Shut Up and Take It

Joan Didions insiders guide to the insiders

Tucked away on Page 12 of the Jan. 29 LA Times, our president is quoted, in defense of his administration's policy of not disclosing the nature of its meetings last year with Enron, as saying, "We're not going to let the ability for us to discuss matters between ourselves to become eroded." Matters between us?What is so entre nous about energy policy that discussions between an energy monolith and elected representatives of the American people should be hidden from the American people? We're not talking about "national security" here, or even "material impairment" of running the government, which is what presidents usually invoke in cases of executive privilege. Why does the General Accounting Office have to sue the vice president to find out how the executive branch makes decisions? The answer's boring but unavoidable: it's arrogance of power. Because what George W. Bush was basically telling Americans was: "Who the hell do you think you are, sticking your nose in our business? Shut up and take it lying down, the way you did my election."

Joan Didion's new book, Political Fictions, is all about the arrogance of power. Though she's a Janie-come-lately to radical democratic principles—in 1964, she voted for Goldwater, and she has only been inching her way Noam Chomsky-ward since her 1984 novel, Democracy—the articles she wrote for The New York Review of Booksover the past decade, collected and slightly altered for this volume, demonstrate that she's now so far out of the mainstream political discourse that she's probably as uninterviewable on TV as Chomsky is. Her radicalism stems from the dryly, wryly stated belief that "the political process" of this country "did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience." The main fable—that the U.S. is a representative democracy responsive to the needs of "all the people"—is sustained and manipulated, Didion says, by those "in the process"—that is, to "those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisors, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life." These are the people whose interests demand the stability of the status quo; who like it that poor people don't vote; who do their best to wipe troublemakers such as Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown and Ralph Nader off the radar screen when they start undermining the fables; and who went to great lengths to assure us that Election 2000, which is something like the ultimate insider scam, was not a grade A constitutional debacle but the ultimate proof that the system works.

Didion's first essay, "Insider Baseball," drolly evokes how the insider process operates. On the 1988 election trail, Michael Dukakis regularly got off airplanes and played catch with his advisors on airport tarmacs. Just as regularly, the press took film and reported this as regular-guy Dukakis getting a little exercise during his busy day, when everyone on the tarmac knew that the only reason Dukakis was out there was so the press could take pictures of him being as all-American as his nerdish countenance could allow. It was an utterly manufactured event that benefited both sides: Dukakis got soft TV time, and the media got access. Who didn't benefit? Um, us, the viewer/voter, whose tiny dollop of daily TV campaign coverage was hogged by this stupid human-interest stuff at the expense of genuine policy debate. This, Didion tells us, is the way the insiders want it, just as they wanted the biggest issue in the presidential debates of 2000 (from which they made sure Nader was excluded) to be about, say, drug benefits for the elderly.

American politics, then, has become all show, as "fictional" and manufactured as the made-for-TV party conventions that nobody watches anymore, as unreal as a press that hardly blinked when Ronald Reagan hallucinated in public that he had himself filmed the liberation of Nazi concentration camps (he was in Culver City in 1945). But what animates Didion and steers her clear of easy sarcasm is that she knows what the "process" is hiding. It's hiding—pure and simple—horror, the kind she documents in "The West Wing of Oz." This essay, the most powerful in the collection, is about how the Reagan administration manipulated information and outright lied about the massacre of more than 750 Salvadorans by, it's now clear, the El Salvadoran military so that the U.S. could grant human-rights certification—and continued military funding—to the Salvadoran government. Didion is repulsed and disgusted at the way democratic principles and "human rights" were repeatedly invoked in the name of murder, and despite the nearly mandarin coolness of her style, she gets across how much she hates the people (like Elliot Abrams and Jeanne Kirkpatrick) who helped perpetrate these lies. Her moral contempt extends, in other essays, to Reagan mythifier Dinesh D'Souza, to reporter Bob Woodward (whom she calls "a political pornographer"), and Kenneth Starr (who, of course, deserves the name even more than Woodward). To her, they're genuinely evil, and Didion strains to maintain her dignity while making her attacks.

Didion's later style—which is something like Henry James trying to report on the Holocaust—is problematic, though. Think of writers of similar political outrage: Gore Vidal, whose cynicism about power is equal to Didion's but who is saved by his humor and, face it, his aristocratic epicureanism, manages to suggest cheerful health and power in his work. Christopher Hitchens takes on issues just as dire as Didion's with a fecund British wit that doesn't diminish the energy of his leftist commitments. But Didion is almost humorless, not to mention joyless, and she doesn't like to get her hands dirty. The admirably tight ironies that hold her sinuous sentences together make their points, but they also seem to confess, finally, to her sense of impotence. It's a final irony that the more leftist Didion gets, the more the ideal of democracy means to her, the less she's actually speaking to the people. Political Fictions is a powerful book, but it's more for the salons than the streets.

Political Fictions by Joan Didion; Knopf, 2001. Hardcover, 338 pages, $25.

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