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by Joan Didion

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-41338-3
Publisher: Knopf

Blindingly brilliant—and sometimes just blind—pieces covering a dozen years (1988–2000) of American politics, all originally published in The New York Review of Books.

Primarily, these essays reflect the always-scintillating Didion’s preoccupation with “the process,” or “the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained.” Participants in the process—candidates, political consultants, activists, and commentators—form an echo chamber of conventional wisdom. Unlike other observers, Didion holds no interest in dissecting issues, reporting behind the scenes, or sending up electoral bad taste with Menckenesque glee. Instead, as a novelist and screenwriter, she is fascinated by the “narrative” that political insiders create to explain and often distort events. This fixation simultaneously sharpens and narrows her frame of reference. Her essay “The West Wing of Oz” vibrates with cynical amusement over how the Reagan and Bush I administrations used sleight-of-hand to distract attention from foreign-policy disasters such as Iran-contra. Democrats, she charges, have abandoned their traditional low-income base in an attempt to corral a shrinking electoral center. Often, she files her subjects with astonishing thoroughness. Thus, Newt Gingrich emerges as a captive of management and motivational mantras; Bill Clinton as the son of a traveling salesman who understands “how the deal gets done”; and Bob Woodward as an author of bestsellers “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.” Yet Didion explains nothing about the massive demographic and social changes underlying the two parties’ frantic scramble for the middle; and she sometimes uses high-concept titles that distort as much as the “narratives” she decries (e.g., “Political Pornography” for Woodward’s books, or “Vichy Washington” for the Capitol elite’s disgust with Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal).

Didion’s vision is like a searchlight that throws light into dark corners while leaving other areas inexplicably unilluminated.