The Books: After Henry, ‘In the Realm of the Fisher King’, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is After Henry, by Joan Didion.

After Henry is a 1992 collection of essays by Joan Didion. It is broken up into three sections: Washington, California, New York. This collection is not as well-known as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, but it is superb. It’s more explicitly political than her other collections. She travels around with the Dukakis campaign, for example – and pretty much decimates the entire political process. She sees it as theatre. The creation of a Narrative. (Of course. This is Joan Didion we’re talking about. The woman who wrote, famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”) I can’t get enough of her political writing. While she clearly is on the Left side of the fence, her ideology is not set in stone. It can’t be. She’s too much a clear-eyed observer. She can’t help but SEE. She does not protect her “side”, and for that, I will always love her. When I used to write about politics, and I had a lot of conservative readers, if I made one tiny comment criticizing that “side”, like clockwork, they would all come screaming out of the wings shouting at me how I got it all wrong. Pardon me, but I think your bias is showing. They sounded insane to me and their defense always had about it a kneejerk quality that I found suspicious. I have my own convictions. But I am not attached to one side (pity me: no really, pity me – I am a political orphan, which means for my own good I try to stay under cover these days). It’s actually cute how people assume they must know my politics because I’m a woman, I’m an artist, I live on the East Coast. And I’m talking about both sides now – both sides assume. They have no idea what they are dealing with. Those who are ideologically fervent are suspicious of people like me. I’m certainly suspicious of them. I do not trust those who blindly support their side. So to a real partisan, Joan Didion’s essays will probably be unsettling. It’s kind of like the poor silly Christians who anxiously wonder if “so and so is a Christian”, because only then will they know what to think of them. They evaluate people favorably or unfavorably based on whether or not they are on the same side – and this, THIS, I hold in contempt. I’m a humanist, I guess. Joan Didion isn’t a humanist so much as she is a ruthless observer. I can imagine those on the campaign trail with Dukakis, or Bush, or whoever, reading her pieces and feeling uneasy, like, “I can’t tell if she’s for us or against??” She’s also a Baby Boomer without the self-congratulatory stance that so many Boomers have about their generation. In some senses, Joan Didion is a classical conservative. She reveres the things of the past, history, language, ideas, and she does her best to uphold them, by questioning what is happening right before her eyes. Her essays on the 60s protests and the social revolution are devastating. Didion couldn’t be a joiner if she tried.

One of the essays in the Washington section is called ‘In the Realm of the Fisher King’ and it is about Nancy Reagan. Didion had closely followed the Reagans for a long time, as a native Californian. She was obsessed with the Governor’s mansion (she wrote a great piece about how the Reagans redecorated it and what that said about them), and then of course watched as they moved to Washington. This essay is really about theatre, which is a propos seeing as the Reagans both were actors, and came out of the Hollywood studio system. So many writers on the Left used the Hollywood connection as a weapon: “These people don’t have any convictions – they’re ACTORS – they’re used to faking EVERYTHING – tee hee.” That was never an interesting analysis to me. First of all, because I find actors to be the most truthful people on the planet. They are interested in truth in a way that could be called evangelical. Put a camera 2 inches from your face, and phoniness is revealed. It’s amazing how that works. Actors learn to be truthful on command. So I never was taken with the idiotic analysis of the Reagan critics. A politician obviously, these days, must be camera-ready, personable, and have charisma. Same as a movie star. That’s the game, Jack. So as to the Reagan’s foibles and flaws (Nancy’s especially), Didion doesn’t careen in to destroy them because she is protecting her side. Nope. That’s too boring, too cliched. She is interested in how Nancy Reagan became First Lady, and how her background as a contract player in sunny Hollywood helped form her. A writer more intent on protecting the Left side of the fence wouldn’t even allow her brain to go in that direction, don’t you see? Because the Right is evil and it must be destroyed, so to examine closely why Nancy Reagan is the way she is, to ask questions about what it was that formed her, to not come from the stance of “The Reagans are Satanic, and nothing about them interests me except getting them out of the White House” is one of the things that makes Didion an unbalancing political writer. She’ll certainly make nobody happy, because political partisans don’t want to think. They don’t want to consider the “whys” of the other side. They dehumanize the other side. I mean, we can see it happening right now before our eyes. It disgusts me. I certainly couldn’t keep a cool enough head as Didion does, but in times of strife I do go to her political essays. I find them fascinating. Illuminating.

