Unflinching Eye

POLITICAL FICTIONS

By Joan Didion

Knopf -- 338pp -- $25

Back in 1984, I took my first campaign trip with a U.S. President. Ronald Reagan delivered his traditional stump speech in a Missouri barn, but what struck this then-young political reporter was that the President misspoke at least three times. After including the Reagan goofs in my story in the Dallas Times Herald, I scanned the major U.S. newspapers the next day and found that none had reported the President's factual errors. Innocently, I asked a veteran White House reporter why I had scored this unanticipated scoop. "It's not news when the President makes mistakes," she said. "It happens all the time."

That moment, revealing the rules of the game as understood by the press and the pols, is similar to some of those described by Joan Didion when she began to cover American politics in 1988. Best known until then as a novelist, essayist, feminist, and nonfiction author, Didion quickly made her name as a sage political analyst as well. Now, readers are being treated to Political Fictions, a collection of her 13 years of essays on political topics. And it is one of the most perceptive and readable volumes on American campaigns and governance in recent years.

The book's best essay is its first, "Insider Baseball," describing the attempts of 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis to shape media coverage of his campaign. A memorable example: Dukakis' habit of tossing a baseball to a staffer on airport tarmacs. A campaign insider noted that it made "the Duke" look like "a regular guy"--an important attribute that many Democrats feared the candidate lacked. "What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding," she writes, "a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too `naive' to know the rules of the game, would so describe it."

Didion, a former Goldwater Republican who veered sharply to the left, has the detached perspective of a newcomer to Washington. But she's not naive. Political Fictions systematically deconstructs conventional wisdom with style and intelligence.

Many of Didion's essays share a common theme--one that is heretical inside the Washington Beltway. She contends that in most elections, political professionals and their enablers in the news media direct their energies at a narrow, generally affluent slice of the electorate known as swing voters. Meanwhile, they have little interest in appealing to a far broader segment of the population: the 50% of eligible voters who are too disgusted with the system to participate. "The largest political party in America," Didion writes, consists of "those who did not vote."

Didion has written one of the best outsider works on the inside game of politics. Few in the D.C. punditocracy escape her venom. Prominent targets include journalists Bob Woodward, Joe Klein, Cokie Roberts, and Michael Isikoff, whose claims to fame range from Deep Throat to Anonymous to Monica & Linda Tripp. Didion's bite has the sting of a viper, and the poison penetrates deep.

By Richard S. Dunham

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