Political Fictions

Political Fictions

by Joan Didion

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In these coolly observant essays, Joan Didion looks at the American political process and at "that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life." Through the deconstruction of the sound bites and photo ops of three presidential campaigns, one presidential impeachment, and an unforgettable sex scandal, Didion reveals the mechanics


In these coolly observant essays, Joan Didion looks at the American political process and at "that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life." Through the deconstruction of the sound bites and photo ops of three presidential campaigns, one presidential impeachment, and an unforgettable sex scandal, Didion reveals the mechanics of American politics. She tells us the uncomfortable truth about the way we vote, the candidates we vote for, and the people who tell us to vote for them. These pieces build, one on the other, into a disturbing portrait of the American political landscape, providing essential reading on our democracy.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

What's wrong with politics today? Let acclaimed author Joan Didion count the ways. In these eight essays culled from the pages of The New York Review of Books, she takes a withering look at how the two major American political parties have managed to work their black magic over an unsuspecting electorate. Beginning her study with the election of Bush the Elder in 1988, she shows how and why things have progressively gotten worse over the ensuing dozen years, culminating in the 2000 election travesty.
Though hardly unpredictable, the title Political Fictions does not quite do justice to Joan Didion's biting new collection of essays. After all, for decades now, Didion has been warning us about the seductions of storytelling—about the way collective myths determine our fates and misshape our lives. No surprise, then, that when Didion turns to political subjects, she should find another example of the issue. The essays collected in this volume, all of which debuted in The New York Review of Books between 1988 and 2000, are the first of Didion's work to focus on the competitive arena of electoral politics. They track the path of the nation's political culture, from Michael Dukakis' humiliation at the hands of George Bush, through Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, through the soporific rhetoric and bitter struggles of the 2000 presidential campaign. In every scene, Didion discovers signs of a single, fundamental problem: "The political process ... [does] not reflect but increasingly ... [proceeds] from a series of fables about American experience." Democracy, as Didion sees it, is not a system of majority rule or an expression of voter choice; it is a cheap spectacle acted out by the craven officials and smug journalists of Washington's "political class."

The observation is not entirely new. Back in the 1920s, in his influential polemic Public Opinion, Walter Lippman first pointed out that the citizens of mass democracies were less political actors than the acted upon. They did not intelligently direct their public servants; they were the deluded creatures of media manipulation. Like many other subsequent critics, Didion echoes Lippman's argument and updatesit by showing how Lippman's case has become more persuasive with the dominance of television and the triumph of the focus group. But the lesson Didion draws from this situation—and the feature that lends her book its incandescent power—is the direct reverse of her predecessor's. Lippman claimed that the overwhelming complexity of modern society made ordinary voters credulous and inept; the nation's affairs would have to be directed, therefore, by a professional elite. Didion is outraged by that notion. That Lippman's predictions seem to have come to pass, that masses of citizens can't be bothered to vote—and that still larger numbers seem to feel insensibly numbed by politics-as-usual—inspires Didion to prophetic rage. "Half the nation's citizens," she thunders, have "only a vassal relationship to the government under which they [live]." The real subject of these pieces, in other words, appears in one of the book's two essays on the Clinton scandal: "disenfranchising America."

In truth, Didion's moral disquiet has always been part of the power of her writing. While her new-journalistic contemporaries were enthusing over the giddy variety of American life during the '60s and '70s, Didion's essays turned time and again to portents that matters were going awry. There were always hints of moral panic beneath the elegantly chiseled surface of her prose, a feeling that America seemed headed down some increasingly dark and uncontrollable paths. Now, turning from the nooks and crannies of ordinary life on which her essays once focused to cast her attention to Washington, Didion lets her fury out of the bag. The essays in Political Fictions grow increasingly angry as the book moves along. They begin, with the 1988 presidential campaign, in a tone of weary knowingness, as Didion laments the tranquilizing of political life beneath "the narcosis of the [media] event." By the time she reaches the Clinton scandal, they have turned into barely restrained rage.

