The Books: Political Fictions: ‘Eyes on the Prize’, by Joan Didion

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

In the late 80s, early 90s, the New York Review of Books hired Joan Didion to write about politics. She wrote 8 gigantic essays over the course of that time, one of which was ‘Insider Baseball’, about the 1988 Presidential campaign. Political Fictions is the compilation of those eight essays. What a crazy time in American politics (although I suppose you could say that about any time). These essays are monsters (as you know, the New York Review of Books features long in-depth essays), featuring Joan Didion’s particularly acidic outsider viewpoint. Politics, increasingly, is built for insiders, an elite class of decision-makers and policy-makers, and the title of the book, “Political Fictions” has multiple levels of meaning. Didion saw that it was a “fiction”, to some extent, that the voters were the ones who mattered. It was a “fiction” that this country was “for the people”. All she could see was the continuous construction of phony narratives by the elite political operatives running the campaign, and the media completely collaborated in creating that narrative. This is not new, and Didion knows it’s not new (in fact the book is dedicated to her husband “who lived through my discovering what he already knew”.)

There is a certain point in the life of anyone who has any critical thinking skills at all when you realize that people are trying to pull one over on you. It’s a disheartening moment, but it’s an important moment. You’re told to not believe everything you read, but it is certainly a difficult prospect to actually discern what is happening in politics, what is really happening, because it is designed to keep most of us outside of it. You believe what we WANT you to believe, etc. Campaigns are always run on this principle. Of course, more often than not they get derailed under the weight of their own lies and fictions (we’re seeing that with Romney right now), but sometimes it takes some real digging to find out what is really happening. Didion studied the campaigns, she researched everyone involved, no matter how peripheral. Nothing is peripheral here. Any small thing can explode a campaign. You can see why the insiders clamp down around their candidate, screaming “LALALALALA” to the opposition’s comments. This is life or death to these people.

Naivete is not one of Didion’s characteristics. It seems like she must have been born a critical thinker, a deep thinker, someone who wanted to know what happened AFTER “happily ever after”, someone who looked around her at the adults at the party and could see who was having an affair with whom, who didn’t like whom, all of the underlying subtextual currents that adults pretend are invisible to children.

Political naivete is not only annoying but irresponsible. I am not sure when I lost my naivete, but I am glad it is gone. It happened early. I’m a person who grew up being told stories of the Founding Fathers (For a time, I actually believed that I was related to “John and Abigail”, because my uncle lived in Quincy and we’d go there for Thanksgiving and my dad would say, as we drove past the homestead, “There’s John and Abigail’s house …” You know, I thought: “Will they be there at Thanksgiving?” I grew up revering the Founders, I grew up in a town where Washington had actually slept, the Tea Party and the Minute Men and Paul Revere and all of those stories were a part of my upbringing, a serious part. Perhaps because I grew up in the area of the country where that happened, but also because my parents told us those stories when we were kids. I learned about politics and America from my family.) I’ve never told the story of the party we went to in Chicago when Clinton was elected (it’s a doozy), and I remember vividly watching the inaugural ball footage and feeling distinctly uneasy about what I was seeing. I talked with my friend David afterwards, and both of us were pretty much liberal in persuasion, and he said the same thing. But the atmosphere at that party was one of rampaging triumphalism and blind loyalty. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see what I was seeing. (This is always a mistaken attitude. You really have to trust that other people have their reasons. It is part of being an adult. But I was younger then.) I can’t imagine I will ever be a True Believer. Not of a candidate anyway. I’ve read too many books about cults and totalitarian societies to ever give ANYONE that kind of loyalty. I believe in America. THAT is where my loyalty lies, first and foremost. And if you believe in the ideas of America, if you believe in the preamble to the Constitution and the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, if you believe in Federalist #10, if you truly believe in these things (and not believe like “I believe in Santa Claus”, but believe in them as the truest and deepest expression of what we want to try to do here in this country) … then politics is always going to be a big fat bummer.

