The Filth Estate

Joan Didion rips the press -- as only she can -- for its O.J.-like coverage of the Clinton scandals.

Some years back, the impeccably leftist, almost-but-not-quite comically high-browed New York Review of Books started assigning Joan Didion -- novelist, essayist, neurasthenic, and cracker-jack reporter -- to review books about the political scene and cover political events -- conventions, campaigns, speeches, what-have-you -- in a scattershot sort of way.

This decision might have seemed way too easy at the time. For Didion, an anxious, depressive, sun-phobic native Californian, the world feels more like "Hotel California" than Sea World, and you don't need a sensibility like hers to break the news that party conventions are surreal -- and siccing her on right-wing silly-billies like Dinesh D'Souza, Jack Kemp, and Newt Gingrich is almost enough to make you feel sorry for them. I mean, Didion's dog is smarter than these clowns.

In any case, 9/11 -- the exact date of this collection's publication, by the way -- instantly turned so many of these Jefes du Jour into questions for Trivial Pursuit, Particularly Boring Sunday Morning Pundit-Show Edition. And hard ones, too.

About halfway through Political Fictions, though, the Clinton scandals start breaking, and the book takes off. You can watch Didion scent her story and then start stalking, killing, and devouring it with all the precision, lucidity, fury, and a falcon's eye for detail that made her reportage on southern Florida in Miami (highly, highly recommended) such a stunner.

What interests Didion about the Clinton mess, bless her, is not the scandals -- she is, after all, an intelligent person who happens to believe in the Constitution of the United States and the right to not to have to hear the details of stuff that's none of your damn business on the evening news. What gets her full and horrified attention -- and ours -- is the way gossip became "a story," which was flogged into "The Story," one that, finally, almost resulted in a genuine coup d'etat -- the removal of a sitting president by a small group of enemies, against the law and the explicit and overwhelming desire of the electorate.

She really gets ripping -- and, damn, can this woman pull a quotation -- when she focuses on the press. Kenneth Starr, for example -- a nutter with powerful friends -- doesn't particularly interest her. But as an American, and as a reporter, she despises from her bones the complicity, sanctimony, and contempt for the public displayed by a Fifth Estate thoroughly corrupted by O.J. Simpson. And she shows exactly how they worked it.

It's a hard call, but I think Didion hates Cokie Roberts most, for the Sunday-school tone she took with all of us poor, morally lax morons out here in six-pack land. But the jobs she does on Bob Woodward and the uniquely loathsome Michael Isikoff (Linda Tripp's favorite speed-dial? The man who ruined Newsweek for a book deal?) are not ones from which they will soon recover.

(However, my personal choice for most disgusting performance by a supposed newsperson during the period would be the ever-kittenish Maureen Dowd. I would lay good money that that darlin' little thang twitched her tail at Clinton and he gave her the go-by -- there's simply no other explanation for the unrelenting, catty, personal, and obsessive viciousness she poured out day after day after day. And for which, incredibly, she got a Pulitzer Prize. Poor, poor old Joseph Pulitzer must still be quivering in his grave.)

Innuendoes, unforgivably sloppy reportage and half-concealed argument tricked out as factual narrative -- Didion turns arguably the most disgraceful period in the history of American journalism into a genuinely gripping, sobering, and highly instructive read.

Of course, the rage and worry that animate her analysis of the political narratives of the last two decades seem a bit dated now. This last September we all woke up to the memory of what actual news looks like, and feels like, and means. (Oh yes, and to the fact that we were not the nation of selfish, know-nothing hedonists the right-wingers had almost convinced us we were.)

Not that the spin has or will ever stop. Didn't I just read that George W.'s mother-in-law lost $8,000 in the Enron debacle (she can count that low?) and Dub is, boy, really miffed with those fellas now. "The Story" never ends.

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