‘Insider Baseball’, a 4 part essay about the 1988 Presidential campaign, originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. It’s a monster. Joan Didion had decided to join the campaign trail, and followed Dukakis’ campaign through California. What is interesting is that all Didion could see was the phoniness of all of it, and also the conscious structuring of narrative for each candidate (with Jesse Jackson being the exception, and that was what made that campaign season so interesting, such a wild-card). ‘Insider Baseball’ is one of Didion’s more depressing essays, but it’s also one of her funnier pieces. It’s dark humor, though. At times, almost every other word is in quotes, because in that campaign environment, language become so symbolic and sloganistic that you can’t be sure of the original meaning anymore. Words like “leadership”, or “passion”. Didion can’t just say those words straight-out, she needs the quotation marks around them, at least in this context, because in this political context such words are completely altered by the fanatics who run the game. To the citizens out here watching and voting, those words have deep and personal meaning. We actually know what we are talking about when we talk about “passion” or “leadership” or “strength”. Didion suggests that we are alone in that. Our convictions are not shared by those actually running the game. So to see an entire paragraph that “looks” like “this”, where “every” other “word” is “quoted”, is pretty funny, and the sharpest indictment I can think of of the hollowness of the process.
Like I said, it’s depressing.
And I am not a negative person. I am more positive politically than many, maybe because of my historical outlook. I know my history, I love my Founding Fathers, I love my Constitution and its amendments, and I study them. I read The Federalist Papers for fun. I say this for a commenter from yesterday who seems to feel I need a pep talk or that I don’t know that democracy is messy. Believe me. I know. I love the mess of it. I am proud of us for even TOLERATING the mess. There are those coming up who threaten that, who want neat-ness above all else, especially in the pesky area of our sex lives. I think Bill Maher was right when he said, “These guys have just never gotten used to the idea that single women can now have sex for fun. They don’t like it.” It’s fine if that’s their personal view (although I certainly judge them for it, as they judge me) but I don’t think anyone harboring such medieval beliefs has any business making policy decisions. Despite all of this, I fight against negativity and dislike the jaded “que sera sera” attitude when it comes to politics. Leave that to the Europeans.
But seeing behind the scenes of the political process, and seeing it through the eyes of Joan Didion is a deeply depressing experience.
Didion ends up reporting on the media itself, and their collusion in creating these narratives. She can’t get past the feeling that the political papers and journalists all KNOW that almost every “event” they “report” on (see? It’s catching – NO words have literal meanings in this particular environment) is a highly-engineered phony enterprise, but one of the rules, if you want to be an insider, is to accept the phony as real.
Didion clocks this right away. 1988 was a particularly good year for her to follow along, because it was pre 9/11, and certainly pre “America was a Christian nation and so let’s start talking about women again in an extremely derogatory manner in the public realm, because things have gone too far, dammit!” as a worldview that people deem appropriate as a party platform. How far we have fallen. 1988 involved two men, Dukakis and Bush, who were quite similar, and also not all that memorable or fiery or eloquent, or anything that set them apart from one another. Even their politics both leaned towards the center. And so, Didion saw, it was up to the PRESS to create narratives for both. At times it was a struggle. How do we even distinguish these guys? (Jesse Jackson, again, came roaring in and changed the conversation that year. It was a fascinating moment, that I remember well.)
It was up to the campaign (with cooperation) from the press, to overcome Dukakis’ image problems. He was small, he looked like an academic, he didn’t seem “hearty” (read: “manly”) enough. George Bush had similar problems, in that he could not project warmth, he seemed like a tax attorney, and he clearly was not a tough-talkin’ cowboy, despite the Texas background. (The irony, with the Bushes, of course, is that they are actually Northeast Elites, who happen to hail from Texas. But the press, the campaigns, the political partisans, all roar into that vacuum, “HE’S A TOUGH-TALKIN’ TEXAN” as though he just rolled out of the Alamo with bullet holes in his chaps. These people are Ivy League educated millionaires. Come on. Who the hell do you think you’re fooling? Well. Everyone, looks like.)
Those of you who remember the 1988 presidential campaign will probably remember the pics of Dukakis throwing a ball around on the tarmac, to “loosen up”, to “let off steam”, whatever it was that the narrative required. Didion was there. And she completely skewers the accepted narrative. (It reminds me of the funny West Wing episode where he has to pretend to like baseball because he will be throwing out the first pitch.)
I am embarrassed for all involved. Those who participate, and those who buy it.
