So wrote Joan Didion—born on this day in 1934—on the eve of this year’s Presidential election.  Not that she found this evasion particularly shocking: “This was not an unpredictable occurence,” she wrote in 1998’s “Clinton Agonistes.”  “These were not entirely unpredictable developments,” she writes in this month’s New York Review of Books.  The baseness of American politics may never surprise her, but the stupidity of the American electorate rarely fails to.  The object of her pithy restatements of talking points is never the political actor who mouths them (from whom nothing more nor better can be expected).  In these moments, the indictment is always of the public too stupid to recognize the absurdity of issues:

We heard repeatedly about “our children,” or “our kids,” who were, as presented, avid consumers of the Nightly News in whose presence sex had never been mentioned and discussions of the presidency were routine. (Political Fictions 233)

We could argue over whether or not the McCain campaign had sufficiently vetted its candidate for vice-president, but take at face value the campaign’s description of that vetting as “an exhaustive process” including a “seventy-question survey.” (“A Fateful Election“)

She does recognize the complicity of the press in this—what with its “arresting enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which only occurs in order to be reported” (Political Fictions 30)—but the fault belongs less to the stewards of democracy and their flacks for behaving thus than to the public who willingly consumes it.  We are a deeply stupid republic, but as Didion quotes William Safire advising the Dukakis campaign, “We hate to be seen to be manipulated” (31).

This is typical Didion: frame the norm such that its absurdity becomes obvious, then crucify someone with their own words.  Safire, speaking on behalf of the American people, instead ridicules them.  Bob Woodward, attempting to establish his thoroughness, instead reveals his methodological commitment to a scrupulous passivity untainted by thought:

The discinclination of Mr. Woodward’s to exert cognitive energy on what he is told reaches critical mass in The Choice, where not much is said to the author by a candidate or potential candidate appears to have been deemed too insignificant for inclusion, too casual for documentation.  (“Most of them permitted me to tape-record the interviews, otherwise I took detailed notes.”) (Political Fictions 196)

Didion’s prose here embodies the very principle it defends: Woodward’s inclusion of irrelevance is proven through the judicious selection of his most irrelevant sentence.  No fat need (nor can) be trimmed from its meat.  This otherwise laudable feature has drawbacks (to more than the the would-be parodist) apparent when inevitable tragedies occur:

Nine months and five days ago, at approximately 9 o’clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. Our only child, Quintana, then 37, had been for the previous five nights unconscious in an intensive-care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Singer Division, at that time a hospital on East End Avenue (it closed in August 2004), more commonly known as “Beth Israel North” or “the old Doctors’ Hospital,” where what had seemed a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock. This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.

I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.

The key clause there—the moment when her prose betrays itself and lays its innards bare—speaks to how her daughter and husband’s death “cut loose any fixed idea [she] ever had.”  For Didion, fixed ideas are so much fat to be trimmed and, needless to say, self-butchery is neither clean nor painless.