The Books: Political Fictions, ‘Political Pornography’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another book of essays by Joan Didion, called Political Fictions.

Joan Didion is not known for her humor. I am currently reading Arguably, a collection of Christopher Hitchens’ essays, and his prose often makes me laugh out loud. The humor comes from his daunting facility with language, certainly, and there are certain turns of phrase that make me laugh, in and of themselves. (His book review of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop not only made me laugh out loud but made me finally read the book, and, FINALLY, discover Evelyn Waugh. So thanks, Hitch!) His humor doesn’t only come from his mean-ness, although he can be very very funny when he is destroying someone else in print. Critical writing often brings out the best in people (the reviews of Battlefield Earth, for example, are some of the funniest ever recorded), and here, in Joan Didion’s review of not only Bob Woodward’s book The Choice, but of Bob Woodward himself, she has her knives out, and because she is a meticulous writer (she agonizes over every phrase), you know that she thought long and hard about what to say about Woodward, how to best describe him, and how to cut him down to size. It is her meticulous quality that sometimes over-rides all other impressions of her work, but here she is actually funny. (Her essay ‘Bureaucrats‘ is, perhaps, the only openly funny thing she has ever written.)

Bob Woodward’s book The Choice: How Bill Clinton Won came out in June, 1996, and Didion’s essay was published in The New York Review of Books in September. The essay is not strictly a book review. It is a deconstruction of Woodward himself, and, devastatingly, she uses his words – over and over and over and over again – to make the points she wants to make. You get the sense that Woodward almost made it too easy for her. It is his methodology she wants to criticize, but, on a deeper level, the fact that he seems to resist drawing conclusions from his methodology that she takes issue with. She calls his work “political pornography” and a more brutal assessment of Woodward you probably won’t find.

I’ve only read All the President’s Men, The Final Days and Wired. I read All the President’s Men at age 12, because (get this) I had seen the movie and wanted to learn more about it. I actually remember Nixon on television when I was a baby, I had to be 4 or 5, and I remember telling my parents, “He looks mean.” He seemed sweaty and freaked out, and it emanated off our tiny black and white TV screen. Although Watergate was recent history, and in my lifetime, I still didn’t “know” about it. Why would I? I was a child. So I devoured All the President’s Men while I was in middle school, and I had been prepped for it by the movie. I remember the book lying on my desk in my Civics class (do they still teach Civics?) and my teacher, strolling around during a quiz when the class was silently working, stopped by my desk, and picked up the book. (My sister teaches middle school. I can imagine how amazed she would be if she saw that one of her students was not devouring The Hunger Games or Harry Potter but All the President’s Men.) My teacher actually interrupted me working on my quiz, and said, “You’re reading this?” I said, “Yes, I saw the movie. The book is really good.” He said, “It’s really good.” And over the next couple of weeks, when I would come to class, still holding the book, my teacher would ask me what was happening in the book, what part I had gotten to. He took an interest in me. Again, I was 12 years old, pudgy, unhappy, and – let’s just come out with it – a cutter! Those were not my finest days, but I remember very well his intellectual interest in me and how he took me seriously. And how (probably) impressed he was with my curiosity.

Didion is not impressed with Woodward. She goes into why, at great length. For example:

Mr. Woodward’s aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play. Yet what we see in The Choice is something more than a matter of an occasional inconsistency left unexplored in the rush of the breaking story, a stray ball or two left unfielded in the heat of the opportunity, as Mr. Woodward describes his role, “to sit with many of the candidates and key players and ask about the questions of the day as the campaign unfolded”. What seems most remarkable in this Woodward book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders’ inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.

That’s what I mean by funny. It’s mean funny, but funny nonetheless. I don’t necessarily agree with her conclusions, but I still admire the thought she has put into it. As I said a couple of days ago, if someone is a good writer, then it is always worth while to try to see what they are getting at, to try to understand. Bad writers you can ignore, because bad writing often is a signal to bad thought, limited thought, or no thought.

And Didion makes a very strong case, and points out Woodward’s tendency to over-state his methodology (something I have noticed in the books of his I have read which, granted, are not many). He is proud of his methodology and how meticulous it is. Didion dismantles him for it. She makes the point that Woodward is so proud of his objectivity that he actually often misses the forest for the trees (although she says it better than I just did), and he does not distinguish between the important and the unimportant. Both get equal weight, because only then will HE come off looking “objective”. I think that’s a fair criticism.

Here’s an excerpt.

Political Fictions, ‘Political Pornography’, by Joan Didion

For Wired, his 1984 book about the life and death of the comic John Belushi, Mr. Woodward spoke to 217 people on the record and obtained access to “appointment calendars, diaries, telephone records, credit card receipts, medical records, handwritten notes, letters, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, stacks of accountants’ records covering the last several years of Belushi’s life, daily movie production reports, contracts, hotel records, travel records, taxi receipts, limousine bills and Belushi’s monthly cash disbursement records”, only to arrive, not unlike HAL in 2001, at these questions: “Why? What happened? Who was responsible, if anyone? Could it have been different or better? Those were the questions raised by his family, friends and associates. Could success have been something other than a failure? The questions persist. Nonetheless, his best and most definitive legacy is his work. He made us laugh, and now he can make us think.”

