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The New Republic Online
Thursday, November 15th, 2001


Political Fictions

by Joan Didion


A review by Joe Klein

Joan Didion once did me a favor. It was in 1988, in the middle of that most insipid of recent presidential campaigns. I had been on the road for months, following the candidates in retrospect, the intensity of my effort seems a form of temporary insanity and, as will happen in such circumstances, I had lost perspective. The boredom that was Dukakis had become an old story. The ugliness that was Bush the Willie Horton gambit, the Pledge of Allegiance! had yet to surface. I was in California, watching Dukakis take a victory lap: the last primary, a foregone conclusion. It was sunny at last, after all those months in Iowa and New Hampshire and it was warm, and there were crowds of people (as opposed to the sullen clots that the candidates had encountered elsewhere). And Dukakis appeared to respond a bit, in his constricted Dukakian way. He was marginally better than he had been; the crowds were marginally more enthusiastic than they had been. I allowed myself to believe that this had some significance, that he was "growing" into a potential president. Shame on me.

Enter Didion, on one of her exceedingly rare forays to the front lines of politics. She observed Dukakis that day in California and weeks later, in The New York Review of Books, quite accurately declared him dreadful. And she quoted my account of the swing. This was embarrassing but it was also apposite: I certainly had gone slightly goofy. Partly as a consequence of Didion's slap on the wrist, I vowed never again to spend more than a day or two at a time on the stump with any candidate (a luxury that most of my colleagues did not enjoy) and to redouble my efforts to guard against boredom, wishful thinking, and Stockholm Syndrome. So thanks, Joan, for that.

Actually, Didion's criticism of what I wrote fit quite neatly into her Unified Field Theory of American Political Life, which she explains in a foreword to her new book, a collection of her essays written for The New York Review of Books, which is appropriately titled Political Fictions:

It was 1988 that the political process had already become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent. It was also clear in 1988 that the decision of the two major parties to obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves, and by so doing to narrow the contested ground to a handful of selected "target" voters, had already imposed considerable strain on the basic principle of democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation's citizens a voice in its affairs. It was also clear in 1988 that the rhetorical manipulation of resentment and anger designed to attract these target voters had reduced the nation's political dialogue to a level so dispiritingly low that its highest expression had come to be a pernicious nostalgia. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it was clear in 1988 that those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process.

Well, yes and no. Didion was early (though not alone) in spotting the insular, antiseptic cautiousness of late twentieth-century politics: the institutionalized banality of language, the fear of inspiration, the primacy of focus groups, the pomposity of the press. This was a public service. For Didion, however, the "remoteness" of electoral politics "from the real life of the country" was only the beginning. Note her second, percussive "It was also clear in 1988": there was a "decision" by the two political parties to "obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves" in order to limit democracy.

A "decision" implies complicity and cooperation between the Republicans and the Democrats. Does she actually believe that? Perhaps not. On closer inspection, Didion seems to be talking about the "decision" of one of the parties the Democrats to "shed any association with its low-income base" and thereby to alienate a vast sea of voters who might otherwise sweep them to victory. (Republicans, she observes, adore low turnouts.) Why would the Democrats do that? Because of the money showered upon them by the special interests, Didion explains. The diabolical conduit for this money was the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, and the result was clear: an alienated and semi-impoverished near-majority of Americans had turned away in disgust from the political process. Al From, the president of the DLC and one of Didion's favorite villains, actually admits that the Democrats' target voters in the 2000 election were "affluent, educated, diverse, suburban, 'wired,' and moderate."

And so the conspiracy is revealed. These are the very same voters, Didion explains, who are targeted by the Republicans:

"Florida," in this light, could be seen as a perfectly legible ideogram of the process itself, and of where that process had taken us: the reduction of a national presidential election to a few hundred voters over which both parties could fight for thirty-six days was the logical imaginative representation of a process that had relentlessly restrict the contest to the smallest possible electorate.

There are several problems with this interpretation. First, the Democrats' allegedly neglected core supporters trade unionists, minorities, poor people actually turned out in droves in 2000 (especially African Americans in Florida, who voted at a rate slightly higher than their proportion of the population). And Al From happens to be right: Gore lost not because he ignored the party's base, but because he was not as successful as Bill Clinton in gaining support from voters in the $50,000- to $75,000-per-year income range. Second, there is Didion's odd notion that an effort to focus on, and then to attempt to seduce, undecided voters in a close election is somehow unseemly. This is traditional Mugwumpery: upper-class reformers in America have always been put off by the gristle and guts, the transactional nature of practical politics.

