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.
Didion’s critique of contemporary journalism, as it is practiced and promoted in Washington and on the campaign trail, is woven through these pieces and includes a little list of those she especially cherishes as malpractitioners, if not malefactors. Cokie Roberts, George Will, Sally Quinn, the investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, and Bob Woodward head the list: the first three for their mandarin view of the capital’s relation to its insouciant hinterland, the last two for their way of thinking through—Didion would say not thinking through—a story. For the sheer exuberance of the savaging, Joan Didion on the methodology of Bob Woodward’s books is itself worth the price of admission (although, in the same genre, many readers may be even more entertained by her vivisection of Newt Gingrich’s brain). She finds a certain “Zen purity” in Woodward’s “aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him”; in the absence of “measurable cerebral activity” from his books; in his reluctance “to make connections between what he is told and what is already known.” All these are qualities, she notes, that Woodward consistently groups under the rubric “fairness,” a cardinal virtue in what is supposed to be a craft. She then contemplates what she takes to be the code of much Washington reporting:
The genuflection toward “fairness” is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal. In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what “fairness” has often come to mean is 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.
Isikoff—the Newsweek reporter who brought Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg and, through them, Monica Lewinsky into all our lives—is taken to task for precisely this: for following the trail as it was being laid out for him to the Oval Office, without dwelling on the question why those particular bread crumbs were being dropped before him and who was dropping them. For him what mattered was the promise of an exclusive. When they are aroused by the hint of such a story, reporters will always react that way, an imperative Didion endearingly expresses: “Tree it, bag it, defoliate the forest for it, destroy the village for it.” But only, she then says, bringing the discussion back to her theme, if it fits into “the narrative.”
Who can deny that this is a reasonable view of reality as it is viewed from Didion’s position outside “the process”? Yet for insiders—most Washington journalists and not a few politicians—it would seem so willfully, even wickedly, off target as to be difficult to take in and grasp as an argument. Far from belonging to a permanent class that conspires to shape a common “narrative,” the insiders would argue, they are at one another’s throats: the journalists are seeking to find out what is really going on, to avoid being deflected by “the spin,” while their adversaries, the politicians and their spinners, battle to get their story out without filters. Why have campaign days become so inanely repetitive? Because the politicians are afraid to say anything spontaneous on which reporters—and thereafter their opponents—may seize, no one ever finds out how close the utterance caught in the throat comes to being informed, intelligent, or true. Why in the end do journalists retail what is “manufactured” for them? It is not merely because, on account of laziness or obstruction, they can’t get their mitts on anything else. It’s also because it’s part of their age-old duty to be used, if putting down accurately and disinterestedly what has been said is being used.*
Politicians and journalists are indeed seen by much of America as belonging to the same self-satisfied, self-serving, self-enriching establishment. But then why do politicians resent and, on occasion, even hate reporters so? There was Bill Clinton exploding in a Rolling Stone interview years ago over not getting “one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.” There was Barney Frank, the normally affable Massachusetts congressman, turning on a reporter and exclaiming: “You people celebrate failure and not success. Nothing about government is done as incompetently as the reporting of it.” There were James Carville and Mary Matalin, in their book on the 1992 campaign, All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President, deriding the pack mentality of the national press corps, known as “the Beast” to Carville and his coworkers. “First thing we’d check: ‘What’s the beast up to?'” Carville wrote. “The last thing they want to know is what the campaign was really about.” And there was David Broder, the doyen of Washington political reporters, declaring from on high several campaign cycles ago that it was up to the press to define the issues of the campaign since the politicians had so hopelessly trivialized it. Worthy and serious-minded articles were printed, as they always are, but the uplift was hard to discern.
Does any of this byplay among the insiders sound like people who are aware that they are engaged in a common task of shaping a “narrative”? And yet in the end something like a narrative is foisted on the land. The question of how this comes to pass is something less than a problem in epistemology. There is a whole other dimension of this discussion that lies just beyond the scope of Didion’s chosen subject and that is the vast and fragmented communication system itself, the crazy echo chamber in which we are all doomed to live in a supposed information age that actually devalues political speech, among many other things. Just as politicians rely on focus groups to find out what they can safely and, from the point of view of their electoral interests, productively say, so do ratings-driven broadcast conglomerates inquire into how much political speech their viewers want to hear. The answer they get amounts to “not much.” So a presidential candidate is lucky to have fifteen seconds of unedited speech on the nightly news at the height of a campaign. No wonder his handlers urge him to ration what he says during the campaign day so he gets the fifteen seconds they think will do the most good. No wonder he then feels he must grovel for campaign funds in order to have the luxury of expressing himself directly in thirty-second ads.
Whatever the “narrative,” in last year’s campaign it was shunted off the networks and onto cable where its relatively small audience could continue to follow it. (Another reason for the reliance on pricey political advertising: if the viewers won’t watch the candidates where they normally reside, the candidates have to try sneak attacks in the vicinity of ball games and top-rated shows to catch potential voters where they might be taking refuge.) Decades ago, millions of families gathered in their living rooms to hear a president’s fireside chats. Recent presidents have also spoken on the radio every week but the president’s is just one voice on the vastly expanded broadcast spectrum and hardly anyone listens. It’s done to make copy for weekend newscasts and papers, a way of possibly grazing the public subconscious.