The shocking title of Didion's essay on the media coverage of that event, "Vichy Washington," sums up the core of her thinking and some of the risks of the passion she brings to it. Throughout Political Fictions, Didion rides particularly hard on political journalists. They have compromised their special mission by falling beneath the spell of the Capitol, she argues, and her essays dissect their grandstanding with pitiless, and often breathtaking, intelligence. Yet convincing as her case may be, there is surely something wrong in the suggestion that the nation's mediacrats are not just self-serving or misguided but collaborators with an occupying power. Challenging one set of political fables, Didion threatens to replace them with a rather melodramatic narrative of her own.

Indeed, so forceful is Didion's polemic that it's easy to forget that a number of her assertions are dubious. That the nation's voters are longing for candidates who will care more about issues than "character," that citizens who don't vote have become "vassals" of a parasitic elite, that electoral politics are driven by "fictions" and have little to do with genuine conflicts of interest and belief—these are all questionable notions, and they bear the hallmarks of their own kind of fable. Such is the anger and beauty of Didion's work, though, that while one reads, it is hard not to nod one's head in assent.
—Sean McCann

Publishers Weekly
Eight essays by noted novelist and nonfiction writer Didion (The Last Thing He Wanted, etc.), many originally published either in whole or in part in the New York Review of Books, cover politics from 1988 through the 2000 election. At her best, Didion is provocative, persuasive and highly entertaining. She presents a fresh perspective on the oft-analyzed Reagan and Clinton presidencies, especially the Lewinsky scandal. As the title implies, her focus is how the press, think tanks, political strategists and opinion makers conspire to create stories that reflect their biases and serve their own self-interest. Didion's willingness to skewer nearly everyone is one of the pleasures of the book. The bestsellers of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, according to Didion, "are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent." Cokie Roberts, along with the rest of the Washington press corps, is depicted as a whining moralist aghast at the public's failure to grasp the message in the Clinton-Lewinsky story, which is, as Didion quotes Roberts, "that people who act immorally and lie get punished." Another pleasure is Didion's forthrightness. She tackles directly Vice President Gore's decision to run away from Clinton during the 2000 election. She is unafraid to closely examine the increase in religious rhetoric in American politics. On that topic, many Americans will find disturbing Didion's analysis of the relationship between President Bush's compassionate conservatism, faith-based initiatives and evangelical Christianity. This book will offend many Democrats, particularly of the Democratic Leadership Council persuasion, and many more Republicans, but it is members of the presswho fare most poorly. To Didion, they are purveyors of fables of their own making, or worse, fables conceived by political strategists with designs on votes, not news. (Sept. 18) ~ Forecast: Higher-brow readers who missed Didion's pieces in the New York Review of Books will grab this, with its first printing of 40,000. She will do publicity in N.Y., L.A., and D.C., and national media including NPR, Charlie Rose and C-Span. This is a selection of Reader's Subscription Book Club. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this collection of pieces reprinted from the New York Review of Books, Didion reveals her discovery that much of what goes on in American political life is gasp! inauthentic, designed for media propagation. Moreover, a small political and media elite dominates the political discussion, excluding working-class Americans (with whom Didion laughably identifies herself) from any meaningful role (those pesky elections notwithstanding). These grumpy, ephemeral essays, in turn trivial and tediously repetitious, contain single sentences that run nine lines and many others that are shorter but still opaque. Didion fans interested in her explanation of Newt Gingrich's personal unpopularity or her analysis of Ken Starr's obsession with Clinton can hunt up these exegeses in the old issues of the Review. For Didion fans only; not recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/01.] Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Blindingly brilliant-and sometimes just blind-pieces covering a dozen years (1988-2000) of American politics, all originally published in The New York Review of Books. Primarily, these essays reflect the always-scintillating Didion's preoccupation with "the process," or "the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained." Participants in the process-candidates, political consultants, activists, and commentators-form an echo chamber of conventional wisdom. Unlike other observers, Didion holds no interest in dissecting issues, reporting behind the scenes, or sending up electoral bad taste with Menckenesque glee. Instead, as a novelist and screenwriter, she is fascinated by the "narrative" that political insiders create to explain and often distort events. This fixation simultaneously sharpens and narrows her frame of reference. Her essay "The West Wing of Oz" vibrates with cynical amusement over how the Reagan and Bush I administrations used sleight-of-hand to distract attention from foreign-policy disasters such as Iran-contra. Democrats, she charges, have abandoned their traditional low-income base in an attempt to corral a shrinking electoral center. Often, she files her subjects with astonishing thoroughness. Thus, Newt Gingrich emerges as a captive of management and motivational mantras; Bill Clinton as the son of a traveling salesman who understands "how the deal gets done"; and Bob Woodward as an author of bestsellers "in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent." Yet Didion explains nothing about the massive demographic and social changes underlying the two parties' frantic scramble for the middle; and she sometimes uses high-concepttitles that distort as much as the "narratives" she decries (e.g., "Political Pornography" for Woodward's books, or "Vichy Washington" for the Capitol elite's disgust with Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal). Didion's vision is like a searchlight that throws light into dark corners while leaving other areas inexplicably unilluminated. First printing of 40,000; Reader's Subscription Book Club selection
From the Publisher
“One of our most cherished and insightful explicators of American culture...brings her perspective to the ultimate insider world.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Splendid . . . Didion [is] on pure zen target . . . [with] her sonar ear, her radar eye, and her ice pick/laser beam/night—scope sniper prose.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A steel spine of political argument . . . a mordant wit, refined critical powers, and a bone-deep knowledge of the ways in which Americans like to amuse and fool themselves.” –The Washington Post Book World