So if you don’t mind, I’ll be over here reading The Federalist Papers (#10 especially), and leave the political narrative of today to those who don’t mind either lying, or believing lies.
And no pep talks necessary. I’m perfectly fine. I understand politics. I am a political junkie, although I do not write about politics here. So talk like this is business as usual in democracy, especially an election year.
Let’s read about that baseball on the tarmac.
After Henry, ‘Insider Baseball’, by Joan Didion
About this baseball on the tarmac. On the day that Michael Dukakis appeared at the high school in Woodland Hills and at the rally in San Diego and in the schoolyard in San Jose, there was, although it did not appear on the schedule, a fourth event, what was referred to among the television crews as a “tarmac arrival with ball tossing”. This event had taken place in late morning, on the tarmac at the San Diego airport, just after the chartered 737 had rolled to a stop and the candidate had emerged. There had been a moment of hesitation. Then baseball mitts had been produced, and Jack Weeks, the traveling press secretary, had tossed a ball to the candidate. The candidate had tossed the ball back. The rest of us had stood in the sun and given this our full attention, undeflected even by the arrival of an Alaska Airlines 767: some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.
“Just a regular guy,” one of the cameramen had said, his inflection that of the “union official” who confided, in an early Dukakis commercial aimed at blue-collar voters, that he had known “Mike” a long time, and backed him despite him his not being “your shot-and-beer kind of guy.”
“I’d say he was a regular guy,” another cameraman had said. “Definitely.”
“I’d sit around with him,” the first cameraman said.
Kara Dukakis, one of the candidate’s daughters, had at that moment emerged from the 737.
“You’d have a beer with him?”
Jack Weeks had tossed the ball to Kara Dukakis.
“I’d have a beer with him.”
Kara Dukakis had tossed the ball to her father. Her father had caught the ball and tossed it back to her.
“OK,” one of the cameramen had said. “We got the daughter. Nice. That’s enough. Nice.”
The CNN producer then on the Dukakis campaign told me, later in the day, that the first recorded ball tossing on the Dukakis campaign had been outside a bowling alley somewhere in Ohio. CNN had shot it. When the campaign realized that only one camera had it, they had restaged it.
“We have a lot of things like the ball tossing,” the producer said. “We have the Greek dancing for example.”
I asked if she still bothered to shoot it.
“I get it,” she said, “but I don’t call in anymore and say, ‘Hey, hold it, I’ve got him dancing.'”
This sounded about right (the candidate might, after all, bean a citizen du ring the ball tossing, and CNN would need film), and not until I read Joe Klein’s version of these days in California did it occur to me that this eerily contrived moment on the tarmac at San Diego could become, at least provisionally, history. “The Duke seemed downright jaunty,” Joe Klein reported. “He tossed a ball with aides. He was flagrantly multilingual. He danced Greek dances …” In the July 25, 1988 issue of U.S. News & World Report, Michael Kramer opened his cover story, “Is Dukakis Tough Enough?”, with a more developed version of the ball tossing.
The thermometer read 101 degrees, but the locals guessed 115 on the broiling airport tarmac in Phoenix. After all, it was under a noonday sun in the desert that Michael Dukakis was indulging his truly favorite campaign ritual – a game of catch with his aide Jack Weeks. “These days,” he has said, “throwing the ball around when we land somewhere is about the only exercise I get.” For 16 minutes, Dukakis shagged flies and threw strikes. Halfway through, he rolled up his sleeves, but he never loosened his tie. Finally, mercifully, it was over and time to pitch the obvious tongue-in-cheek question. “Governor, what does throwing a ball around in this heat say about your mental stability?” Without missing a beat, and without a trace of a smile, Dukakis echoed a sentiment he has articulated repeatedly in recent months: “What it means is that I’m tough.”
Nor was this the last word. On July 31, 1988, in the Washington Post, David S. Broder, who had also been with the Dukakis campaign in Phoenix, gave us a third, and, by virtue of his seniority in the process, perhaps the official version of the ball tossing:
Dukakis called out to Jack Weeks, the curly-haired Welshman who good-naturedly shepherds us wayward pressmen through the daily vagaries of the campaign schedule. Weeks dutifully produced two gloves and a baseball, and there on the tarmac, with its surface temperature just before the boiling point, the governor loosened up his arm and got the kinks out of his back by tossing a couple hundred 90-foot pegs to Weeks.
What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing then, 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, someone too “naive” to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.