In this context, it’s striking that Didion finds the capstone for her argument about a narrative-shaping political class permanently estranged from the country in the media splurge—let’s resist the temptation to call it an orgy—of the Lewinsky affair. This “self-interested political class,” as she here lambastes it, smelled blood, Clinton’s. It was sure the President would have to resign or face impeachment. The country was mildly titillated, not uninterested in seeing how Letterman or Leno would exploit the scandal, but resolutely unwilling to accept it as a constitutional crisis. Noting that Amer- icans now, on average, become sexually active about a decade before they marry and that extramarital sex is one of the big reasons for a high divorce rate, Didion finds wonderment and self-serving political calculation in the ability of politicians and journalists to act so shocked.
Writing after the Starr report had answered more questions than most people had ever wanted to ask and left the President himself as the solitary American who thought he hadn’t lied, Didion provides a perspective of wry sanity in an essay called “Clinton Agonistes.” If the word hadn’t been appropriated by the Hollywood ratings system, it would be natural to call it “adult.” If you think you have read everything you will ever want to read about this antic and sorry business, think again. Didion does not argue torts or constitutional law; nor does she defend the leading man (although she does grant him, perhaps to her own surprise, possession “of whatever manna accrues to those who have fought themselves and survived”). Instead, she finds herself writing at her point of departure about character, a preoccupation she elsewhere dismisses as specious, as a willful escape from what really matters, when campaign journalists indulge themselves in it.
“No one who has ever passed through an American public high school,” she begins, “could have watched William Jefferson Clinton running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent.” (A reader of this book will understand immediately that this is not hindsight. Leafing back through its pages, you come upon what she actually wrote in 1992 about “a candidate who arrived on the national scene with a quite identifiable set of regional mannerisms and attitudes, the residue of a culture that still placed considerable value on playing sports and taking charge and catting around with one kind of woman and idealizing the other kind.”) In other words, no revelations were to be found in this latest soap opera, which involved in her tidy summings up “rather impoverished but generally unremarkable transgressions” or, more specifically, “ten occasions of backseat intimacy.” What it was all about, finally, was Kenneth Starr’s headlong attempt “to take down the government.”
Although it was lost in the fog of the ensuing struggle and its coverage, that’s indeed what made the story a story from its inception—not the infidelity, not the scandal, not the deception in what was then publicly said about “that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” but the fact that the FBI and the attorney general and the federal courts had all been put in play by the independent prosecutor before the first leak. By the time, nearly eight months later, that the Government Printing Office finally released Starr’s version of Fanny Hill, the country had long since become inured to anything it might contain. Imagine Joan Didion picking up this tome after a decade of writing about the public narratives shaped by “those who wrote and spoke” and finding in it an entire section actually called “narrative.” In the knowing and critical reading she gives it, Starr and his coauthors turn out to be guilty of a “basic craft error.” Unwittingly, they have used a device known to novelists and students of fictional technique as the “unreliable first-person narrator,” bringing the reader to a conclusion opposite from the one they intended: that their entrapped witness was “the victimizer and the president the hapless victim, and yet there it was, for all the world to read.” Poor Clinton. Poor Starr.
Here, it’s worth noting, is one of Didion’s great virtues as a political writer. Most political writers are satisfied to graze a little in the unreadable tracts turned out by or for our political figures. Didion actually reads and draws conclusions from what she has read. Though she is repelled by his self-satisfied religiosity, she has read Joseph Lieberman’s In Praise of Public Life. She has read Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. She has read William Bennett’s The Death of Outrage. She has read Newt Gingrich’s Window of Opportunity and To Renew America. She has read The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky, President Bush’s occasional guru. She has read Robert Bork’s The Tempting of America and Slouching Towards Gomorrah (a title that may or may not be a play on the Yeatsian title of her first collection of essays). On top of that, the Starr report and the entire Woodward oeuvre. She should be honored by the Explorers Club for such expeditions.
And she has read Uncovering Clinton by Michael Isikoff, which contains evidence undeveloped by its author, in her view, of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to bring down the President. The phrase, of course, is not Didion’s. It was used initially to underscore the absurdity of any suggestion that something had gone on between the intern and the man in the White House. When that part of the argument unraveled, the other part about a possible conspiracy was too easily discounted. Very late in the game, reporters started tracing the network of lawyers in the conservative Federalist Society, funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife, that reached into both the Paula Jones defense team and Starr’s office. It was reasonable to imagine that the network made sure they worked in tandem but no one ever proved it. Didion takes it as a given, arguing that a sitting president became the target of “the kind of sting operation that reliably creates a crime where a crime may or may not have otherwise existed.” She can’t be arguing that the right-wing conspiracy planted Lewinsky in the White House, so she must mean that it tried to surprise its occupant into lying under oath and suppressing evidence.
It may be a stretch to call that a “sting operation” but there is sting enough in her analysis, as there is throughout this strong and consistent collection, for the “tellers of the story.” Didion had no doubt back in 1992 that Bill Clinton was habitually evasive and “demonstrably less than forthcoming.” Six years later the Washington “story line” still turned on whether he was capable of telling a truth that carried a price, personal or political. And, of course, as she shows, that was only part of the story, not the whole story. The other part, how these failings became the focus of a squalid political struggle, has yet to be plainly told.
December 20, 2001
Viewed from the inside, a difficulty in Didion’s description of a permanent class encompassing operatives and journalists is that she occasionally mistakes outsiders for insiders. It’s surprising to find two New York Times reporters who have always been determined lone riders, Francis X. Clines (whose name is misspelled) and Michael Winerip, quoted to make points about Washington pack journalism. ↩