“One of the most preeminent voices of journalism has stepped into the ring. . . . [A] gift.” –Susan Faludi, The New York Observer

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Read an Excerpt

Political Fictions

A Foreword

Early in 1988, Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books asked me if I would do some pieces or a piece about the presidential campaign just then getting underway in New Hampshire. He would arrange credentials. All I had to do was show up, see what there was to see, and write something. I was flattered (a presidential election was a "serious" story, and no one had before solicited my opinions on one), and yet I kept putting off the only essential moment, which was showing up, giving the thing the required focus. In January and February I was selling a house in California, an easy excuse. In March and April I was buying an apartment in New York, another easy excuse. I had packing to do, then unpacking, painting to arrange, many household negotiations and renegotiations. Clippings and books and campaign schedules kept arriving, and I would stack them on shelves unread. I kept getting new deadlines from The New York Review, but there remained about domestic politics something resistant, recondite, some occult irreconcilability that kept all news of it just below my attention level. The events of the campaign as reported seemed to have taken place in a language I did not recognize. The stakes of the election as presented seemed not to compute. At the very point when I had in my mind successfully abandoned this project to which I could clearly bring no access, no knowledge, no understanding, I got another, more urgent call from The New York Review. The California primary was only days away. The Democratic and Republican national conventions were only weeks away. The office could put me on a campaign charter the next day, Jesse Jackson was flying out of Newark to California, the office could connect me in Los Angeles with the other campaigns. It so happened that my husband was leaving that day to do some research in Ireland. It so happened that our daughter was leaving that day to spend the summer in Guatemala and Nicaragua. There seemed, finally, no real excuse for me not to watch the California primary (and even to vote in it, since I was still registered in Los Angeles County), and so I went to Newark, and got on the plane. From the notes I typed at three the next morning in a room at the Hyatt Wilshire in Los Angeles, after a rally in South Central and a fundraiser at the Hollywood Palace and a meet-and-greet at the housing project where the candidate was to spend what remained of the night ("Would you call this Watts," the reporters kept saying, and "Who knows about guns? Who makes an AK?"), my introduction to American politics:

I was told the campaign would be leaving Newark at 11:30 and to be at the Butler Aviation terminal no later than 10:30. Delmarie Cobb was to be the contact. At Butler Aviation the man on the gate knew nothing about the Jackson campaign but agreed to make a phone call, and was told to send me to Hangar 14. Hangar 14, a United hangar, was locked up except for a corrugated fire door open about two feet off the ground. Some men who approached knew nothing about any Jackson plane, they were "just telephone," but they limboed under the fire door and I followed them.

