Joan Didion, known largely for her fiction but also for her logical, meticulous and truthful essay writing, wants us to know exactly how little control we have over the process. In her elegant and incisive depiction of the usurpation of the political system, Political Fictions, Didion contends that politics has become little more than a fine-tuned performance, a rehearsed moment designed with the ultimate goal of increasing the power of the inner circle and pushing the “outsiders” further away.
Political Fictions emerged from a collection of essays initially published when the New York Review of Books sent Didion to cover the 1988 presidential campaign. Starting there and moving on to the presidencies of George Bush, Sr. and Ronald Reagan, the massacres in El Mozote, El Salvador, the 1992 elections, the role of political journalists and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” the book is a veritable indictment of a system that Didion sees as a narrative, a kind of “fiction”—and because she writes fiction, one that she is well qualified to report on.
Raised as a “conservative California Republican,” Didion describes in the forward how she voted in 1964 for Barry Goldwater, who represented the “keep out of our lives” view of limited government. Eventually, she grew disillusioned with the Republicans, becoming the first registered Democrat in her family. This had less to do with substantive disagreements than with her growing sense of alienation with the Republican party, and Didion began to question the existence of deep differences between America’s two parties.
The book combines anecdotes from her experiences as a reporter with keen analysis of a system gone awry. In one account, she relates how a 30-second game of catch between Michael Dukakis and an aide became a reportable moment, one that the media could use to epitomize the down-to-earth tenacity of the then-presidential candidate. “What we had on the tarmac…was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naive’ to know the rules of the game, would describe it.”
And describe it she does. Her no-holds-barred exposé is rich in detail and plot. But the book—itself a political narrative—ends at description, failing to provide a true critique of the system by not offering a “solution.” Didion does this intentionally; her goal is to “teach” and to “nag,” not to provide easy answers but to incite critical thought among an apathetic populace. It has the feel of a whistleblower’s account; the reader almost feels ashamed, even voyeuristic, to be given this kind of “insider access” to the process.
Aside from its more descriptive than prescriptive quality, the book does not trace the issue back to its roots. Political Fictions relies heavily on the idea that an “inside” and an “outside” exists in the political realm. It does not seek to explain how that schism developed, except to observe that insiders gradually and invisibly co-opted the process through the media and corporate wealth.
For Didion, the story of the evolution of modern American politics has as much to do with storytelling and acting—she makes no small point out of the fact that Reagan was initially an actor—as with the idea of limiting, of cutting off. She describes the “Reagan Democrats,” now called swing voters, who “became the voters to whom all election appeals would be directed, a narrowing of focus with predictable results, not the least significant of which was that presidential elections would come to be conducted almost exclusively in code.” Didion hopes Political Fictions will begin to unlock, or at least to make readers aware of, this “code.”
One such code word is the term “faith-based,” applied frequently by “compassionate conservatives,” including our current president. It is “employed to suggest that certain worthy organizations have been prevented from receiving government funding solely by virtue of their religious affiliation”—even though only “pervasively sectarian” organizations are denied aid, not all “religiously affiliated” charities. Didion suggests that these terms are a smokescreen designed to hide from the American people a truth they “do not deserve” to handle.
Ultimately, Political Fictions’ generous content and readable style lives up to any expectations we have for Joan Didion. She paints a picture of a complex system with many facades—one that has morphed beyond the original vision of our founding fathers into a show designed, in part, to cover more sinister goings-on backstage, the nuances of which nobody can really be sure.
Last week the Harvard Crimson spoke with Joan Didion, one of the most respected and courageous contemporary female essayists. She first came to national prominence in 1968 with the publication of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a compilation of writings about the 1960s. Born in 1934 in Sacramento, Calif., Didion now writes novels, columns and essays from her home in New York City, where she lives with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. In her warm, witty and rich manner, she discussed her latest book, Political Fictions, the state of politics in America, the terrorist incident of Sept. 11 and the process of writing.
The Harvard Crimson: Political Fictions ends late in 2000, and that’s where I’d like to pick up.
Absent in your book was any mention of Ralph Nader and the Green Party, or other third party candidates. Would you say it’s impossible to build a successful movement like that or is it even desirable?