Sadly, most voters particularly the moderates who decide close elections tend not to respond to ideals or to irony. (Dwight Eisenhower usually beats Adlai Stevenson.) Voters respond to personalities (Bush simple, friendly; Gore smart, shifty). They also occasionally respond to bribes: tax cuts, prescription drug plans, and so on. So the real "ideogram" here is legislative: every president in American history has had to promise highway funds and sewer funds and cheese museums in order to secure the greater good. The process is not very inspiring indeed, good-government types consider it corrupt; but it is the way things work, and, despite Mugwump qualms, the banalities of democracy have proven a decidedly benign form of moral compromise over the years.

Finally, Didion's notion that non-voters are a seething, alienated mass who would turn every election into a Democratic Party landslide if only they voted is the political equivalent of an urban legend. After the 1988 election, The New York Times surveyed non-voters and found that, had they voted, Bush the Elder would have won by an even larger margin. In 1992, Ross Perot voters who approached Didion's ideal of righteous anger, and certainly shared her disapproval of politics-as-usual were asked how they would have voted if Perot had not run. The answer was: pretty much the same way as other voters had voted, narrowly for Clinton (thus confounding the Republican belief that Perot had cost Bush the election).

Indeed, trying to analyze non-voters turns out to be a frustrating pursuit. They are slightly poorer than the average, as Didion points out. They also tend to be younger people who have grown up in flush, peaceful times and therefore have no experience of the importance of government when times suddenly become less flush and less peaceful. There was an intellectually flabby cynicism to many of these people when they were interviewed in the 1990s. Why vote? Politicians are all alike: all corrupt, all slick and blow-dried, all mealy-mouthed and irrelevant. The level of American apathy in good times was never admirable, but it was a consequence of the country's strength. Politics was a distant cloud on the horizon of an extremely sunny day. One imagines that all that has changed now. One imagines that many of the formerly alienated have switched from Wheel of Fortune to the evening news, and have American flags flapping from their car antennas, and chant, "USA! USA!" at the slightest provocation. Or such is my fantasy (and also, I suppose, my patriotic hope).

Joan Didion asserts a theory, bereft of qualifications, based on a fantasy of her own. She knows who the non-voters are. As a teenager, she was friendly with them:

It had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations.... They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice of the peace still in his pajamas.

Somehow, though, these people never make an appearance except as a tendentious abstraction in Didion's essays. Didion gets her political information second-hand, by reading the papers and political books, and by watching television.

Occasionally, she will go to a dinner party. These tend to be memorable affairs. One dinner takes place on the weekend before the California primary in 1988 at "the Pebble Beach house of the chairman of a large American corporation. There were sixteen people at the table, all white, all well off, all well dressed, all well educated, all socially conservative." Despite these disadvantages, the guests were surprisingly in touch with the mood of the alienated near-majority: "During the course of the evening, it came to my attention that six of the sixteen, or every one of the registered Democrats present, intended to vote for Jesse Jackson." And six months later Didion reports, "On the evening of the November 1988 election and on several evenings that followed, I happened to sit at dinner next to men with considerable experience in the financial community. These men were, among themselves, uniformly pessimistic."

There are stray mentions of other fancy events throughout Didion's book, but there is only one encounter with an alienated American. It is a rather weird one. It occurs in San Jose, in "a neighborhood in which the lowering of two-toned Impalas remained a central activity," on the day that Didion joined the pack following Dukakis through California. It deserves to be recounted in its entirety:

"I want to be a candidate who brings people together," the candidate was saying at the exact moment a man began shouldering his way past me and through a group of women with children in their arms. This was not a solid citizen, not a member of the upscale target audience. This was 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 and not of the 20.2 percent but of the 81.5 percent, the 79.8 [Didion is referring to those Americans who did and did not watch the political conventions on television that summer]. "I've got to see the next president," he murmured repeatedly. "I've got something to tell him." "...Because that's what this party is all about," the candidate said.

"Where is he?" the man said, confused. "Who is he?"

"Get lost," someone said.

"...Because that's what this country is all about," the candidate said.

Here we had the last true conflict of cultures in America, that between the empirical and the theoretical. On the empirical evidence this country was about two-toned Impalas and people with camouflage hats and a little glitter in their eyes, but this had not been, among people inclined to the theoretical, the preferred assessment.

Excuse me, but is she saying that most Americans are deranged? And what exactly is the empirical evidence that America is "about" two-toned Impalas and people with camouflage hats? What about those mothers with children in their arms that the lunatic pushes past? What about the "someone" who tells the guy to "get lost" and all those others trying to listen to the candidate? Are they not part of America, too? Or are they just deluded pawns of the theory-mongering political class?