Didion grew up in California. Her father managed defense contracts during WWII and she grew up around military bases. She came from a certain class in Sacramento that was a conservative country-club set. She reveres language and knowledge, and so watched, with horror and fascination, the political and social protests of the late 60s, her generation, really, but she could not get on board with them. Her outlook is liberal, her background conservative. She is not a True Believer. I love her political essays because she is not protecting a “side”. These essays cover the Reagan Doctrine, the United States’ policies in El Salvador and Grenada (she wrote a whole book called Salvador), the rise of Bill Clinton, the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton’s impeachment, and finally the Presidential race between Bush and Gore. Lots of great anecdotes but the overall feeling of the book is one of disheartening depression and criticism. For example, and this is classic Didion: “No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched William Jefferson Clinton running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent.” Side note: and this was what I saw that night at that drunken party in Chicago. That was what I saw.

As she laid out in “Insider Baseball”, these essays show the clamp-down of information control and back-and-forth by political insiders, the small coterie of people who decide that Politics is what they want to “do” with their lives (the Tracy Flicks of this world). The people who keep their “eye on the prize”, even in high school, grade school, who want to “lead” … you know, you usually hate those people in high school. But they’re the ones who rise to the top. The “fictions” of Didion’s title are all of the various narratives, fluctuating and solidifying, that the politicians want us to believe. Everyone has to boil down into a story, Hollywood-style, even if the story doesn’t quite fit. The story wouldn’t fit any of us. Life is more complex than that. But politics is not built for complexity. Therein lies the problem. And the media is not built to report on nuance or subtext. Therein lies another problem.

Those who consider themselves insiders, or true believers, or even dyed-in-the-wool Democrats or Republicans, would probably despise Didion’s equal-opportunity broadsides. The insiders scoff at the outsider’s perspective: “It’s too complicated for you to understand.” That was what Didion heard time and time again when she followed Dukakis’ campaign trail. In order to cover politics, in order to get access to the politicians and their advisors, you have to accept THEIR rules of the game. Didion don’t play that way.

Here is an excerpt from her giant essay called ‘Eyes on the Prize’, which is about the campaign of Bill Clinton for the Presidency.

Political Fictions, ‘Eyes on the Prize’, by Joan Didion

More recent opportunities had give us, early on, the outline of the campaign the Democrats planned to run. There was, first of all, the creation, or re-creation, of Governor Clinton. By all accounts, and particularly by certain contradictory threads within those accounts, this was a dramatically more interesting character than candidate, a personality so tightly organized around its own fractures that its most profound mode often appeared to be self-pity. “I was so young and inexperienced,” Governor Clinton told The Washington Post about his 1980 Arkansas defeat, “I didn’t understand how to break through my crisis and turn the situation around.” In his famous and extremely curious letter to the director of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, Colonel Eugene Holmes, who could not reasonably have been thought to care, he had spoken of his “anguish”, of his loss of “self-regard and self-confidence”; of a period during which, he said, he “hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion set in.” He spoke of the continuing inclination of the press to dwell on this and other issues as “the trials which I have endured.”

“When people are criticizing me, they get to the old ‘Slick Willie’ business,” he had explained before the New York primary to Jonathan Alter and Eleanor Clift of Newsweek. “Part of it is that I’m always smiling and try to make it look easy and all that. And part of it is the way I w as raised. I had such difficulties in my childhood.” Governor Clinton spoke often about these difficulties in his childhood, usually, and rather distressingly, in connection with questions raised in his adulthood. Such questions had caused him to wonder, he confided to The Wall Street Journal, “whether I’d ever be able to return to fighting for other people rather than for myself. I had to ask myself: what is it about the way I communicate or relate? Was it something in my childhood? I didn’t wonder if I was a rotten person. I knew I was involved in a lifelong effort to be a better person.”

He was sometimes demonstrably less than forthcoming when confronted with contradictions in this lifelong effort. By mid-May of the 1992 campaign he was still undertaking what he called an “enormous effort” to reconstruct his draft history, which had first come into question in Arkansas in October 1978, but was clear on one point: “Did I violate the laws of my state or nation? Absolutely not.” Still, from the angle of “something in my childhood”, this personal evasiveness could be translated into evidence of what came to be called his “reaching to please”, his “need to bring people together”: the heroic story required by the campaign coverage. “I’m always trying to work things out because that’s the role I played for a long time,” the candidate told David Maraniss of The Washington Post at one point, and, at another: “The personal pain of my childhood and my reluctance to be revealing in that sense may account for some of what may seem misleading.”

