Slouching Towards Activism: Didion Engages, Gets Angry

Political Fictions , by Joan Didion. Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pages, $25.

In the foreword to Political Fictions , Joan Didion’s latest collection of essays, she recalls an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole escapade searching for Jesse Jackson’s plane at the Newark Airport during the 1988 Presidential campaign. She queries agents who send her to other agents who know nothing; she shimmies under a corrugated fire door, only to find an empty hangar; she entreats a mechanic to pick a lock, but the four young Jackson campaign workers on the tarmac have no clue who she is, and the Secret Service has no record of her clearance. At last, unsure what else to do with her, they stick her on the empty plane. And there she sits, alone, quarantined, a tiny figure peering out a porthole at an incomprehensible political landscape.

The recidivist reader of Joan Didion will recognize the scene at once and settle in for the familiar ride. How many times have we met this woman? Detached, alienated, an outsider recoiling with dismay and professed bafflement from the chaos of the political realm. She is the same woman who appeared on the back jacket of Slouching Towards Bethlehem , armored in a buttoned-up raincoat and Chanel scarf, pointedly looking away from the mob of scruffy longhairs congregated in Golden Gate Park for the Summer of Love. She is the same woman who, while throngs marched on Washington, found herself “paralyzed,” “aphasic,” compelled to make lists of clothes to pack because nothing else made sense to her anymore. She is the same woman who, in The White Album , quoted a psychiatric report that described her as dwelling in a state of “dependent, passive withdrawal” from a world she perceived as mystifying and sinister.

While Ms. Didion pioneered and exemplified a certain kind of tough-minded journalism, she herself came off as a bewildered onlooker, a pint-sized stranger shrinking from the clash of shadowy social forces, unable to function without gin and hot water, Dexedrine and prolonged retreats to shuttered rooms.

So as we open her new anthology, are we again to hear from this tremulous Thumbelina? Ms. Didion begins by recalling her befuddlement with topics political: Back in 1988, she couldn’t seem to get herself to read the press clips her editor sent or to attend the Presidential campaign events; she confides that she nearly abandoned the whole project because “I could clearly bring no access, no knowledge, no understanding.”

But this initial self-portrait is misleading, a remnant of her ghost self. The new Didion–the one who has been keenly dissecting Presidential politics for the last dozen years in the pages of The New York Review of Books –has dropped the desultory, disoriented tone and has been writing with a muscular directness. But more than that, she has taken a new approach to politics itself. Here is a writer who famously chose Yeats to express her vision of an anarchic, unfathomable political world–the best lacking all conviction, the worst full of passionate intensity (and herself receiving points for belonging to the former category)–who is now wading into the chop, writing with newly discovered conviction, passion and intensity and, blessed consequence, writing at her very best.

Joan Didion has always held a solitary status as a modern American essayist, her prose defining erudition and cool elegance. While she gained prominence in the era of New Journalism, her first-person approach had little in common with the sweaty showmanship of its chest-thumping bards. Not for her the Tom Wolfe pop of exclamatory pyrotechnics, nor the faux outlaw chic of the Esquire boys on the bus. Her style always belonged more to noir than to hip: It suggested a singular integrity, a private struggle with ominous depths. She showed a generation of young American journalists how to make reporting moodily stylish, a personal expression. In so doing, she inspired a legion of imitators, for better and often for worse: Many a reporter has striven for High Didion and wound up with low navel-gazing.

But a certain dissatisfaction has always lurked within her work, between the polished sentences of even her best essays–a dissatisfaction connected with the timorous aspect of her aloof image on a jacket cover, a feeling that the person who could say everything so exquisitely well couldn’t quite say what she thought, at least in political terms. She has long rather sniffily maintained that politics don’t interest her, that they are a distracting sideshow to the personal. “I never had faith that the answers to human problems lay in anything that could be called political,” she told an interviewer in 1977. “I thought the answers, if there were answers, lay someplace in man’s soul.” Indeed, she admitted that she has only bothered to vote twice since she cast her first ballot in 1964–for Goldwater.

The essays in this book are a record of her emergence as a forthright and adamant diagnostician. The remarkable bonus is that, as Ms. Didion has dropped the pretense of her early essays–the pose of elliptical indirection at the heart of her style–her style has only improved. In Political Fictions , she’s come out from undercover. (It’s a small signal of the difference that she has chosen for her author photo a straightforward head-and-shoulders shot, minus the trademark big sunglasses, eyes looking directly into the camera.)

The political, it turns out, matters very much to Ms. Didion. Her awakening came as she watched with increasing distress the operations of a political mechanism wholly committed to “disenfranchising America.” By the dawn of the 21st century, she writes with newfound force and anger, “half the nation’s citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived,” a catastrophe that galls her all the more for having gone largely unobserved.

There is a reason, she says, why a quarter of all adult Americans are either “alienated” or “disenchanted” with U.S. politics, and it’s not, as the press would have it, just “apathy.” There is a reason why the parties court only a narrow band of unrepresentative “target” voters, and the rest of the public be damned. What Ms. Didion perceives–and reviles–is the systematic expulsion of the citizenry from the political process, and its replacement by a few oligarchs who live in a bubble world “in which they themselves were the principal players, and for which they themselves were the principal audience.” This exclusionary process, she concludes, has not only “left most voters with no reason to come to the polls”; worse, that was the intent –what “had even come to be spoken about, by less wary professionals, as the beauty part, the bonus that would render the process finally and perpetually impenetrable.”

