlivened mainly by the speeches of the politicians whose ghostwriters in recent years have consistently outdone the journalists in the sharpness and grace of their wit (leaving journalists from the provinces with a strong impulse to follow the groundhogs back into their holes). Finally, the lights are turned low and the president of the Gridiron, who has been addressed as “Mr. President” all evening long, gets to propose a toast to the president who is recognized beyond the ballroom. “The Gridiron may sometimes singe,” the journalist-in-chief intones by way of benediction, “but it never burns.” Then, as arms are crossed, hands joined, and “Auld Lang Syne” rises from the swaying congregation, there is a palpable sense that everyone who really counts in this town, and by extension this land, is now in this room and at one.
It’s a moment that Joan Didion would savor for its nearly perfect insulation from the actual America “out there,” as the wider reality is patronizingly described, she tells us, “in Washington and among those whose preferred locus is Washington.” An instinc- tive populist in her politics—she voted for Barry Goldwater and credits Jesse Jackson and her sometime house guest Jerry Brown with having run the only campaigns relevant to real issues or real people in 1992—Didion visits Amer-ican politics with an anthropologist’s curiosity and the soul and ear of a writer who is sure to hear every false note in a serenade of false notes, which is what a campaign made up largely of sound bites and attack ads, incoherent half-thoughts and symbolic gestures, almost invariably becomes. What is not altogether to be expected is the feeling—passion is not too strong a word—with which she presses her argument that our politics are simply no longer our own, that they serve the interests of a “permanent professional political class” made up of politicians, their operatives, and talking-head journalists, who together concoct for our national campaigns “a public narrative based at no point on observable reality.”
A collection of dispatches and essays written over twelve years for this journal (whose coeditor, it ought to be disclosed, gets top billing in the dedication), the volume has anything but an occasional or random feel. Standing on its own, well apart from all the self-justifying insider accounts of recent American politics, and distinctive in Didion’s very considerable body of work for its sustained argument, Political Fictions is the freshest application of an acute literary intelligence to the political scene since Norman Mailer gave up going to conventions and demonstrations nearly three decades ago. It should not be classified as an entertainment—though it regularly entertains—or as a tour de force. Although it is leavened and sustained by occasional reportage from the campaign trail, what you have here is strong-minded polemic.
The point of view is implicit in Didion’s earlier work. She has always been fascinated by “disconnects” (to use a term on which she seizes for its use during the 1998 White House sex scandal, when the country stubbornly refused to follow the script being written by the political know-it-alls, who kept waiting for it to clamor for the ouster of a leader who had strayed and then lied). In The White Album (1979), there are back-to-back essays dating from the late Sixties, “Good Citizens” and “Notes Towards a Dreampolitik,” in which a keenly observant Didion walks the fault lines of California life, deftly portraying social worlds that more or less occupy the same physical space without any sense of one another’s existence: stepping from the “vacant fervor” of a Hollywood political gathering to the vacant staging of a Nancy Reagan photo op and a meeting of a “true underground,” the Jaycees, in the first piece; then, in the second, from a group of Pentecostals to a sequence of Hollywood bike movies made for “boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up,” to an “invisible city” where some young women were still waiting to be “discovered” and others, still in their twenties, were already attending Gamblers Anonymous. Layered vignettes, like the tectonic plates of the area’s notorious geology. “Tell me the name of the elected representative from the invisible city,” the second essay concludes.
In her 1984 novel Democracy (self- described as “this novel of fitful glimpses”) she is already describing “the obtuse confidence, the implacable ethnocentricity, of many people who have spent time in Washington.” For one of her characters, a politician’s celebrity wife, “life outside camera range”—life, that is, as it is experienced by most people—has become “only a remote idea.”
