The Books: Political Fictions, ‘Newt Gingrich, Superstar’, by Joan Didion

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

As I mentioned in the first excerpt from this wonderful book, Political Fictions is a compilation of the eight giant political essays that Joan Didion wrote for The New York Review of Books between the years 1988 and 2000. Those years, naturally, encompassed a lot. From the Dukakis/Bush campaign to the Gore/Bush campaign. The years in between those campaigns saw the Republican takeover of Congress, as well as the entire Monica Lewinsky situation and the impeachment of Clinton. Interestingly enough, as I read these in-depth thoughtful essays, one of the things I am aware of is the country marching towards 9/11. 9/11 did not change everything and in many ways it made things worse, but it is one of those rare events in a nation where you can say “Before/After”. Before, things were one way, After, everything changed. It almost seems quaint that the entire country was obsessed about a blue dress from The Gap, but that may be too naive of me to say. We are still obsessing over things that are not important. But it will always look different to me because now we are in the land of After. The Before days are sometimes hard to re-imagine, to enter into. “Look at us, going about our business, when that is coming down the pike.”

These eight essays, then, are markers in time. They are written while the events being described are going down, so they feature much actual reporting and journalism. They are not just “opinion” pieces. Didion didn’t write much about politics in the rest of her career. You can count the really political pieces on one hand. So it’s exciting to see Washington and its operations through her clear-eyed outsider filter. To use an overused phrase, she hasn’t “drunk the Kool-Aid”. You can’t hoodwink her. She’s been doing her thing, having an amazing career, all without writing about politics. She clearly has her convictions (but even so, I’m not sure what they are – she doesn’t write in a way that makes that totally clear. The only thing I really can say about her is that she is interested in “Narrative” and how narratives are created, how we need them, how we feel lost without them. Her most famous line is, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”)

This appears to be her main attitude within these essays: “Okay, so here are the news accounts of what is happening. But let’s try to figure out what is REALLY happening.” She’s very very good at that. You may disagree with her conclusions, and I myself disagree with some of her conclusions, but that’s actually irrelevant. I want to live in a society where this kind of discourse occurs, where this kind of questioning happens.

The Newt Gingrich essay was published in NYRB in August of 1995, a time in history when Newt Gingrich was everywhere. Time had voted him Man of the Year. The year before, he was the driving force of the historic Republican takeover of Congress. He wrote books. He was a “superstar”. Of course, Didion’s piece was written in the midst of all of that, not the events of a couple of years later when he Speaker of the House, under pressure from Republican colleagues to do so. Politics is brutal. They love you when you succeed, you eff up once, you got to step down. It’s only fair. His Contract with America was a best-seller. He seemed to embody the new energy and verve of Republicans in Washington. He galvanized his Party. Briefly.

Didion’s essay on Gingrich is quietly hilarious, while being devastating at the same time. She keeps her eye on the prize, which is his use of language. In any battle of the linguists, Didion is going to win. You might as well just lay down your arms ahead of the fact. His story is well-known, and was even more well-known then, in the heyday of his rise. Didion keeps her cool. She doesn’t have her knives out for the guy or anything like that. But his language draws her in. She reads everything he’s written. She comments on his use of random capital letters (like I said, she is quietly devastating, in her critique), his use of random dates, and also his managerial Carnegie-esque style. Here are Five Things You Need to Know About America. Etc. By analyzing his language, she seems to suggest the thin-ness of his thinking, which I think is an accurate critique. Once you know your Orwell, you can’t ignore the words that someone uses, and how they use them, and draw conclusions on how that mind actually works. We certainly could use more analysis like this today. First of all, it’s written with a minimum of hysteria. In fact, there is no hysteria. Didion is not writing as a Democrat terrified of the rise of Republicans. She observes the phenomenon and digs beneath the surface. She understands our two-party system, and is not “in the pay” of one of the Parties. If you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, that’s fine, but then you certainly won’t mind if I take everything you say with a grain of salt. There are exceptions to this, but in each case the person is a superb writer. We don’t have many of them. Cherish them, no matter which side of the political divide they fall on. Don’t just read things you agree with. If the person writing is a good writer, try to take on their thought process, try to understand. You still may stay with your convictions, but at least you aren’t living in a fetid bell jar of agreement, which limits actual thought.

Didion’s main critique of Gingrich appears to have nothing to do with his politics, and everything to do with his shoddy use of language. Of course someone like Gingrich, with his kneejerk sneer at the “Northeast liberal elite”, would easily write off Didion’s critique as snobby. I’m sure he did so at the time. But that would be a mistake. You wrote this shit, Gingrich. She’s actually taking you at your word. She’s actually reading this garbage and trying to understand your underlying Narrative. You should be flattered.