The empty hangar. I walked around Malcolm Forbes's green 727, "Capitalist Tool," looked around the tarmac, and found no one. Finally a mechanic walked through and told me to try the office upstairs. I did. The metal door to the stairs was locked. I ran after the mechanic. He said he would pick the lock for me, and did. Upstairs, I found someone who told me to go to "Post J."

At "Post J," an unmarked gate to the tarmac, I found a van open in back and four young men waiting. They said they were Jackson campaign, they were waiting for the Secret Service and then the traveling campaign. I sat down on my bag and asked them to point out Delmarie Cobb when she came. Delmarie, one of them said, was already in California, but he was Delmarie's nephew, Stephen Gaines.

"Who's she," the Secret Service agents kept saying after they arrived. "She hasn't been cleared by the campaign, what's she doing here." "All I know is, she's got the right names in Chicago," Stephen Gaines kept saying. In any case the agents were absorbed in sweeping the bags. Finally one said he might as well sweep mine. Once he had done this he seemed confused. It seemed he had no place to put me. I wasn't supposed to be on the tarmac with the swept bags, but I wasn't supposed to be on the plane either. "Look," he said finally. "Just wait on the plane."

I waited, alone on the plane. Periodically an agent appeared and said, "You aren't supposed to be here, see, if there were someplace else to put you we'd put you there." The pilot appeared from the cockpit. "Give me a guesstimate how many people are flying," he said to me. I said I had no idea. "Fifty-five?" the pilot said. I shrugged. "Let's say fifty-five," the pilot said, "and get the fuel guys off the hook." None of this seemed promising.

The piece I finally did on the 1988 campaign, "Insider Baseball," was the first of a number of pieces I eventually did about various aspects of American politics, most of which had to do, I came to realize, with the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience. As the pieces began to accumulate, I was asked with somewhat puzzling frequency about my own politics, what they "were," or "where they came from," as if they were eccentric, opaque, somehow unreadable. They are not. They are the logical product of a childhood largely spent among conservative California Republicans (this was before the meaning of "conservative" changed) in a postwar boom economy. The people with whom I grew up were interested in low taxes, a balanced budget, and a limited government. They believed above all that a limited government had no business tinkering with the private or cultural life of its citizens. In 1964, in accord with these interests and beliefs, I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. 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 (and perhaps in my generation still the only member) to do so. That this did not involve taking a markedly different view on any issue was a novel discovery, and one that led me to view "America's two-party system" with--and this was my real introduction to American politics--a somewhat doubtful eye.

At a point quite soon during the dozen-some years that followed getting on that charter at Newark, it came to my attention that there was to writing about politics a certain Sisyphean aspect. Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill. The romance of New Hampshire would again be with us. The crucible event in the candidate's "character" would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that had become our national River Lethe. It was clear for example 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 the 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. All of this was known. Yet by the time of the November 2000 presidential election and the onset of the thirty-six days that came to be known as "Florida," every aspect of what had been known in 1988 would again need to be rediscovered, the stone pushed up the hill one more time.

Perhaps the most persistent of the fables from which the political process proceeds has to do with the "choice" it affords the nation's citizens, who are seen to remain unappreciative. On the Saturday morning before the November 2000 presidential election, The Washington Post ran on its front page a piece by Richard Morin and Claudia Deane headlined "As Turnout Falls, Apathy Emerges As Driving Force." The thrust of this piece, which was based on polls of voter and nonvoter attitudes conducted both by the Post and by the Joan Shorenstein Center's "Vanishing Voter Project" at Harvard, was reinforced by a takeout about a Missouri citizen named Mike McClusky, a thirty-seven-year-old Army veteran who, despite "the 21-foot flagpole with the Stars and Stripes in the middle of the front yard," had never voted and did not now intend to vote. His wife, Danielle McClusky, did vote, and the Post noted the readiness with which she discussed "her take on Social Security, and health care, and health maintenance organizations, and what she heard on Larry King, and what she heard on Chris Matthews, and what George W. Bush would do, and what Al Gore would do." Meanwhile, the Post added, making it fairly clear which McClusky merited the approval of its Washington readers, "Mike McClusky pets the dogs and half-listens because he doesn't really have to sift through any of this." Accompanying the main story were graphs, purporting to show why Americans did not vote, and the Post's analysis of its own graphs was this: "Apathy is the single biggest reason why an estimated 100 million Americans will not vote on Tuesday."

