In response to:
Washington in Miami from the July 16, 1987 issue
To the Editors:
I am flattered by the amount of space Joan Didion devoted to me in the last of her series on “Washington in Miami” [NYR, July 16], but was it deserved?
I was not a “frequent speaker” before the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America, as she claimed. I delivered, in all, only two briefings there. She quotes from only one of them, concerning media coverage of EI Salvador and particularly its pivotal March 1984 election. The second (actually the first, chronologically) dealt with the much more significant subject of Mexico, which she passed over.
I shall not try to deal with Didion’s quotes from my EI Salvador briefing—whose selectivity hardly did justice to the thrust of it—except to make one comment. The media have generally corrected the abuses which I then dealt with—a phenomenon Didion apparently is unaware of—and some of the correspondents guilty of excesses, notably Raymond Bonner, then of The New York Times, and Christopher Dickey, then of The Washington Post, have departed the scene and their newspapers.
I am curious, however, about her statement that I have a “distantly polemical interest in Latin America.” What did she mean?
It is a strange criticism, one that has never been directed at me before. Having written seven books on the region, some of them quite controversial, I cannot imagine she alludes to those. On the other hand, did she mean that I lacked firsthand contact with my subject matter? Is it possible she was unaware that I have been covering Latin America, especially Central America and Mexico, generally from the field, since 1953? And that I was based in Mexico for nearly twenty-three consecutive years? That is somewhat longer than the amount of time Didion spent in EI Salvador—two weeks—to gather material for her unfortunate book on that country.
Only one word can describe the Didion-type instant experts on Central America who proliferate like locusts: chutzpah.
Joan Didion replies:
At the briefing to which Daniel James refers, which took place in the Old Executive Office Building on April 11, 1984, at the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America’s forty-sixth briefing, and the first ever opened to the press, Mr. James was introduced, by the White House Office of Public Liaison, as someone who “has regularly attended and addressed” the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America. I taped Mr. James’s remarks, and he did not correct this introduction. I took the White House Office of Public Liaison and Mr. James at, on this point, their word.
“Distantly” polemical is a typographical error. I originally wrote “distinctly” polemical, and the line so appears in the book from which these pieces were excerpted. Mr. James’s letter, relying as it does on innuendo, distortion, misrepresentation, and the ad hominem, is in fact an instructive example of this distinctly polemical approach.
October 22, 1987