“American reporters “like” covering presidential campaigns (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music, it is viewed as a big story, one that leads to the respect of one’s peers, to the Sunday shows, to lecture fees and often to Washington), which is why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasms for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported. They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their source wish transmitted….” Political Fictions, Joan Didion 2001
Like other things she wrote about - El Salvador, magical thinking, death, San Bernardino, John Wayne, the Haight, etc. - Joan Didion puts on the page things other writers struggle to boil down. It would have taken me at least three pages to capture what she did in this one paragraph of her 2001 book of essays Political Fictions.
She had all our numbers.
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If you haven’t read the book I encourage you to pick up a copy. I’ve read it or referred to it over the years and each time I pick it up I am reminded how intuitive a writer - and observer - she was to the political process (she noted a then unknown Herman Cain caught then Speaker Newt Gingrich’s eye as a source of his inspiration; Cain she noted somewhat incredulously but critically was among Lincolns and Tocquevilles, Ray Krocs and Gore Vidals Newt praised).
She wrote about how white men like Gingrich rise to power as the main “beneficiaries of the nation’s cultural and historical amnesia.” Ostensibly that amnesia allows disasters like Hillbilly Elegy to be written into gospel, Black people to continue to be enslaved through an American renaissance to mass incarceration and jail expansion and people being forced to carry rape pregnancies to term.
(I set aside for now how she rebuked the first wave of feminism while being able to benefit from it and also her later years of trying to obscure her deeply privileged upbringing. Spending too much time in Hollywood, maybe?)
It was 1988 when she was coerced into covering politics by an editor at The New York Review of Books. She finally relented and joined the scrum. She covered the the eight night Democratic convention held four nights in Atlanta and four in New Orleans. She noted the celebrity of it all as national television news “trawled the floor, fishing in Atlanta for Rob Lowe [Note: I went to the DSM airport at 2am during the Dukakis campaign because Rob Lowe was with him as they set down on the tarmac…].
In New Orleans the big catch would be a tape of Democratic Party super supporter Donald Trump glad-handing around the floor of the Superdome harboring his big lies. The Superdome that would decades later hold refugees from Katrina, mostly Black folks left to sit in squalor and die on curbs. Heckuva job Brownie. If only Trump had been president back then he could have shown up to toss a few rolls of paper towels to the adoring crowd.
In one way Didion was in her element - not politics but show biz. Her LA essays capture the low-slung desperation of a Hollywood built on fault lines and its own conceit. The crossover of politics and theater has always existed so in that way her critique wasn’t new; the 24 hour news as entertainment nightmare in 1988 however was just getting started.
I read Political Fictions these days as a full throated media critique as much as ethnographic study of American politicians and their fans. Political campaigns and the reporters who cover them are in a mostly symbiotic if not at times parasitic relationship.
Reporters shout into the cave of a campaign then strain to listen for the echo of their own voice changed in pitch and octave just enough to be printable as news from the stump. The voice came from campaign’s own cave after all. And vice versa and so on.
The fourth estate has failed utterly, willfully and cynically for ages when it comes to holding politicians accountable. News deserts have blanketed the country, non-profit news groups struggle to find new ways to report from the ground and stay above water. News monopolies chase the constant campaign from the same frame - in Iowa think disaffected hick with foot on hay bale upset about drag shows voting for racists to make America great - and my god people read it.
The revenue generated by covering the constant campaign eclipses every other story no contest. After all we are the country that can’t manage to keep Uvalde relevant in the face of another Trump rally to be covered.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
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