As someone who does not come down on one side or the other, politically (depending on who I talk to, I could describe myself as a “flaming liberal with a deep hawk-like streak”, or “a patriotic hawk-like American with a blazing Left-wing streak” – either one could apply, and both descriptions means the “Parties” want nothing to do with me, but that’s their error), I do not respond well to political pamphleteering that has, as its goal, a defense of its side. Everyone just sounds stupid to me, sorry to say. I am never on board with a “platform”. How could I be? I may agree with a couple of core values, but then you throw something at me like homophobia or women’s health care (really? Birth control? That’s what you’re gonna go after?), and you have lost me forever. The same is true from the Left side, and Hitchens describes his issues with what the Left has become perfectly in his memoir, which I finished yesterday. It’s similar to the issues that some evangelical Christians that I know have with the politicization of their religion. Believe it or not, many of them are not down with that. You can be an evangelical and still vote for Obama. But in the current atmosphere in most evangelical churches today, it is seen as a big no-no. You can be an evangelical and believe in the separation of church and state, and know that “America was born as a Christian nation” is a fucking lie. Or the whole Young Earth monstrosity. You can also be an evangelical and “believe” in evolution. Being “saved” has to do with accepting Jesus as your savior, not whether or not the earth is 6,000 years old or a billion years old. But these things have been conflated by charlatans who not only want to keep the Republicans in office but want our culture to go backwards. They are anti-progress, anti-individualism, anti-everything that I hold dear. Anti-art, anti-culture, anti-freedom. They are totalitarian in nature, and just as ignorant as the illiterate guys raging through the Middle East who have only read the Koran (and barely that), and wield holy books and rifles. These are their compatriots. Imagine being a born-again Christian who also loves art, movies, freedom, individualism and hearing from the pulpit every Sunday all of this culture war garbage. I’m a little proud of being an iconoclastic political orphan, but I read some of these pained evangelical blogs about what is going on in their churches, and the social pressure to vote a certain way and take on thoughts/theories that have nothing to do with Jesus … and I feel for these people. They are true orphans. Watch them. They are a powerful demographic and, like in Network, they are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. It doesn’t yet have a groundswell of support, but there’s a revolution coming in evangelical Christianity. Maybe 20 years down the pike, but mark my words, it’s coming. I love political “pamphleteering” historically. You can understand so much about what was happening in the colonies in 1776 if you read Thomas Paine, if you read Alexander Hamilton’s broadsides. Some of the most memorable writing in the world has been in defense of a Cause. Or has been a critique of a cause (Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France comes to mind.) But in the present day, not so much. I like someone who is able to state their case clearly and rousingly, whether or not I agree with them. If it’s well-written, I will read it, and probably come away with a better understanding of what people are thinking. Then I can make up my own mind. But political writing that seethes with resentment, ignorant assumptions, and a clear objective to win the battle, even if it means scorching all the earth in-between leaves me not only cold but wondering about the intelligence of the writer. Most political blogs fall under this category. You have to be a damn good writer to make me examine my own assumptions. I treasure those writers who are able to do so. I always always want to know what they have to say. I still may not agree, but their facility with language and putting thought into words is at such a high level that it is a privilege to get a window into all of it.

That is kind of what Didion is up to here. She probably disagrees with many of Gingrich’s points, and she certainly disagrees with his reductive use of language (that he would say that “situational ethics” would equal “there are no general rules for behavior” is a perfect example of his simplistic reductive thinking, meant to capitalize on people’s resentments) but that is not her main goal here, to lay out why she, Joan Didion, doesn’t like Newt Gingrich. Instead, she goes repeatedly to his own words. In its own way, this is a brutal critique, although I’m sure Democrats would think she was “too soft” on him. Hard-line political wonks will never understand in-depth analysis (perhaps they think their candidate cannot survive it), and the intellectual life of our country suffers as a result.

Political Fictions, ‘Newt Gingrich, Superstar’, by Joan Didion

A remarkable amount of what Mr. Gingrich says has never borne extended study. There was the dispiriting view of the future as a kind of extended Delta hub, where “each news magazine would have a section devoted to the week’s news from space,” and from which we would “flow out to the Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system, and mankind will have permanently broken free of the planet.” There were the doubtful tales offered in evidence of the point at hand, the “personalization” (a key Gingrich concept) that did not quite add up. Mr. Gingrich learned that America was “in transition from one type of economy and lifestyle to another” from reading Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity and John Naisbett’s Megatrends, but the truth of this came home only when he was “shocked to discover” that he could telephone his oldest daughter on her junior year abroad “by first dialing the 001 code for the international telephone company, then the code for France, then the area code for the region near Paris, and finally the code for my daughter’s telephone.”

