Joan Didion is the author, most recently, of Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, among seven other works of nonfiction. Her five novels include A Book of Common Prayer and Democracy.
 (May 2016)

California Notes

This is not about Patricia Hearst. It is about me and the peculiar vacuum in which I grew up, a vacuum in which the Hearsts could be quite literally king of the hill.

The Deferential Spirit

Every reporter, in the development of a story, depends on and coddles, or protects, his or her sources. Only when the protection of the source gets in the way of telling the story does the reporter face a professional, even a moral, choice: he can blow the source and move to another beat or he can roll over, shape the story to continue serving the source. The necessity for making this choice between the source and the story seems not to have come up in the course of writing Mr. Woodward’s books, for good reason: since he proceeds from a position in which the very impulse to sort through the evidence and reach a conclusion is seen as suspect, something to be avoided in the higher interest of fairness, he has been able, consistently and conveniently, to define the story as that which the source tells him.

Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone

The following pieces are adapted from comments made at “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election,” a symposium at the New York Public Library on November 10, 2008, presented by The New York Review and sponsored by the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and Live from …

On Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007)

In the fall of 1973, she told her creative writing students at Barnard College, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.” She used to tell us that we couldn’t be writers if we couldn’t be told no, if we couldn’t take rejection. We supposed, therefore, that …

Cheney: The Fatal Touch

It was in some ways predictable that the central player in the system of willed errors and reversals that is the Bush administration would turn out to be its vice-president, Richard B. Cheney. Here was a man with considerable practice in the reversal of his own errors. He was never …

The Case of Theresa Schiavo

Theresa Marie Schindler was born on December 3, 1963, to prosperous and devoutly Catholic parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, in a Philadelphia suburb, Huntingdon Valley. Robert Schindler was a dealer in industrial supplies. Mary Schindler was a full-time wife and mother. They named their first child for Saint Teresa of …

Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America

During the spring and summer of 2004 some Americans, most but not all of them nominal Democrats, spoke of the November 2 presidential election as the most important, or “crucial,” of their lifetimes. They told not only acquaintances but reporters and political opinion researchers that they had never been more …

Mr. Bush & the Divine

The “Left Behind” books, the first of which was published in 1995 and the most recent in 2003, are the collaborative product of the Reverend Tim LaHaye, who, as the founder of Tim LaHaye Ministries and cofounder of the Pre-Trib Research Center, is in charge of ensuring that the fictional …

Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History

The following is based on a lecture given this November at the New York Public Library. Seven days after September 11, 2001, I left New York to do two weeks of book promotion, under other circumstances a predictable kind of trip. You fly into one city or another, you do …

God’s Country

The words “compassionate conservatism” sound like and have often been dismissed as political rhetoric, a construction without intrinsic meaning, the Bush campaign’s adroit way of pitching the center, allowing middle-class voters to feel good about themselves while voting their interests. Former Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called them “weasel …

‘The Day Was Hot and Still… …’

Edmund Morris, who became in 1985 the choice of Michael Deaver and Nancy Reagan for a curious and unprecedented post, that of “in-house historian” at the White House, or official biographer to a sitting president, was born in 1940 in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of a pilot for East African …

Uncovered Washington

On an evening late in April in Washington, some three hundred and fifty survivors of what they saw as a fight for the soul of the republic gathered at the Mayflower Hotel to honor Representative Henry J. Hyde and the twelve House managers who, under his leadership, had carried the …

Clinton Agonistes

No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched the current president of the United States running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent. The man was, Jesse Jackson said that year to another point, “nothing …

Varieties of Madness

In what little we learned of the movements of Theodore Kaczynski before and during the seventeen years of bombings that killed three people and injured twenty-nine and led to the charges on which he will be sentenced in May, there seemed something obstinately, if not recently, familiar, arresting details of …

The Lion King

The aides gave us the details, retold now like runes. Promptly at nine o’clock on most mornings of the eight years he spent as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan arrived in the Oval Office to find on his desk his personal schedule, printed on green stationery and embossed …

The Deferential Spirit

On the morning of Sunday, June 23, the day the prepublication embargo on Bob Woodward’s The Choice was lifted, The Washington Post, the newspaper for which Mr. Woodward has so famously been, since 1971, first a reporter and now an editor, published on the front page of its A section …

The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich

The real substance of Mr. Gingrich’s political presence derives from his skill at massaging exhaustively researched voter preferences and prejudices into matters of lonely principle. The positions he takes are acutely tuned to the unexamined fears and resentments of large numbers of Americans, yet he stands, in his rhetoric, alone, opposed by “the system,” by “Washington,” by “the liberal elite,” by “the East Coast elite,” or simply by an unspecified “they.” “I kind of live on the edge,” Mr. Gingrich told Dick Williams. “I push the system.”

‘Something Horrible’ in El Salvador

In December of 1981 in El Salvador, twenty-one months after the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in San Salvador and twelve months after the murder of the four American Maryknoll women outside San Salvador and eleven months after the murder of the head of the Salvadoran land-reform agency and …

The Golden Land

A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up. The Sacramento River, the main source of surface water in a state where distrust of centralized governmental authority has historically passed for an ethic, has its headwaters in the far northern ranges of Siskiyou Country. It …

Eye on the Prize

In the understandably general yearning for “change” in the governing of this country, we might pause to reflect on just what is being changed, and by whom, and for whom. At Madison Square Garden in New York from July 13 until the balloons fell on the evening of July 16, …

New York: Sentimental Journeys

We know her story, and some of us, although not all of us, which was to become one of the story’s several equivocal aspects, know her name. She was a twenty-nine-year-old unmarried white woman who worked as an investment banker in the corporate finance department at Salomon Brothers in downtown …

Life at Court

Ronald Reagan, we are told by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, spent his time off-camera answering some fifty letters a week, selected by the people in charge of his mail operation, from citizens. He put the family pictures these citizens sent him in his pockets and desk drawers. When he did …