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 clear...in 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 worked...to 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
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
"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
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
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 family...to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Joe Klien is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
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