He frequently referred to “my pain”, and also to “my passion”, or “my obsession”, as in “it would be part of my obsession as president”. He spoke of those who remained less than enthusiastic about allowing him to realize his passion or obsession as “folks who don’t know me,” and of his need to “get the people outside Arkansas to know me like people here do”; most of us do not believe that our best side is hidden. “I can feel other people’s pain a lot more than some people can,” he told Peter Applebome of The New York Times. What might have seemed self-delusion was transformed, in the necessary reinvention of the coverage, into “resilience”, the frequently noted ability to “take the hits”. “The comeback kid” was said at the convention to be Governor Mario Cuomo’s tribute to the candidate, but of course it had initially been the candidate’s own tribute, a way of positioning his second-place finish in New Hampshire as a triumph, and there was in Governor Cumo’s echo of it a grudging irony, a New York edge.

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10 Responses to The Books: Political Fictions: ‘Eyes on the Prize’, by Joan Didion

  1. DBW says:

    Not sure where to start with this. “All she could see was the continuous construction of phony narratives by the elite political operatives running the campaign, and the media completely collaborated in creating that narrative. ” Of course, this has always been true of politics, and of political campaigns, but I’m not sure I have ever seen the “media” so personally invested in their chosen candidates that WE cannot trust ANYTHING we read anymore. You have heard me say this before, but it’s incredibly destructive to our country that we have no mainstream source that we can trust to tell us the truth. Everything needs to be approached with a jaundiced eye. Read Didion–her writing is redolent of the truth. When you read her criticizing someone or something, you may not like it, but there is no feeling that she’s criticizing because she has an agenda, or that her criticism is purposefully slanted. For someone like me, it’s beautiful to read her–I so desperately wish we had major players from whom we could get this kind of observational journalism. I know they are out there, but they are completely drowned out by the current mob of bias-driven lightweights. These people are not reporters, in any sense of the word. They are basically extensions of the campaigns with their talking points, agendas, and obvious predilections. To me, it’s scary and depressing. Again, I’m not naive. It’s always been like that, to some degree, but I really don’t think I remember it ever being this prevalent. Just think how useful and educational it would be to read profiles of both Romney and Obama written with the same keen eye, and passion for the real truth, that Didion applies in your excerpt above. Instead, we get these blind, borderline evil, little parasites.

    Now, blood pressure higher, I will retreat.

    • sheila says:

      I’m with you, DBW – I hunger for voices like hers.

      I disagree with the poor whining “Republicans” (gotta use the quotes, cause these idiots bear no resemblance to the best examples of that fine Party that I have known through my life) who adore their persecution complexes who blame EVERYTHING on “media bias”. It’s their favorite topic. No matter what happens, what fuck-up occurs: “media bias”. – It’s amazing to me to read how moronic these people sound – the Sarah Palins of the world and her sneering vicious followers – shouldn’t they be ashamed that they haven’t gotten their shit together to have a better candidate? It can’t ALL be “media bias” now, come on, let’s get real. Don’t blame others because YOU sound stupid. (Not you, specifically, DBW – that should go without saying.)

      I agree that the press is very very poor right now. It’s an embarrassment.

      But I must say, to your point about the press – I agree (although there are exceptions – Peggy Noonan’s recent piece about the Romney campaign was pretty damn good – she is obviously a huge partisan, so you have to read her stuff as propaganda for her Party, but I really liked that piece. i liked her big ideas, and her fearlessness in speaking them. She’s often a voice worth listening to, although I don’t trust her at all. Hahaha. Not sure how that works out.) But you’re right: once again, the press collaborates in the narratives put forth, and so we are divided even more. (You can see all of that fracturing right now within the Romney campaign though. I get the sense that party insiders are getting ready to leave Mitt Romney hanging out to dry. “Hey, don’t blame me, this debacle wasn’t MY fault!!”)

