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Political Fictions


September 11, 2001

Publication Date: 


Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


In these coolly observant essays, the iconic bestselling writer looks at the American political process and at that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.

Through the deconstruction of the sound bites and photo ops of three presidential campaigns, one presidential impeachment, and an unforgettable sex scandal, Didion reveals the mechanics of American politics. She tells us the uncomfortable truth about the way we vote, the candidates we vote for, and the people who tell us to vote for them. These pieces build, one on the other, into a disturbing portrait of the American political landscape, providing essential reading on our democracy.

One of our most cherished and insightful explicators of American culture...brings her perspective to the ultimate insider world.

—San Francisco Chronicle

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A Foreword

Early in 1988, Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books asked me if I would do some pieces or a piece about the presidential campaign just then getting underway in New Hampshire. He would arrange credentials. All I had to do was show up, see what there was to see, and write something. I was flattered (a presidential election was a "serious" story, and no one had before solicited my opinions on one), and yet I kept putting off the only essential moment, which was showing up, giving the thing the required focus. In January and February I was selling a house in California, an easy excuse. In March and April I was buying an apartment in New York, another easy excuse. I had packing to do, then unpacking, painting to arrange, many household negotiations and renegotiations. Clippings and books and campaign schedules kept arriving, and I would stack them on shelves unread. I kept getting new deadlines from The New York Review, but there remained about domestic politics something resistant, recondite, some occult irreconcilability that kept all news of it just below my attention level. The events of the campaign as reported seemed to have taken place in a language I did not recognize. The stakes of the election as presented seemed not to compute. At the very point when I had in my mind successfully abandoned this project to which I could clearly bring no access, no knowledge, no understanding, I got another, more urgent call from The New York Review. The California primary was only days away. The Democratic and Republican national conventions were only weeks away. The office could put me on a campaign charter the next day, Jesse Jackson was flying out of Newark to California, the office could connect me in Los Angeles with the other campaigns. It so happened that my husband was leaving that day to do some research in Ireland. It so happened that our daughter was leaving that day to spend the summer in Guatemala and Nicaragua. There seemed, finally, no real excuse for me not to watch the California primary (and even to vote in it, since I was still registered in Los Angeles County), and so I went to Newark, and got on the plane. From the notes I typed at three the next morning in a room at the Hyatt Wilshire in Los Angeles, after a rally in South Central and a fundraiser at the Hollywood Palace and a meet-and-greet at the housing project where the candidate was to spend what remained of the night ("Would you call this Watts," the reporters kept saying, and "Who knows about guns? Who makes an AK?"), my introduction to American politics:

I was told the campaign would be leaving Newark at 11:30 and to be at the Butler Aviation terminal no later than 10:30. Delmarie Cobb was to be the contact. At Butler Aviation the man on the gate knew nothing about the Jackson campaign but agreed to make a phone call, and was told to send me to Hangar 14. Hangar 14, a United hangar, was locked up except for a corrugated fire door open about two feet off the ground. Some men who approached knew nothing about any Jackson plane, they were "just telephone," but they limboed under the fire door and I followed them.

The empty hangar. I walked around Malcolm Forbes's green 727, "Capitalist Tool," looked around the tarmac, and found no one. Finally a mechanic walked through and told me to try the office upstairs. I did. The metal door to the stairs was locked. I ran after the mechanic. He said he would pick the lock for me, and did. Upstairs, I found someone who told me to go to "Post J."

At "Post J," an unmarked gate to the tarmac, I found a van open in back and four young men waiting. They said they were Jackson campaign, they were waiting for the Secret Service and then the traveling campaign. I sat down on my bag and asked them to point out Delmarie Cobb when she came. Delmarie, one of them said, was already in California, but he was Delmarie's nephew, Stephen Gaines.

"Who's she," the Secret Service agents kept saying after they arrived. "She hasn't been cleared by the campaign, what's she doing here." "All I know is, she's got the right names in Chicago," Stephen Gaines kept saying. In any case the agents were absorbed in sweeping the bags. Finally one said he might as well sweep mine. Once he had done this he seemed confused. It seemed he had no place to put me. I wasn't supposed to be on the tarmac with the swept bags, but I wasn't supposed to be on the plane either. "Look," he said finally. "Just wait on the plane."

