Imagined America

It was the late ’80s when Joan Didion set out on the Wag The Dog beat of American politics for The New York Review of Books. Twelve years and eight true-crime essays later, she’s managed to write scathingly, brilliantly about every major political event from 1998 to 2000.

Her new book, Political Fictions, pulls the eight essays together for the first time, covering everything from the election of George Bush (the first), the ascension of Bill Clinton, the Gingrich revolution, the Clinton impeachment, the race between Al Gore and George Bush, Part Deux. For Didion fans, it goes without saying: The essays in Fictions unite to form a disturbing indictment of the American political process.

Born and raised in Sacramento, Didion is a novelist and screenwriter first (The Last Thing He Wanted, After Henry, Salvador, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) and therefore is unafraid to go after anybody, say anything to reveal the deceptions, expose the narrative, eviscerate the idiots, skewer those who need it most.

In “Political Pornography,” she assails revered journalist Bob Woodward of the Washington Post for writing books (The Choice, The Brethren, The Commanders) in which “measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.” She goes on to depict Cokie Roberts as a “whining moralist.” And Bill Clinton? “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.”

Political Fictions begins with a summer of ’88 essay, where a reluctant Didion takes up her first political assignment to observe the Democratic and Republican conventions. “Insider Baseball” describes her experiences following the events of the George Bush (the father) v. Michael Dukakis campaign, most of which occurs, she writes, “in a language I did not recognize” since it is all utterly remote from “the real life of the country.”

Didion reports, in chilling detail, how even the most trusted of national reporters covering presidential campaigns (can you say David Broder? Joe Klein?) are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted.

In “West Wing of Oz,” Didion writes with amused detachment about how George Bush (the father, while serving as Ronald Reagan’s vice president) was so successful at distracting the nation from such outrageous foreign policy blunders as the Iran-contra debacle and the El Mazote massacre in El Salvador, where 767 men, women and children were murdered by soldiers trained in the U.S., a story that, as one reporter wrote, “came into the light and then fell back into the darkness.”

In “God’s Country,” Didion goes after George Bush (the son) and his call for “compassionate conservatism.” She deconstructs what it means (how can you support massive tax cuts for the rich and call yourself compassionate?) and reveals ultimately, that its chief power is that it allows middle-class voters to “feel good about themselves while voting in their own interest.” Indeed, 53 percent of voters in the 2000 election had, for the first time in history, incomes above $50,000.

The key take-home lesson from the collection: People inside the American political process—the politicians, press, strategists, think tanks, pundits—constitute a self-created, self-referring “permanent political class” that speaks of the world as it wants people out there to believe it is, not as it is.

Some call Didion a grump, a curmudgeon, and say her best work is behind her. Not I. I’ll remain a fan, embrace her truths, admire her style, pay heed to her warnings now more than ever.