“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
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.
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.
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.
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