What has particularly got her gorge up is the way an insular political class in the last decade not only robbed the electorate of authentic participation but invoked “the personal” to obscure that highway robbery. A right-wing-dominated Republican Party seeking a return to power by narrowing its pitch to a tiny group of “family values” supporters; a weak-kneed Democratic party eagerly going along with the values game at the expense of its longtime working-class constituency; and a passive Washington punditry and press corps eager to sign on to whatever character-and-values script gets handed them without considering the source–this is the triumvirate whose combined machinations and docility, Ms. Didion observes, have reduced American democracy to a movie set. On that set, a bogus morality play gets staged in which “character” is used to cloak the real drama underway: a political coup in progress.

The coup of which she speaks began with Jones v. Clinton , continued through Ken Starr’s referral and culminated in the Supreme Court’s anointment of George the Second. It’s the coup that happened while the pundits busied themselves with what Ms. Didion wonderfully dubs “rhetorical autointoxication,” a circle jerk of pseudo-moralists panting to convince their audience–and, in the end, convincing only themselves–that the real story, the only story, was the one which had unfolded in that steamy little room off the Oval Office. “By reducing the matter to the personal,” Ms. Didion writes, “it was possible to divest what had taken place of its potentially disruptive gravity, possible to avoid all consideration of whether or not a move on the presidency had been covertly run, of whether or not the intent of such a move had been to legitimize a minority ideological agenda, and of whether or not–most disruptive of all–such a move was ongoing.”

She is at her most nervy blowing the whistle on that peerlessly dedicated self-protection racket, the contemporary Washington press corps, laying out just how implicated the talking heads have been in the takedown of the Clinton White House, in the breeding of a “casual contempt” for the electorate’s will. What was new in this latest right-wing putsch, she observes, was not the putsch’s disdain for the rights of voters–it was the way the political media and punditry “aided and abetted” the right-wing crusaders in their effort “to save America from its citizens.” If the citizens didn’t go along with the story, if they didn’t join the media’s tantrum over Clinton’s carnal high jinks, if they in fact were far more outraged by stiff-necked Ken than hot-pants Bill, well, then they must be part of the problem. As Mona Charen huffed on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer , “This casts shame on the entire country, because he behaved that way and all of the nation seems to be complicit now because they aren’t rising up in righteous indignation.” Or, as Ms. Didion succinctly puts it, “The public, in fact, became the unindicted coconspirator.”

She sharply punctures the hot-air balloonery of such media celebrities as the Washington Post ‘s Bob Woodward and Newsweek ‘s Michael Isikoff, whose “investigative” brio she shows up as so much dutiful dictation of phony narratives concocted by political operatives. “What ‘fairness’ has often come to mean,” she writes in a take-no-prisoners critique of Mr. Woodward’s lumbering tomes, “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.”

She turns a particularly jaundiced eye on Michael Isikoff’s coy claims in Uncovering Clinton , his rehash of his own coverage of the Monica follies, that he had no idea he was being manipulated by Lucianne Goldberg and company. Over and over, Ms. Didion shows us how this self-described “aggressive reporter” (a phrase she reinvokes to delicious ironic effect) was only too happy to be the passive receptacle of the right, only too willing to ignore the myriad signals that he was a useful stooge. Given all he knew about the players and their relationships, Ms. Didion observes acidly, how could he not suspect that Mr. Starr’s office and the Paula Jones team and the Linda Tripp crew were all in cahoots? “Did he now suspect it?” Ms. Didion bores in. “If he suspected it, why did he not pursue it? Could it have been because he already knew it? This is an area that Uncovering Clinton was cannily designed, by virtue of the way its author chose to present himself, to leave safely uncharted.”

Ms. Didion’s insistence on charting such territory is all the gutsier for coming at a time when fellow brand-name correspondents maintain a self-interested stony silence. Of all people, here is the writer who remained stubbornly “personal” in the political 60’s, now projecting a politically passionate voice into the infotainment vacuum of 00’s journalism. Perhaps her metamorphosis constitutes not so much a break from an apolitical past as a marker of her consistency. She has consistently been suspicious of people who would misuse personal confusion for political ends, whether it’s the acid peddlers on Haight Street or Ann Coulter on MSNBC. Beneath the political dogma spouted by runaways in San Francisco, she divined personal pain and abandonment. Beneath the personal attacks on a philandering President, she divined a political machine.

The beast slouching in that machine poses a far greater threat to American democracy than Haight-Ashbury’s lost souls ever did; those kids belonged to the fringe even in the 60’s. What Joan Didion is tackling now is more treacherous for being at the center. That one of the most preeminent voices of journalism has stepped into the ring to contest that center is a gift. That she stands so nearly alone is a disgrace.

Susan Faludi is the author of Backlash (Anchor) and Stiffed (HarperCollins).