In any real sense, these books are “about” nothing but the author’s own method, which is not, on the face of it, markedly different from other people’s. Mr. Woodward interviews people, he tapes or takes notes (“detailed” notes) on what they say. He takes “great care to compare and verify various sources’ accounts of the same events”. He obtains documents, he reads them, he files them: for The Brethren, the book he wrote with Scott Armstrong about the Supreme Court, the documents filled “eight file drawers”. He consults The Almanac of American Politics (“the bible, and I relied on it”) , he reads what others have written on the subject. “In preparation for my own reporting,” he tells us about The Choice, “I and my assistant, Karen Alexander, read and often studied hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.”

Should the information he requires necessitate travel, he goes the extra mile: “I traveled from coast to coast many times, visiting everyone possible and everywhere possible,” he tells us about the research for Wired. Since John Belushi worked in the motion-picture industry and died at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, these coast-to-coast trips might have seemed to represent the minimum in dogged fact-gathering, but never mind: the author had even then, in 1984, transcended method and entered the heady ether of methodology, a discipline in which the reason for writing a book could be the sheer fact of being there. “I would like to know more and Newsweek magazine was saying that maybe that is the thing I should look at next,” he allowed when a caller on Larry King Live asked if he might not want to write about Whitewater. “I don’t know. I do not know about Whitewater and what it really means. I am waiting – if I can say this – for the call from somebody on the inside saying ‘I want to talk’.”

Here is where we reach the single unique element in the method, and also the problem. As any prosecutor and surely Mr. Woodward knows, the person on the inside who calls and says “I want to talk” is an informant, or snitch, and is generally looking to bargain a deal, to improve his or her own situation, to place the blame on someone else in return for being allowed to plead down or out certain charges. Because the story told by a criminal or civil informant is understood to be colored by self-interest, the informant knows that his or her testimony will be unrespected, even reviled, subjected to rigorous examination and often rejection. The informant who talks to Mr. Woodward, on the other hand, knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story, which is why so many people on the inside, notably those who consider themselves the professionals or managers of the process – assistant secretaries, deputy advisers, players of the game, aides who intend to survive past the tenure of the patron they are prepared to portray as hapless – do want to talk to him. Many Dole campaign aides did want to talk, for The Choice, about the herculean efforts and adroit strategy required to keep the candidate with whom they were saddled even marginally on message, on the program:

Dole offered a number of additional references to the past, how it had been done before, and Reed [Dole campaign manager Scott Reed] countered with his own ideas about how he would handle similar situations. A sense of diffusion and randomness wouldn’t work. Making seat-of-the-pants airborne decisions was not the way he operated . . . Dole needed a coherent and understandable message on which to run, Reed said. Deep down, he added, he knew Dole knew what he wanted to say, but he probably needed some help putting it together and delivering it … Reed felt he had hit the right weaknesses.

Similarly, many Clinton foreign policy advisers did want to talk, again for The Choice, about the equally herculean efforts and strategy required to guide the president, on the question of Bosnia, from one of his “celebrated rages” (“I’m getting creamed!” Clinton, “unleashing his frustration” and “spewing forth profanity”, is reported to have said on being told of the fall of Srebrenica) to a more nuanced appreciation of the policy options on which his aides – Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, say, and National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake – had been laboring unappreciated. “Berger reminded him,” Woodward tells us, “that Lake was trying to develop an Endgame Strategy.” At a meeting a few days later in the Oval Office, when Vice President Gore mentioned a photograph in The Washington Post of a refugee from Srebrenica who had hanged himself from a tree, the adroit guidance continued:

“My 21-year-old daughter asked about that picture,” Gore said. “What am I supposed to tell her? Why is this happening and we’re not doing anything?”

It was a chilling moment. The vice president was directly confronting and criticizing the president. Gore believed he understood his role. He couldn’t push the president too far, but they had built a good relationship and he felt he had to play his card when he felt strongly. He couldn’t know precisely wh at going too far meant unless he occasionally did it.

“My daughter is surprised the world is allowing this to happen,” Gore said carefully. “I am too.”

Clinton said they were going to do something.

This is a cartoon, but not a cartoon in which anyone who spoke to the author will appear to have taken any but the highest ground. Asked, in the same appearance on Larry King Live, why he thought people talked to him, Woodward responded:

Only because I get good information and I talk to people at the middle level, lower level, try to talk to the people at the top. They know that I am going to reflect their point of view. One of my earlier books, somebody called me who was in it and said, “How am I going to come out?” and I said “Well, essentially, I write self portraits.” … They really are self-portraits, because I go to people and I double-check them but – but who are you? What are you doing? Where do you fit in? What did you say? What did you do?

Those who talk to Mr. Woodward, in other words, can be confident that he will be civil (“I too was growing tired, and it seemed time to stand up and thank him”), that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight (that of Richard Darman, say, who in 1992 presented himself to Mr. Woodward, who in turn presented himself to America, as the helpless Cassandra of the 1990 Bush budget deal); that he will be, above all, and herein can be found both Mr. Woodward’s compass and the means by which he is set adrift, “fair”.

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One Response to The Books: Political Fictions, ‘Political Pornography’, by Joan Didion

  1. sheila says:

    To those of you out there who have read more of Woodward’s stuff than I have, would love to hear your thoughts.

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