I waited, alone on the plane. Periodically an agent appeared and said, "You aren't supposed to be here, see, if there were someplace else to put you we'd put you there." The pilot appeared from the cockpit. "Give me a guesstimate how many people are flying," he said to me. I said I had no idea. "Fifty-five?" the pilot said. I shrugged. "Let's say fifty-five," the pilot said, "and get the fuel guys off the hook." None of this seemed promising.

The piece I finally did on the 1988 campaign, "Insider Baseball," was the first of a number of pieces I eventually did about various aspects of American politics, most of which had to do, I came to realize, with the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience. As the pieces began to accumulate, I was asked with somewhat puzzling frequency about my own politics, what they "were," or "where they came from," as if they were eccentric, opaque, somehow unreadable. They are not. They are the logical product of a childhood largely spent among conservative California Republicans (this was before the meaning of "conservative" changed) in a postwar boom economy. The people with whom I grew up were interested in low taxes, a balanced budget, and a limited government. They believed above all that a limited government had no business tinkering with the private or cultural life of its citizens. In 1964, in accord with these interests and beliefs, I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter. Instead, shocked and to a curious extent personally offended by the enthusiasm with which California Republicans who had jettisoned an authentic conservative (Goldwater) were rushing to embrace Ronald Reagan, I registered as a Democrat, the first member of my family (and perhaps in my generation still the only member) to do so. That this did not involve taking a markedly different view on any issue was a novel discovery, and one that led me to view "America's two-party system" with--and this was my real introduction to American politics--a somewhat doubtful eye.

At a point quite soon during the dozen-some years that followed getting on that charter at Newark, it came to my attention that there was to writing about politics a certain Sisyphean aspect. Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill. The romance of New Hampshire would again be with us. The crucible event in the candidate's "character" would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that had become our national River Lethe. It was clear for example in 1988 that the political process had already become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent. It was also clear in 1988 that the decision of the two major parties to obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves, and by so doing to narrow the contested ground to a handful of selected "target" voters, had already imposed considerable strain on the basic principle of the democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation's citizens a voice in its affairs. It was also clear in 1988 that the rhetorical manipulation of resentment and anger designed to attract these target voters had reduced the nation's political dialogue to a level so dispiritingly low that its highest expression had come to be a pernicious nostalgia. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it was clear in 1988 that those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process. All of this was known. Yet by the time of the November 2000 presidential election and the onset of the thirty-six days that came to be known as "Florida," every aspect of what had been known in 1988 would again need to be rediscovered, the stone pushed up the hill one more time.

Perhaps the most persistent of the fables from which the political process proceeds has to do with the "choice" it affords the nation's citizens, who are seen to remain unappreciative. On the Saturday morning before the November 2000 presidential election, The Washington Post ran on its front page a piece by Richard Morin and Claudia Deane headlined "As Turnout Falls, Apathy Emerges As Driving Force." The thrust of this piece, which was based on polls of voter and nonvoter attitudes conducted both by the Post and by the Joan Shorenstein Center's "Vanishing Voter Project" at Harvard, was reinforced by a takeout about a Missouri citizen named Mike McClusky, a thirty-seven-year-old Army veteran who, despite "the 21-foot flagpole with the Stars and Stripes in the middle of the front yard," had never voted and did not now intend to vote. His wife, Danielle McClusky, did vote, and the Post noted the readiness with which she discussed "her take on Social Security, and health care, and health maintenance organizations, and what she heard on Larry King, and what she heard on Chris Matthews, and what George W. Bush would do, and what Al Gore would do." Meanwhile, the Post added, making it fairly clear which McClusky merited the approval of its Washington readers, "Mike McClusky pets the dogs and half-listens because he doesn't really have to sift through any of this." Accompanying the main story were graphs, purporting to show why Americans did not vote, and the Post's analysis of its own graphs was this: "Apathy is the single biggest reason why an estimated 100 million Americans will not vote on Tuesday."