What is implicit in this earlier writing becomes the argument here. In contemplating the politics of the last four election cycles, Didion does not adumbrate or suggest or set off on elliptical tacks. She does not delve into the invisible country of the nonvoters, except to drive home a point. (In describing a Dukakis rally in San Jose, she finds that country embodied in “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 or the 20.2 percent but of the 81.5 percent, the 79.8”: the smaller numbers referring to the proportion of TV households that tuned into the Republican and Democratic conventions in that political season, the larger numbers to those that took a pass.) Later she approvingly quotes the political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s description of nonvoters as “the largest political party in America.” What fascinates her this time out is the way “the process,” as it’s known to the insiders and pros, works to keep enlarging that party by focusing on identifiable blocs and swing voters—religious zealots and the suburban well-off—who turn out and actually decide elections. Democrats as well as Republicans, she contends, feel a strategic need “to restrict the contest to the smallest possible electorate.” What’s now known as “the process,” goes her argument, bears less and less resemblance to what used to be called “the democratic process.” What’s now known as “the process” becomes, in fact, her subject. Obviously, she stands outside it.
Her argument gathers force and only seldom does it outstrip the available evidence. One such occasion comes in the book’s foreword when, writing of the extraordinary denouement of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, she finds the fact that the whole national contest came down to “a few hundred voters over which both parties could fight for thirty-six days” to be “entirely predictable” and “a perfectly legible ideogram of the process itself.” In other words, it was symbolic of a process that sought “the smallest possible electorate.” The only problem with this conclusion is that the state of Florida witnessed a fairly remarkable increase in voter turnout in 2000, not least in black communities. According to the official returns on the Web site of Florida’s secretary of state (remember her?), 70.1 percent of registered voters actually voted, well above the national turnout of 51.2 percent. The national voter turnout, moreover, represented an increase of more than 8.5 million votes over 1996—the first presidential election in which voter turnout dipped under 50 percent of registered voters.
Those numbers don’t defeat Didion’s description of the behavior of the “political class” but they suggest that “the process,” involving the tactics and chatter of insiders, may be less than the whole story of an election. The 2000 election was as close as it was, it now seems, because a high proportion of late-deciding voters swung to Al Gore, who was seen and portrayed by the political class at large as a failed candidate. Whether these late decisions happened because or in spite of the efforts of the candidate is another matter. Anyhow, that’s all insider talk, a consideration of conventional wisdom about the horse race and, therefore, part of “the process” that accounts in Didion’s view for the failure of our politics to intersect in any significant way with the reality of most American lives.
It’s a failure that has everything to do with those she categorizes as “the tellers of the story” or “that narrow group of those who wrote and spoke”—the media heavies and lightweights, the pundits and pooh-bahs—those who ride the campaign planes and those who anesthetize the country on Sunday morning talk shows or in quadrennial guest appearances in the convention broadcast booths. Didion’s description of how the journalistic game actually works in the context of a political campaign or a wall-to-wall Washington scandal that sucks the oxygen out of all other stories is merciless, often hilarious, and fundamentally accurate from the perspective of one standing outside “the process,” which is that of most citizens and also, of course, her own. It is not the perspective of “the guardians of the Zeitgeist” (that’s Didion’s ironic play on a breathless passage by a Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, whose sense of the Zeit can seemingly be measured in days if not hours)—those who agree on what she calls the “story line” or “narrative.” Didion, who has written movie scripts, has been there before. Hollywood studios used focus groups to help shape their story lines before political campaigns did. The story line has to be about the character of the candidate, not the burdens of most Americans or the complexities of globalization or the scourges of the third world; it has to be about his lonely fight against all odds to display his heart, his readiness to serve, to a country that is hardly paying attention. It has to be said to have captured that country’s imagination.
“The narrative,” she tells us, comprises many “understandings, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line.” Campaign reporters must overlook “the contradictions in reporting that which occurs only to be reported.” She spends that campaign day with Michael Dukakis in California in 1988, which she describes as “three essentially meaningless events separated by plane flights”—a description that without much stretching could fit practically every day of practically every contemporary campaign—and, she goes on, “not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions in which film could be shot and no mistakes made.” All the boys and girls on the bus agree that this is so but somehow it does not come out that way in the dispatches she reads. Twelve years later she watches on TV the acceptance speech delivered by George W. Bush in Philadelphia and hears a string of “signals” and “notational counters”—small bromides targeted at specific interest groups—“each on the face of it deeply meaningless.” (She is talking here about lines such as this: “We must renew our values to restore our country,” a formulation that presumably would be instantly recognized and etymologized by those whose doctrines it echoes. Elsewhere she aptly describes this kind of political speech as “encoded.”) As always happens, she then notes, the instant judgment by “the tellers of the story” was entirely positive. It was what “the narrative” required.