The wrongheadedness of all this is stunning. Didion's "empirical" is ridiculously theoretical. And her theory is effete, patronizing nonsense. Don't her editors at The New York Review of Books ever press her on these vast, weary pronouncements? Or does her worldview conform so closely to their own disdain for our misguided republic that it does not merit questioning? The casual, flaccid smugness is gagging. Everything is just so obvious. The targets are just so fat. Ronald Reagan. Newt Gingrich. Marvin Olasky. The press. Say the names and you get the picture. These are people who never have an interesting thought or a faintly convincing argument.

There are no nuances in Didion's account, and there is no mercy. Phrases such as "And yet" or "But it is also fair to point out" rarely darken her prose. She assaults Bob Woodward for his embarrassing sycophancy toward his subjects, but she never acknowledges that Woodward has produced some valuable reporting over the years. Facts and anecdotes, to be sure, not analysis and irony: but if Woodward is anything, he is a servant of the empirical, and Didion claims to aspire to the empirical. Only once in Didion's book is there a fleeting hint of compassion for a politician. She elegantly always elegantly skewers Newt Gingrich through the judicious selection of his own words, and then she locates in him "the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square. There is about these dismal reductions something disarming and poignant, a solitary neediness, a dogged determination to shine in public." And that's about it for compassion.

Joan didion claims to be a Goldwaterite. She voted for him, she says, in 1964:

Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter. Instead, shocked and to a curious extent personally offended by the enthusiasm with which California Republicans who had jettisoned an authentic conservative (Goldwater) were rushing to embrace Ronald Reagan, I registered as a Democrat, the first member of my do so.
She declares herself mystified by those who find her beliefs "eccentric, opaque, somehow unreadable." And she is partly right: her beliefs are not unreadable, and they would not be considered eccentric on the west side of Los Angeles or the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

But the opacity is everywhere. Indeed, it is her modus operandi. Why, for example, was Goldwater an "authentic" conservative and Ronald Reagan not? One can surmise that Goldwater's consistent libertarian opposition to government meddling in issues such as abortion and homosexuality is what Didion is talking about here. But she provides no explanation. One might just as easily conclude that Didion is offended by Reagan's smudging of Goldwater's well-known opposition to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and Medicare.

No, that couldn't possibly be true. She seems to favor government provision of health insurance. In fact, Didion takes Woodward to task for failing to illuminate the "central curiosity" of the Clinton health care proposal, which was

by what political miscalculation a plan initially meant to remove third-party profit from the health care equation (or to "take on the insurance industry," as Putting People First, the manifesto of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, had phrased it) would become one distrusted by large numbers of Americans precisely because it seemed to enlarge and further entrench the role of the insurance industry.
It is curious how Didion's prose clogs up on those rare occasions when she attempts to discuss the substance of policy. One senses that she is not merely wrong, but that she is in over her head.

The Clinton health insurance proposal, for example, was never intended to "remove third-party profit from the health care equation." The president and Hillary Clinton, and also Ira Magaziner, were careful from the beginning of the 1992 campaign to the end of the debacle to express their opposition to government-run "single-payer" systems. (The campaign rhetoric about "taking on the insurance industry" was vague, populist window-dressing of the sort that Didion, in her more lucid moments, likes to skewer.) And where is the "empirical" evidence that the Clinton health plan was distrusted by "large numbers of Americans" because it seemed to "enlarge and further entrench" the insurance industry? My recollection is that the plan foundered because its opponents were able to paint it as excessively bureaucratic and that even as the plan was collapsing on Capitol Hill, a majority of Americans still favored it. Finally, how does Didion's apparent support for the removal of "third-party profit" from the health care system square with her Goldwaterite libertarianism? Again, there is no explanation.

Didion rarely makes a coherent intellectual argument about anything. There are sweeping generalizations. There are quotations. But there is no effort to explain why her targets' arguments are misguided. Their banality proves them wrong. Everything is so obvious.

Didion experiences similar difficulties nearly every time she encounters complexities of governmental policy that is, whenever she decides to address the things that politicians actually do when they are not running for office. She can be quite precise and outraged when describing America's support for the fascist thugs who committed massacres in El Salvador. That isn't very hard. But she gets all tangled up in Putting People First, Bill Clinton's campaign document in 1992 which, when the inevitable political boilerplate was stripped away, turned out to be a fairly accurate description of what Clinton intended to do as president.

