It’s the ultimate lie, a myth fully entrenched in our way of thinking—the idea that our democracy represents its citizens.
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?
Joan Didion: I think it is desirable. Basically with a third party we might have a chance at a two-party system again. I don’t think Nader ran a particularly strong campaign. There’s a tendency for both parties, for everybody in the process, to treat a third party candidate as a spoiler. And as long as that mentality is with us, the third party candidate doesn’t really get a fair hearing.
THC: What would you say the election, or the selection, or whatever term could be applied to the election of Bush in Florida—tells us about the state of the political process?
JD: As I said in the introduction to Political Fictions, it was a kind of high coup in the process, reducing the electorate to a few hundred voters and then fighting over them for 35 days. It was a perfect thing from the parties’ point of view; they had achieved parity. I don’t think it had anything to do with the democratic process or with anything in our politics that came before. I thought it was very peculiar, and I thought it was unfortunate that the Supreme Court decided to hear it.
THC: What about Bush himself as a political character, as an “actor”? People deride the way he talks. Others say it makes him more of an authentic man of the people, a common man.
JD: I think he’s still very unclear. In a sense, the way he talks has become a smokescreen for any serious discussion of what he does. I mean, we’re talking about how he talks. We’re not talking about what he does.
THC: You live in New York City. Have you seen Ground Zero since Sept. 11? Could you describe it from the eyes of a writer?
JD: I don’t have a police pass, so I haven’t been inside the site. I’ve been down, several times, to the nearest barricade, which is about a block away. It’s such a big site. I can hardly stay away from it. It’s in my mind all the time. It draws you toward it. It has almost the impact of a great cathedral. I don’t know anyone who has seen it who hasn’t been filled with a terrible awe. My brother and his wife were here from California over the weekend, and they went down to look at it, and then they went down to look at it again, without having intended to. It just kind of presented itself as something that they had to do.
THC: What do you make of that kind of magnetism?
JD: Well, I think a lot of us are still in shock, attempting to come to terms with it. I don’t know what we’re in shock at. It’s not exactly at the amount of the destruction. Other things have been destroyed through our lifetime; a higher number of people have died in a lot of combat situations. This, you can’t quite come to terms with it, you can’t quite grapple with it. It’s a really direct challenge to our idea of—as many people have said—to our idea of modernity, to our idea of progress, to our idea of secular democracy. Someone said, “You can’t have that, we can take that away.” That is what everyone is trying to come to terms with.
THC: What about the political aftermath of the event? The media has presented the idea of the “reinvention” of George Bush in his “finest hour.” Does this relate to Political Fictions’ idea that politics has become a “show”?
JD: There was this reinvention of Bush as a leader, which was entirely required by the narrative of the moment. He’s a very mysterious figure to me—he operates a lot of the time behind the screen of everyone around him. The extent to which he’s operating at all we have no idea. I have the sense that he’s operating less than meets the eye. [Laughs.] But we don’t know. It will be an interesting period to deconstruct.
THC: What do you think about the way the media has been portraying the air strikes of the last few days? When Bush gave his speech before Congress a few weeks ago he actually specified in the speech that we might have “dramatic strikes, visible on television.” There was this idea of a war “made for TV” in his speech.
JD: There were these kind of delphic utterances, about “some of it you will see, some of it you won’t see.” [Laughs.] This is the part we were meant to see. There was even the talk of sending in the Delta Force; the Delta Force has not been fantastic but we keep seeing these videos of it. We haven’t actually heard about too many successes in a lot of years. There is that video aspect to what we’re seeing. On the other hand, some response had to be made. Clearly, time was running out in terms of domestic politics to make a response, and so we made it. Where it will take us is hard to know.
THC: What would you say about the American people’s ability to forget? Right after the election people were talking about the lack of legitimacy Bush had; right now he has a 90 percent approval rating.
JD: I was talking a couple years ago about this ahistorical quality to Christopher Dickey, the Newsweek bureau chief in Paris, and he said that the absence of memory—the refusal to recognize history—has been America’s genius. And it has. There is a sense in which the whole idea of America is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the past.
THC: What about the recent upsurge in a kind of patriotism?
JD: In the immediate aftermath of the attack, most people—I’m not talking about people on television—most people couldn’t find words for it. There was a surge of actual patriotism, by which I mean a sort of a visceral love of the place, the home, the family. But then that got overtaken by jingoism. I had to go to the West Coast a week after the attacks so I was gone for a week, and when I came back to my astonishment New York was full of flags. It happened during the second week. I mean, I couldn’t believe it, they were all over, every place you looked there was a flag. It was kind of troubling because it seemed to be something that people felt they had to do.
THC: Stepping back into more abstract terms, your book feels very descriptive but not terribly prescriptive. So what do you think has caused this transformation in our political process? Who are the behind-the-scenes players?
JD: Everyone inside the process has benefited. And that’s a larger and larger group of people. It’s not just politicians. It’s all the people for whom politics is their business. It’s people you see all day long now on the talk shows. Because of cable, there is no hour of the day when you can’t watch somebody within the political class arguing with somebody else within the political class. These are people who don’t have a very deep commitment to the rest of the country; in fact, they have none. You saw that most markedly during the year that led up to the impeachment; essentially the political class turned against the people and excoriated them at every opportunity for not going along with the notion that Clinton had to go. The American people were said to be interested in nothing but the Dow Jones, which was saying they were selfish, they were stupid, they were irresponsible. You saw the idea of secular democracy itself put up for grabs that year, which was pretty startling.
THC: Is there something that can be done to bring the process back into the hands of the people?
JD: I don’t know. It seems to me that my role only extends as far as trying to tell the story in some straight way. I’ve never been good at answers. [Laughs.]
THC: What similarities and differences do you see between writing fiction and nonfiction, and how do the two connect?
JD: There’s almost no connection. The only connection is that you become as absorbed in one as the other once you start working. But the whole process is totally different. With nonfiction, you start with a big block of research, both reported and from reading. You chip away at it, you shape it, but you’ve always got that in front, this objective reality that you’re going to shape. It’s a sculpting process. With a novel, you get up in the morning and there is nothing there. You have to convince yourself every single morning that this is worth doing, and then you have to spend the rest of the day thinking about what it is you’re doing. I’ve never written a novel during which I wasn’t filled with some kind of dread for most of the time I was working on it. That isn’t true of nonfiction.
THC: You used the term sculpting and I’m kind of curious about the actual process of the craft. How have computers changed your writing, if at all? How do you write?
JD: I started using a computer in 1987. It changed my mind; I’m far more logical. I learned on old-fashioned DOS. There was something so logical about DOS. You couldn’t beat it. If something went wrong, it was because you had done something wrong—a novel idea to me. DOS did for me what geometry was supposed to have done but didn’t. Writing takes me a long time. If I get a page or two a day done, I’m working really well.
by Joan Didion
338 pp., $25