The crowd was listless, restless. There were gray thunderclouds
overhead. A little rain fell. "We welcome you to Silicon
Valley," an official had said by way of greeting the candidate,
but this was not in fact Silicon Valley: this was San Jose, and
a part of San Jose particularly untouched by technological prosperity,
a neighborhood in which the lowering of two-toned Impalas remained
a central activity. "I want to be a candidate who brings
people together," the candidate was saying at the exact
moment a man began shouldering his way past me and through a
group of women with children in their arms. This was not a solid
citizen, not a member of the upscale target audience. This was
a man wearing a down vest and a camouflage hat, a man with a
definite little glitter in his eyes, a member not of the 18.5
percent [of American households tuned into network coverage of
the 1988 Republican convention] and not of the 20.2 percent [of
American households tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Democrat
convention] but of the 81.5 percent, the 79.8. "I've got
to see the next president," he muttered repeatedly. "I've
got something to tell him."
"...Because that's what this party is all about,"
the candidate said.
"Where is he?" the man said, confused. "Who
"Get lost," someone said.
"...Because that's what this country is all about,"
the candidate said.
Here we had the last true conflict of cultures in America,
that between the empirical and the theoretical. On the empirical
evidence this country was about two-toned Impalas and people
with camouflage hats and a little glitter in their eyes, but
this had not been, among people inclined to the theoretical,
the preferred assessment. Nor had it even been, despite the fact
that we had all stood together on the same dusty asphalt, under
the same plane trees, the general assessment: this was how Joe
Klein, writing a few weeks later in New York magazine,
had described those last days before the California primary:
Breezing across California on his way to the nomination last
week, Michael Dukakis crossed a curious American threshold....The
crowds were larger, more excited now; they seemed to be searching
for reasons to love him. They cheered eagerly, almost without
provocation. People reached out to touch him....Dukakis seemed
to be making an almost subliminal passage in the public mind:
he was becoming presidential.
And while the pundits raved about Dukakis's "electrifying,"
"Kennedyesque" speech at the Democratic convention,
the ever skeptical Didion writes that the evening's real spark
derived from the fact that "the floor had been darkened,
swept with laser beams, and flooded with 'Coming to America,'
played at concert volume with the bass turned up."
The refreshing quality of Didion's political essays comes
partly from her being outside the 'specialist' circle of political
journalists and partly from her never revealing herself to be
a knee-jerk liberal--or a knee-jerk conservative, for that matter.
It probably has something to do with her political history. While
she grew up, she tells us, among California conservative Republicans
("this was before the meaning of 'conservative' changed"),
she became a registered Democrat after Ronald Reagan replaced
Barry Goldwater as the standard bearer of Republican conservatism,
and in 1992, she and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne,
let Jerry Brown stay in their apartment while he campaigned in
the New York primary.
For all of her acknowledged political migrations, her political
dislikes are more apparent in these essays than her political
preferences are. While she gets some good shots in on Dukakis,
she's equally willing to slam Reagan (who was, she writes, reinvented
"as a leader whose leadership was seen to exist exclusively
in his public utterances, the ultimate 'charismatic' president"),
Newt Gingrich ("A considerable amount of what Mr. Gingrich
says has never borne extended study") and that non-Democrat's
Democrat, Bill Clinton. Here, for example, is a nice Clinton
slam from "Eyes on the Prize":
He frequently referred [during the 1992 campaign] to "my
pain," and also to "my passion," or "my obsession,"
as in "it would be part of my obsession as president."
He spoke of those who remained less than enthusiastic about allowing
him to realize his passion or obsession as "folks who don't
know me," and of his need to "get the people outside
Arkansas to know me like the people here do"; most of us
do not believe that our best side is hidden. "I can feel
other people's pain a lot more than some people can," he
told Peter Applebome of The New York Times. What might
have seemed self-delusion was transformed, in the necessary reinvention
of the coverage, into "resilience," the frequently
noted ability to "take the hits."
But my favorite slams come in "Political Pornography,"
a blistering essay on Bob Woodward's journalistic efforts. Here's
one of the better passages:
Mr. Woodward's aversion to engaging the ramifications of what
people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable
quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive
big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone
with a more important game to play. Yet what we see in The
Choice is something more than a matter of an occasional inconsistency
left unexplored in the rush of the breaking story, a stray ball
or two left unfielded in the heart of the opportunity, as Mr.
Woodward describes his role, "to sit with many of the candidates
and key players and ask about the questions of the day as the
campaign unfolded." What seems most remarkable in this Woodward
book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward
books, each of which was presented as the insiders' inside story
and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller:
these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually
I admit it: I like an egghead's cat fight as much next as
the next guy. But reading these essays together in book form
rather than as freestanding articles produced over a period of
years has a decidedly depressing quality, if only because the
themes Didion works with again and again never get resolved by
the process. She calls it, appropriately, Sisyphean:
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 vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the
stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that had become
our national River Lethe.
It's not her fault, of course, if her subjects are depressing.
In fact, this collection demonstrates that Didion is quite simply
one of America's best essay writers, with a keen eye for detail
and a knack for dogged deconstructive analysis--to say nothing
of her writing style. Her elaborate sentence structures (she's
particularly enamored of sentence-stretching parenthetical points)
often read like intoxicating acrobatic maneuvers, and the points
she makes with them are so carefully developed that one often
feels they should be read purely for the pleasure of watching
them work, no matter how depressing the subject.
But I pity the poor sap who finds himself sitting next to
Didion at a dinner party and mentions, quite casually, that he's
glad to see both parties are finally starting to pay attention
to the long-neglected middle class.