For Didion, though, Putting People First is a "shell game." It is a ploy, a phony; all about getting elected, not about governing. Clinton's worldview, she asserts, "began and ended with the woolly resentments of the focus group and so remained securely distanced from what might be anyone's actual readiness to address actual concerns." And so Didion finds confusion and a bald attempt to seduce the focus group ninnies. She finds the smarmy, desperate Clintonites making all sorts of contradictory promises: to eliminate the welfare entitlement and yet reduce poverty; to spend more on education and yet reduce by one hundred thousand the number of bureaucrats who would supervise those programs.

"Clues to how all this might be accomplished were absent in the text itself," Didion confidently remarks. But the "clues" indeed, the theoretical matrix for Clinton's domestic policy existed aplenty in the work of scholars at the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. Their work, of which Didion seems unaware, was a substantive revision of standard Democratic Party social policy. It proposed the use of tax credits and direct cash payments rather than state-run programs supervised by government employees to alleviate poverty. Far from being a shell game, this was a vital initiative directed at the very people whom Didion professed to be concerned about, including more than a few driving two-tone Impalas.

These policy ideas were at the center of the intellectual debate between "Old" Democrats and "New" Democrats in 1992. The debate was settled when Clinton successfully implemented his governing philosophy as president. While maintaining fiscal discipline, he vastly expanded the money going directly to the working poor through the Earned Income Tax Credit, day care credits, children's health insurance, and other programs. He also made the first two years of college a middle-class entitlement. (By 1999, ten million out of fourteen million eligible Americans were taking advantage of Clinton's higher education tax credits.) This represented a quiet revolution in liberal social policy, and a form of government activism that could be supported by the very people whom Didion professes to represent: the gas station crowd, the people who hated the corrupt old welfare system and yet believed that government should extend a hand to "those who work hard and pay their bills," to coin a phrase.

Eight years later, Didion finally admits, in passing, that Clinton's legacy is a country in which "median income had reached an all-time high, the unemployment rate was at its lowest point in three decades, the rate of violent crime was down, and the digital national debt clock in Manhattan was running backward." She does not offer an explanation for these successes, but then her startling encomium is tendered under duress. There is trouble in the land. The political class again led by the press, the Republicans, and the Democratic Leadership Council (in the form of its pious former president Joseph Lieberman) is conducting a jihad against the "legacy" of Bill Clinton and, far more nefariously, against the First Amendment's establishment clause. This, according to Didion, was the real story of the 2000 campaign: the insertion of religion into public life.

Didion is alarmed. The slogan "compassionate conservatism," she declares, "describes a specific and deeply radical experiment in social rearrangement." But she never explains, in a simple declarative sentence, what this proposed experiment is. She offers us Marvin Olasky's vacuous head on a platter. She says "the use of [the term] 'faith-based' is artful and worth study." But she does not study it very hard. She does not bother to explore the details of the dispute over public support for social programs offered by religious organizations. She never tells us why someone like Senator Paul Wellstone (and sixteen other Democrats) would vote for then-Senator John Ashcroft's "charitable choice" provision of the welfare reform bill of 1996, which is the only "faith-based" initiative to have been passed by Congress. She does not even acknowledge that avowedly religious programs as opposed to secular programs provided by religious organizations such as Catholic Charities already exist, and that they have sometimes been found to be more effective than state programs in alleviating poverty.

The programs, the actual work they do, are not important enough to "study." What is important, by contrast, is a conspiracy the millennial edition of Didion's same old conspiracy on the part of the political class: they are fomenting a religious revival in the year 2000 in order to "prove the political class correct on the Clinton issue." In other words, there is a need for Republicans and the press to prove that they were right to spend so much time and energy on the Lewinsky scandal. Al Gore played into the Republicans' hands, twisted his campaign into a pretzel, and chose Lieberman because his pollsters believed that Clinton's "values" were a problem. And "values" were what the political class had determined that this election was going to be about. "Values," Didion is certain, represent a "pernicious nostalgia" rather than a real concern particularly on the part of parents in twowage-earner families about the impact of a crass, soulless popular culture upon their children. The call to values, she asserts, is "a call to the barricades, which in this case is the front gate of Paramount Pictures." We are getting close to the heart of the matter.

In addition to her essays and her novels, Joan Didion has produced an extensive body of work in the film industry. She has received screenwriting credits on eight films, including Panic in Needle Park, True Confessions, and A Star Is Born. She lived in Los Angeles for many years before moving to New York. And her knowledge of the movie business, her immersion in the life of Hollywood, seems a critical element of her political sensibility.