She helps me to see, and that is the highest compliment I can give a writer.

Didion uses Nancy Reagan’s book My Turn and Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw at the Revolution as the launching-off point for her essay on the Reagans (more specifically, Nancy Reagan). In her own quiet way, she decimates Noonan’s analysis. She sees deeper, she thinks deeper. Also, she understands California better and you can’t understand the Reagans without understanding California and Hollywood. Like Joan Didion does. Peggy Noonan can clearly be a fine writer (she who is responsible for not only one of the best speeches Reagan ever gave, but one of the best speeches of the 20th century. At least in my Top 10!) but Noonan is a partisan and so her writing suffers because of that. Her writing suffers because fierce partisanship actually limits thought. I mean, she wrote that on the day Reagan was buried, the sun burst out during the cemetery service, and a pretty little butterfly landed on her head, and there was a rainbow, too, and OMG, it was amazing, and proof positive that Reagan was touched by the gods!!! Peggy, stop it. You’re a good writer but you sound like a nutball when you write like that. Write about the pretty rainbows in your diary, and spare yourself the embarrassment. What Peggy Noonan missed in her book about her time in the Reagan White House, according to Didion, was the California/Hollywood thing and how that background formed these people.

After Henry, ‘In the Realm of the Fisher King’, by Joan Didion

“So began my stewardship,” Edith Bolling Wilson wrote later about the stroke that paralyzed Woodrow Wilson in October of 1919, eighteen months before he left the White House. The stewardship Nancy Reagan shared first with James Baker and Ed Meese and Michael Deaver and then less easily with Donald Regan was, perhaps because each of its principals was working a different scenario and only one, James Baker, had anything approaching a full script, considerably more Byzantine than most. Baker, whose ultimate role in this White House was to preserve it for the established order, seems to have relied heavily on the tendency of opposing forces, let loose, to neutralize each other. “Usually in a big place there’s only one person or group to be afraid of,” Peggy Noonan observed. “But in the Reagan White House there were two, the chief of staff and his people and the First Lady and hers – a pincer formation that made everyone feel vulnerable.” Miss Noonan showed us Mrs. Reagan moving through the corridors with her East Wing entourage , the members of which were said in the West Wing to be “not serious”, readers of W and Vogue. Mrs. Reagan herself was variously referred to as “Evita”, “Mommy”, “The Missus,” “The Hairdo with Anxiety”. Miss Noonan dismissed her as not “a liberal or a leftist or a moderate or a détentist” but “a Galanoist, a wealthy well-dressed woman who followed the common wisdom of her class.”

In fact Nancy Reagan was more interesting than that: it was precisely “her class” in which she had trouble believing. She was not an experienced woman. Her social skills, like those of many women trained in the insular life of the motion picture community, were strikingly undeveloped. She and Raisa Gorbachev had “little in common”, and “completely different outlooks on the world”. She and Betty Ford “were different people who came from different worlds”. She seems to have been comfortable in the company of Michael Deaver, of Ted Graber (her decorator), and of only a few other people. She seems not to have had much sense about who goes with who. At a state dinner for Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, she seated herself between President Duarte and Ralph Lauren. She had limited social experience and apparently unlimited social anxiety. Helene von Damm complained that Mrs. Reagan would not consent, during the first presidential campaign, to letting the fund-raisers call on “her New York friends”; trying to put together a list for the New York dinner in November of 1979 at which Ronald Reagan was to announce his candidacy, Miss von Damm finally dispatched an emissary to extract a few names from Jerry Zipkin, who parted with them reluctantly, and then said, “Remember, don’t use my name.”

Perhaps Mrs. Reagan’s most endearing quality was this little girl’s fear of being left out, of not having the best friends and not going to the parties in the biggest houses. She collected slights. She took refuge in a kind of piss-elegance, a fanciness (the “English-style country house in the suburbs”), in using words like “inappropriate”. It was “inappropriate, to say the least” for Geraldine Ferraro and her husband to leave the dais and go “down on the floor, working the crowd” at a 1984 Italian-American Federation dinner at which the candidates on both tickets were speaking. It was “uncalled for – and mean” when, at the time John Koehler had been named to replace Patrick Buchanan as director of communications and it was learned that Koehler had been a member of Hitler Youth, Donald Regan said “blame it on the East Wing”.

