Political Fictions

Joan Didion 

York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001 

by Mark Engler 

the beginning of Political
, a collection of essays, Joan Didion tells us of time
spent in high school hanging out in gas stations. There, she explains,
she found friends who had not overachieved in class nor aspired
to elected office. Rather, “they had gotten drafted, gone through
basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them,
had begun what they called 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.” They were the type of people,
in their political disaffection, that she held in mind when forming
her book’s thesis: That an elite group of pundits, lobbyists,
and operatives define the terms of “democratic” discussion
in this country. That with the stories expounded in their press
releases, C-SPAN speeches, and Sunday morning talk shows, they create
an accepted vision of “the American experience” that is
far removed from the actual concerns of the great majority of its

stories, the self-perpetuating “fables” of “the nation’s
permanent professional political class,” make up the Fictions
of the book’s title. Their consequence is the hollowing of
democracy, the leeching away of people’s ability to meaningfully
influence public decisions that affect their lives. Didion’s
collection contains eight essays, all reconstituted from material
that she wrote for the New York Review of Books between 1988
and 2000. Each reads as an indictment. 

begins her investigations during the 1988 primaries. Early on, she
uses a behind-the-scenes look at campaigning to reveal the vacuity
of candidates’ on-stage convictions. The political class, she
contends, cares less about substance than about appearance—“about
‘tradeoffs’ and constituencies and positioning the candidate
and distancing the candidate, about the ‘story,’ and how
it will ‘play’.” Didion then questions whether, once
in office, politicians and their functionaries ever shed their contempt
for the public’s intelligence. In one memorable scene, the
handlers responsible for influencing press coverage of a George
H. W. Bush tour of the mideast demand “that, at every stop
on the itinerary, camels be present.” 

indicts the media, too, for buying in to the system. Reporters sell
their objectivity in exchange for “access” and end up
as enablers, telling “the story not as it is occurring but
as it is presented, which is to say manufactured.” Didion shows
that drawing distinctions between the commentators hired by newspapers
and the media managers on political staffs (a hallowed distinction
in the journalistic world) is about as relevant as distinguishing
paramilitary death squads from the dictatorial regime that sponsors

of the essays are marked by the manner in which the author takes
up strikingly commonplace contentions and advances them with brute
force. Well after the time when any of these views might have made
headlines, Didion argues vehemently that Ronald Reagan was more
an actor than a leader, that the White House blatantly lied in order
to cover up the massacre at El Mozote, that Clinton’s impeachment
was politically motivated, and that Gore did poorly to disavow Clinton
in his presidential bid. Yet, her use of recycled ideas does not
altogether lack ambition. It is as if she is trying to defend the
sanctity of evidence and logic against the corrosive influence of
political “spin.” Using the full weight of hindsight,
she asserts that those arguments were not just partisan “positions”
or disputed viewpoints. They were the truth. 

success in this endeavor varies from essay to essay. The measure
of effectiveness for Didion’s criticism throughout her career
has been her understanding of place. Her cultural analysis from
the 1960s was fueled by an ability to evoke a sense of her native
California as an unsettling and inexplicably violent land. The same
mood limited her when, in the early 1980s, she traveled to wartime
El Salvador, a site where her shell-shocked sentiments were hardly
original. Now, with Political Fictions, Didion turns to Washington,
DC, or, more precisely, “the beltway”—a constructed
political locale that is more spiritual than geographic. Here she
labors to pull apart the preferred narratives (“West Wing lights
burn late as dedicated workaholics hit the ground running”)
that the place uses to define itself. 

effort, however, is hampered by the fact that the collection contains
little reportage, particularly in its latter half. These essays
were originally framed, at least in a general sense, as book reviews.
The result is that the work becomes a reflection on meta-politics—the
rhetoric and self-image of the process, as presented in the memoirs,
monographs, and scoops published by political insiders. Writing
in this mode Didion can note that “the number of medals awarded”
for the invasion of Grenada “eventually exceeded the number
of actual combatants.” But even she does not discuss Grenada
as a military reality. Rather it is something more abstract, a “symbolic
centerpiece” used by conservatives to define Reagan’s
foreign policy. There can be no muckraking here because the author,
adopting the role of literary critic, keeps several layers of detachment
between herself and the political muck. 

then, leads us to New York. Since Political Fictions’
central argument deals with how Washington’s conversations
are elitist and inbred, it is only fair to ask about the venue in
which Didion is writing. 

several points in the book, she undermines her original pose as
an everywoman, going so far as to casually mention that she hosted
Jerry Brown in her Manhattan apartment during a stop-over on his
run as a presidential candidate. Such asides highlight what should
be obvious—that having enjoyed more than 30 years of well-earned
renown as a keen observer and impeccable prose stylist, Didion has
not been leading an ordinary life. Indeed, she maneuvers within
cosmopolitan cultural circles that are no less exclusive and self-
contained than the political ones criticized in her essays. She
may have once loitered away the hours in a gas station parking lot,
but now she hangs out at the Review of Books

Didion’s anger at political developments is refreshing. While
she can’t quite pass as a populist and never quite dares to
take up actual advocacy, her incisive criticism provides a valuable
guide to a 12-year period in which smaller and smaller pools of
voters mattered in the political process and “half the nation’s
citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under
which they lived.” Whether or not this constitutes a new trend,
it is one worth combating. We don’t have to consider ourselves
innocent to be outraged. 

Engler writes regularly on globalization and labor issues in the

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of Religious Ethics