The graphs themselves, however, told a somewhat more complicated story: only thirty-five percent of nonvoters, or about seventeen percent of all adult Americans, fell into the "apathetic" category, which, according to a director of the Shorenstein study, included those who "have no sense of civic duty," "aren't interested in politics," and "have no commitment in keeping up with public affairs." Another fourteen percent of nonvoters were classified as "disconnected," a group including both those "who can't get to the polls because of advanced age or disability" and those "who recently changed addresses and are not yet registered"--in other words, people functionally unable to vote. The remaining fifty-one percent of these nonvoters, meaning roughly a quarter of all adult Americans, were classified as either "alienated" ("the angry men and women of U.S. politics . . . so disgusted with politicians and the political process that they've opted out") or "disenchanted" ("these nonvoters aren't so much repelled by politics as they are by the way politics is practiced"), in either case pretty much the polar opposite of "apathetic." According to the graphs, more than seventy percent of all nonvoters were in fact registered, a figure that cast some ambiguity on the degree of "apathy" even among the thirty-five percent categorized as "apathetic."

Study of the actual Shorenstein results clouded the Post's "apathy" assessment still further. According to the Shorenstein Center's release dated the same Saturday as the Post story, its polling had shown that the attitudes toward politicians and the political process held by those who intended to vote differed--up to an interesting point--only narrowly from the attitudes held by those who did not intend to vote. Eighty-nine percent of nonvoters and seventy-six percent of voters agreed with the statement "most political candidates will say almost anything in order to get themselves elected." Seventy-eight percent of nonvoters and seventy percent of voters agreed with the statement "candidates are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation's problems." Almost seventy percent of nonvoters and voters alike agreed with the statement "campaigns seem more like theater or entertainment than something to be taken seriously." The interesting point at which the attitudes of voters and nonvoters did diverge was that revealed by questioning about specific policies. Voters, for example, tended to believe that the federal budget surplus should go to a tax cut. Nonvoters, who on the whole had less education and lower income, more often said that the surplus should be spent on health, welfare, and education. "Nonvoters have different needs," is the way the Post summarized this. "But why should politicians listen?"

This notion of voting as a consumer transaction (the voter "pays" with his or her vote to obtain the ear of his or her professional politician, or his or her "leader," or by logical extension his or her "superior") might seem a spiritless social contract, although not--if it actually delivered on the deal--an intrinsically unworkable one. But of course the contract does not deliver: only sentimentally does "the vote" give "the voter" an empathetic listener in the political class, let alone any leverage on the workings of that class. When the chairman of Michael Dukakis's 1988 New York Finance Council stood barefoot on a table at the Atlanta Hyatt during that summer's Democratic convention (see page 00) and said "I've been around this process a while and one thing I've noticed, it's the people who write the checks who get treated as if they have a certain amount of power," she had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. When the only prominent Democrat on the west side of Los Angeles to raise money in 1988 for Jesse Jackson (see page 00) said "When I want something, I'll have a hard time getting people to pick up the phone, I recognize that, I made the choice," he had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work.

When the same Democrat, Stanley Sheinbaum, said, in 1992 (see page 00), "I mean it's no longer a thousand dollars, to get into the act now you've got to give a hundred thousand," he had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. When Jerry Brown, who after eight years as governor of California had become the state party chairman who significantly raised the bar for Democratic fundraising in California, said at the 1992 Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden (see page 00) that the time had arrived to listen to "the people who pay the bills and fight the wars but never come to our receptions," he had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. When one of George W. Bush's lawyers told The Los Angeles Times in December 2000 that "if you were in this game, you had to be in Florida," he too had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. "Almost every lobbyist, political organizer, consulting group with ties to the Republicans was represented," a Republican official was quoted by Robert B. Reich, writing on the op-ed page of The New York Times, as having said to the same point. "If you ever were or wanted to be a Republican, you were down there."

Meet the Author

Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
December 5, 1934
Place of Birth:
Sacramento, California
B.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1956

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