Mrs. Gorbachev, as Mrs. Reagan saw it, “condescended” to her, and “expected to be deferred to”. Mrs. Gorbachev accepted an invitation from Pamela Harriman before she answered one from Mrs. Reagan. The reason Ben Bradlee called Iran-contra “the most fun he’d had since Watergate” was just possibly because, she explained in My Turn, he resented her relationship with Katharine Graham. Betty Ford was given a box on the floor of the 1976 Republican National Convention, and Mrs. Reagan only a skybox. Mrs. Reagan was even handed: Maureen Reagan “may have been right” when she called this slight deliberate. When, on the second night of that convention, the band struck up “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” during an ovation for Mrs. Reagan, Mrs. Ford started dancing with Tony Orlando. Mrs. Reagan was magnanimous: “Some of our people saw this as a deliberate attempt to upstage me, but I never thought that was her intention.”

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4 Responses to The Books: After Henry, ‘In the Realm of the Fisher King’, by Joan Didion

  1. DBW says:

    Oh, boy. The current level of political biography/exposition suffers greatly from a total lack of perspective. Reading Didion makes this painfully obvious. The real-world consequences of blind admiration and advocacy without sober reflection are dangerous, and our current political environment is dominated by just that kind of willful, obstinate partisanship–on all sides. I don’t want to get off the subject, but the country suffers that we have almost NO objective source for news anymore. Everything needs to be read or viewed with a mature level of disbelief. It was always generally accepted that the New York Times, just as one example, had a certain political leaning that was represented on their editorial pages. Most fair observers would have generally admitted that there was only a little evidence of those leanings on the actual news pages. Those days are gone–and most of our “News” sources are little more than cloaked advocacy groups. That is a horrible situation for all of us. Respectful and intelligent people have lots of different perspectives and opinions, and that is a beautiful thing. Somewhere, we all let ‘them’ turn that into something hideous, and we are all the lesser, and dumber, for it. We need more Joan Didions, but they just aren’t out there.

  2. Bob says:

    I know how easy it is to get frustrated, but a democracy is always messy. I grew up in a strange brew called “da region” (Northwest Indiana). We had it all – Dems, Union Dems, Mod Dems, Mod Repub, hardcore left and right and every religion and race. ( I actually felt sorry for the evangelicals who were forced to come to are block. We had nothing but wisecracking Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics, with a sprinkling of atheists – O those poor kids.
    I still don’t know your politics, and for that I’m grateful. No matter who gets elected, the people still have an enormous amount of power. Chins up!

  3. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Yes! I’m running out to get this book! And this is a lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately. “It’s actually cute how people assume they must know my politics because I’m a woman, I’m an artist, and I live on the East coast.” “both sides assume.”
    My views are probably what you think too, fitting into these categories, but then suddenly, I’m not. Try saying you have a belief in God, or like going to church once in a while, any church, around here! Eyes get very big and people literally shrink back, haha! And then I love Christopher Hitchens too! go figure! I imagine it would be great fun and I would bust a gut speaking to him about this.
    P.S. (sorry to add this on here but) Speaking about busting a gut, I just was crying from laughing reading your essay about Donkey Ball, what a riot! And your comments on your writing are just hysterical too! The visual images too, you swinging your legs on top of your desk. “I saw you too!” haha! I thought that was a great comeback line!”

    • sheila says:

      Regina –

      I miss Hitchens every day! He really details all the in-fighting on the Left, which can be so impenetrable to outside eyes. Should be interesting to hear what he has to say about getting the boot from The Nation. That move revealed their intolerant group-think Lock-step underbelly – I think it was a poor move on their part. It made them look like kids who huff off, taking their toys and going home because they don’t get their own way. And again: when you are merely partisan-minded, it actually limits thought. Hitchens’ idol Orwell broke that down like no other writer.

      But it was The Nation’s loss – he went on to much greater things than writing for that rag! I look forward to hearing his take on that event in the memoir.

      Miss him!!

      Hitchens grappled, fought, debated, and was willing to look at his own biases (his description of his time at the work-camp in Cuba is illuminating) – willing to roll his eyes a bit at his naivete – but he also just breaks it all down so you can understand what the hell these Trotskyites and Marxists (in this day and age??) were bickering about.

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