      But that attitude of which you speak: You can feel it when you write about politics – maybe because things move quicker now, the 24/7 news cycle, the fact that there are “comments sections” where Idiots can have a platform? I don’t know. People don’t even know how to READ anymore. I don’t mean literally – but in a critical-thinking way. Reading comprehension is down the tubes. So the falling-off in quality of writing is audience-driven as well.

      I’m just guessing. Imagine the comments section to a thoughtful piece like this one of Didion’s if it went up now!!

      Who knows. Maybe that would have been true of Federalist 10 back in the day if there had been “comments sections” as well.

  2. sheila says:

    And “parasite” is right. I know how thoughtful you are politically, and I know how deeply you think and how much you care about America and issues. It is people like you (and dare I say me) who are marginalized right now.

    Not sure where we are headed now. I have a difficult time tolerating political discourse – and it went sour for me real quick back in the political days of my site. And I didn’t even have a really popular site. But I felt these strains in Republican Party thought that I not only didn’t like, but that were flat out deal-breakers for me, in terms of “joining up”.

    I cannot be bought, in that respect.

    But you know me. I love politics. I love the process, I love the history of politics … and America. But the guys in charge? Oy.

  3. sheila says:

    And I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir right now – and I remember well how the Left turned on him, despite his “credentials”. He was a critical thinker. He would say, “If the facts change … then shouldn’t your opinion change?” Regardless: he was treated like he was a Traitor. He had to resign from the Nation, a job he had had for years. They just didn’t like him changing his mind on some things, not lining up with the “Party Line”. Camille Paglia got the same treatment by the Left, by feminists, by gay groups – all of whom assumed she would line up with their identity politics – and the reaction to the fact that she was an individual was so out of proportion (Gloria Steinem called Paglia “dangerous”). Good thing about Paglia and Hitchens is they both seemed to revel in their outsider status.

    Neither of them, though, have the cold clarity of Didion’s dispassionate prose. Hitchens describes himself as a “pamphleteer”. He writes broadsides, he defends, attacks (or: alas, all of that should be in the past tense). When he hates, he haaaates.

    Didion doesn’t seem to hate. Or, she does, but she doesn’t write FROM hatred.

  4. DBW says:

    And, yes, the truth is ‘dangerous’ to those who want to influence thought and act outside of a cool presentation of the facts. To me, there is little better than a spirited philosophical/political discussion between open-minded people with differing views. It’s everything this country is meant to be. That so many have a vested interest in preventing or curtail those type of discussions is offensive. Again, this has been going on forever, but it seems particularly pernicious right now. I remember the hate directed at Clinton and Reagan, for example, and the biased ‘reporting’ surrounding their every move, but we still had mainstream reporting that most of us could view as ‘arms-length.’ That’s just not true anymore.

  5. sheila says:

    // Again, this has been going on forever, but it seems particularly pernicious right now. //

    I agree. I got some theories as to why but that’s neither here nor there.

  6. DBE says:

    Your theories are always here and now to me. I suspect I could guess at most of it.

  7. sheila says:

    Wait a sec. Are you posting under another name?? DBE?

  8. sheila says:

    Theories:
    1. 24 hour news cycle. No room for error. Teeny mistakes are leapt upon like giant policy errors.
    2. Because of the 24 hour news cycle, as well as the fact that people can leave comments on blogs and set up blogs (whereas before they stewed in silence), every Idiot thinks they are worthy to have a microphone.
    3. These two situations combined make the fanatics sound much much louder than they did even 15 years ago. Of course there will always be those partisans who want to take a President down – this happened from the very first presidential election after Washington … but everything is heightened now because everyone has a say. Before they would have to hold it back until the local Town Hall meeting, or scribble angry letters to the local paper, hoping it would be published. Now: voila, their opinion is out there, and to them that makes it seem valid.

    I don’t think all opinions are valid, and I think the majority of people are idiots, unfortunately. This confluence of events has made the political landscape much much worse – hysterical, even. Like a bunch of Victorian ladies constantly fainting and calling for smelling salts.

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