Didion deploys that knowledge impressively in her demolition of Dinesh D'Souza's hagiography of Ronald Reagan, another difficult target. She cites D'Souza: "Without any connections, [Reagan] made his way to Hollywood and survived its cutthroat culture to become a major star." She immediately corrects this inaccuracy: "This was literally not true: Reagan was never a major star, but a reliable studio contract player." He was a second-rate actor playing the role of "president." And this, in Didion's view, explains the Iran-contra scandal:

For the "President," a man whose most practiced instincts had trained him to find the strongest possible narrative line in the scenes he was given, a man for whom historical truth had all his life run at twenty-four frames a second, Iran-contra would have been irresistible, a go project from concept, a script with two strong characters, the young marine officer [Oliver North] with no aim but to serve his president, the aging president with no aim but to free the tyrannized ... a buddy movie: and better still than a buddy movie, a mentor buddy movie, with action....

This was a president who understood viscerally as the young colonel also understood that what makes a successful motion picture is exactly a foolish enterprise, a lonely quest, a lost cause, a fight against the odds: undertaken, against the best advice of those who say it cannot be done, by someone America can root for. Cut, print.

This is wonderful stuff, all the more delightful because it is so unintentionally revealing. Like Reagan, Didion has a romantic sense of public life that is straight from the glitter factory, except from a different director. If Reagan longed to be John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Didion's political movie is a cross between Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Chinatown. Like Reagan, she is a total sucker for "a lonely quest, a lost cause, a fight against the odds," only her quest is not against the Enemies of America, it is against Lionel Barrymore and his plutocratic buddies, or the dark and arcane forces controlling the water supply in Los Angeles, or the CIA, or the Christian Coalition.

It is no accident, then, that the only two politicians upon whom Didion seems to smile are Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown. (One imagines that she smiled upon the lonely quest of Ralph Nader as well, but there is no evidence of that in this book.) In the case of Jackson, she sets up a classic screenwriter's cross-cut: dueling victory parties on the night of the California primary in 1988. The Dukakis folks are a bunch of stiffs, of course: "all the custom-made suits and monogrammed shirts in Los Angeles that night were there." By contrast, the Jackson campaign's "energy level in defeat [was] notably higher than that of the other campaigns in victory.... I recall the candidate, dancing on the stage ... then taking off his tie and throwing it into the crowd, like a rock star. This was of course a narrative of its own, but a relatively current one, and one that had, because it seemed at some point grounded in the recognizable, a powerful glamour for those estranged from the purposeful nostalgia of the traditional narrative."

Didion's account of Jerry Brown's genuinely frivolous campaign in 1992 is quite similar. Again, there is the contrast with the suits. Bill Clinton's convention resembles nothing so much as a "sunbelt country club." Meanwhile, Brown had been the only one of the Democratic primary candidates who, on the evening of the primary campaign's first Washington debate, did not go to dinner at Pamela Harriman's. He maintained so apparently quixotic a guerrilla presence in New York that Maureen Dowd began referring to him in the Times as The Penguin. He worked out of the Rolling Stone office. He got messages at Dennis Rivera's Hospital Workers Union Local 1199. He camped one night at a homeless shelter and other nights at my husband's and my apartment. He passed up the balloon drop and the podium handshake to end the convention with his volunteers, finishing the night not at the DNC's four-million-dollar fundraising gala but at Elaine's.

Now there is a high concept: a rebel candidate who sleeps in homeless shelters and dines at Elaine's. Too bad neither Jerry Brown nor Jesse Jackson had the box-office power to bring it off. And even if they had, the script needed doctoring. What if the candidate a charming United States senator, say suddenly realizes, after a lifetime of pandering bloviation, that he has been living a lie? What if he suddenly starts telling the "truth" about inconvenient things, and bonds with the poor, and hangs out with gangsta rappers, and delivers his speeches in rhyme, and sleeps with Halle Berry, and as a result starts to become incredibly popular? Such a candidate would present too great a threat to the shadowy corporate types who really run American politics, and he would have to be eliminated. But alas, Warren Beatty chose not to run in 2000.

Didion's political essays seem very dated now. They are artifacts of the most placid and prosperous moment in American history, a time when allegedly serious news organizations and journals of opinion turned to cynics and stylists people who knew little about politics and nothing at all about policy to make pronouncements about public life. These people practiced a form of theater criticism, assuming and sometimes even asserting that politics was a lesser branch of show business, that politicians were merely actors reading lines, that political performance consisted only of public speaking and image-making; while the quiet work of governance, the true work of elected officials, was largely ignored. This was, almost by definition, a flagrantly superficial conceit. It is probably finished now. When reality visits, there is no need for political fictions.

Joe Klien is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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