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.