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…
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