That this discovery would seem to have taken place in 1982 or 1983 (his oldest daughter was born in 1963) was just one suggestion that this was not a mind that could be productively engaged on its own terms. There was also the casual relationship to accuracy, the spellings and names and ideas seized, in the irresistible momentum of outlining, in mid-flight. In Window of Opportunity and in the lectures, Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity becomes The Age of Discontinuities. Garry Wills’s Inventing America becomes “Garry Wills’s Discovering America.” Gordon Wood becomes Gordon Woods. To Renew America shows evidence of professional copy-editing, but it also defines what it calls “situational ethics” and “deconstructionism” as interchangeable terms for “the belief that there are no general rules for behavior”. Alexis de Tocqueville is seen as a kind of visiting booster, whose privilege it was to “inform the world that ‘Democracy in America’ worked.” De Tocqueville is also seen, even more peculiarly, as an exemplar of American culture: “From the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims, through de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, up to the Norman Rockwell paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, there was a clear sense of what it meant to be an American.”

There was the flirtation with the millennial, the almost astral insistence on the significance of specific but intrinsically meaningless dates and numbers. The “discontinuity” (Peter Drucker again) in American history lasted, according to Mr. Gingrich, from exactly 1965 until exactly 1994: “And what’s been happening is that from 1965 to 1994, that America went off on the wrong track. Now that’s an important distinction.” “A year which ends in three zeroes is a rare thing indeed,” he declared in Window of Opportunity. “We’re starting the 104th Congress,” he said at his swearing-in. “I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about the concept: 208 years.” This inclination toward the pointlessly specific (we have here a man who once estimated the odds on the survival of his second marriage at “53 to 47”) is coupled with a tic to inflate what is actually specific into a general principle, a big concept. The cherry blossoms in Washington, he advised his constituents in 1984, remind us that “there’s a rhythm and cycle to life. Winter goes and spring comes.” Forrest Gump became for Mr. Gingrich “a reaffirmation that the counterculture destroys human beings and basic values.” That Star Wars made more money than The Right Stuff instructs us that “we have allowed bureaucracies to dominate too many of our scientific adventures.” In the absence of anything specific to either seize or inflate, he tends to spin perilously out of syntactical orbit:

I think if you will consider for a moment – and this is part of why I wanted to pick up on the concept of “virtualness” – if you think about the notion that the great challenge of our lifetime is first to imagine a future that is worth spending our lives getting to, then because of the technologies and capabilities we have today to get it up to sort of a virtual state, whether that’s done in terms of actual levels of sophistication or whether it’s just done in your mind, most studies of leadership argue that leaders actually are putting out past decisions, that part of the reason you get certainty in great leaders is that they have already thoroughly envisioned the achievement and now it’s just a matter of implementation. And so it’s very different. So in a sense, virtuality at the mental level is something I think you’d find in most leadership over historical periods.

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8 Responses to The Books: Political Fictions, ‘Newt Gingrich, Superstar’, by Joan Didion

  1. DBW says:

    Oh, jump on in to our “fetid bell jar of agreement.” The water is fine.

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks but no thanks. If you only listen to people you agree with, you’re in a bubble. I like air that MOVES a little bit.

  3. Dan says:

    //A remarkable amount of what Mr. Gingrich says has never borne extended study.//

    well that kinda sets the tone for the rest of the excerpt!

  4. sheila says:

    Look, if you’re gonna make a claim like Gingrich does that Star Wars made more money than Right Stuff because “we have allowed bureaucracies to dominate too many of our scientific adventures”, then don’t be surprised when people call you on that generality or try to look into it further (because you clearly are talking out of your ass).

  5. Dan says:

    It’s kind of embarrassing to his party that he is considered some kind of deep-thinker. I recall him recently agitating for the repeal of child labor laws.

    But I suppose when your default mode is one of contempt for intellectuals, that’s what you wind up with.

  6. sheila says:

    Yeah, that passes for deep thought? Didion clocks him on it.

    Or poor Glenn Beck putting on glasses: “Look how smart I look. I have a chalkboard and everything.”

  7. sheila says:

    And you know me and my Founding Fathers!! The bastardization of those stories- the twisting of them to suit a certain narrative – and the fact that Ms. Palin revealed she didn’t even know what the hell happened with Paul Revere – these stories freakin’ matter to me. They are what I care about. Not candidates. These are living stories to me. I was DONE with her and her ilk long before that ridiculous moment with her deer-in-the-headlights hostile cocky grin, but that was just confirmation of what I already knew: all their patriotic Tom Paine-reference talk, was a bunch of hot air.

  8. sheila says:

    You can say whatever you want about Putin, you silly silly woman, but you get the details of Paul Revere wrong (revealing not only that you don’t know the story but that you don’t care to know and you have no curiosity about the truth of it whatsoever, and then you just turn your ignorant blunder into another example of “media bias”) …. you’re dead to me.

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