The graphs themselves, however, told a somewhat more complicated story: only thirty-five percent of nonvoters, or about seventeen percent of all adult Americans, fell into the "apathetic" category, which, according to a director of the Shorenstein study, included those who "have no sense of civic duty," "aren't interested in politics," and "have no commitment in keeping up with public affairs." Another fourteen percent of nonvoters were classified as "disconnected," a group including both those "who can't get to the polls because of advanced age or disability" and those "who recently changed addresses and are not yet registered"--in other words, people functionally unable to vote. The remaining fifty-one percent of these nonvoters, meaning roughly a quarter of all adult Americans, were classified as either "alienated" ("the angry men and women of U.S. politics . . . so disgusted with politicians and the political process that they've opted out") or "disenchanted" ("these nonvoters aren't so much repelled by politics as they are by the way politics is practiced"), in either case pretty much the polar opposite of "apathetic." According to the graphs, more than seventy percent of all nonvoters were in fact registered, a figure that cast some ambiguity on the degree of "apathy" even among the thirty-five percent categorized as "apathetic."

Study of the actual Shorenstein results clouded the Post's "apathy" assessment still further. According to the Shorenstein Center's release dated the same Saturday as the Post story, its polling had shown that the attitudes toward politicians and the political process held by those who intended to vote differed--up to an interesting point--only narrowly from the attitudes held by those who did not intend to vote. Eighty-nine percent of nonvoters and seventy-six percent of voters agreed with the statement "most political candidates will say almost anything in order to get themselves elected." Seventy-eight percent of nonvoters and seventy percent of voters agreed with the statement "candidates are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation's problems." Almost seventy percent of nonvoters and voters alike agreed with the statement "campaigns seem more like theater or entertainment than something to be taken seriously." The interesting point at which the attitudes of voters and nonvoters did diverge was that revealed by questioning about specific policies. Voters, for example, tended to believe that the federal budget surplus should go to a tax cut. Nonvoters, who on the whole had less education and lower income, more often said that the surplus should be spent on health, welfare, and education. "Nonvoters have different needs," is the way the Post summarized this. "But why should politicians listen?"

This notion of voting as a consumer transaction (the voter "pays" with his or her vote to obtain the ear of his or her professional politician, or his or her "leader," or by logical extension his or her "superior") might seem a spiritless social contract, although not--if it actually delivered on the deal--an intrinsically unworkable one. But of course the contract does not deliver: only sentimentally does "the vote" give "the voter" an empathetic listener in the political class, let alone any leverage on the workings of that class. When the chairman of Michael Dukakis's 1988 New York Finance Council stood barefoot on a table at the Atlanta Hyatt during that summer's Democratic convention (see page 00) and said "I've been around this process a while and one thing I've noticed, it's the people who write the checks who get treated as if they have a certain amount of power," she had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. When the only prominent Democrat on the west side of Los Angeles to raise money in 1988 for Jesse Jackson (see page 00) said "When I want something, I'll have a hard time getting people to pick up the phone, I recognize that, I made the choice," he had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work.

When the same Democrat, Stanley Sheinbaum, said, in 1992 (see page 00), "I mean it's no longer a thousand dollars, to get into the act now you've got to give a hundred thousand," he had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. When Jerry Brown, who after eight years as governor of California had become the state party chairman who significantly raised the bar for Democratic fundraising in California, said at the 1992 Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden (see page 00) that the time had arrived to listen to "the people who pay the bills and fight the wars but never come to our receptions," he had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. When one of George W. Bush's lawyers told The Los Angeles Times in December 2000 that "if you were in this game, you had to be in Florida," he too had a clear enough understanding of how the contract worked and did not work. "Almost every lobbyist, political organizer, consulting group with ties to the Republicans was represented," a Republican official was quoted by Robert B. Reich, writing on the op-ed page of The New York Times, as having said to the same point. "If you ever were or wanted to be a Republican, you were down there."

Excerpted from Political Fictions by Joan Didion. Copyright © 2001 by Joan Didion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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