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The Secret Agent 

Joan Didion talks

Wednesday, Oct 3 2001
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There’s something unsettling about Joan Didion. Perhaps it‘s the body of work, and the fact that she’s one of few living writers whose name can be shaped unapologetically into an adjective: Didionesque. Or perhaps it‘s the clean, calm, almost soporific style with which she eviscerates the likes of Bob Woodward and Michael Isikoff and Cokie Roberts in her new book, Political Fictions (Knopf), a collection of eight lengthy essays on the American political process. Or maybe it’s simply her petite physical stature, often described as ”birdlike.“ Of course birds can be deceiving -- love birds have a vicious bite, for instance, and the sweet little hummingbird has come and gone before you‘ve noticed you’re missing an eye. You get the feeling that Didion might have an unknown past, and if you‘re not careful, you might have less of a future. In houndstooth jacket, long cashmere scarf, Anna Wintour haircut and supersized sunglasses that function as a veil -- only her eye movements are visible -- she could be a 66-year-old Swarthmore-trained provocateur. Which is, more or less, what she is. Speaking in a quiet, surprisingly fractured manner, Didion punctuated her answers with dozens of little laughs that seemed less like laughs than points. Very sharp points. When I noted affably that I had asked her several times over the years to write for various publications, she said unexcitedly, ”I know.“ And then she laughed.

L.A. WEEKLY: Have the events of September 11 rendered your new book a collection of moot points? Are the domestic political fictions of the past decade now overwhelmed by global political realities?

JOAN DIDION: Oh, I don’t think they make them moot, no. Because we are seeing a lot of the same kinds of things at this moment -- you pick up the paper, and White House sources are talking about the president having found his mission, and you turn on a television and see Bill Schneider comparing Bush‘s approval rating to his father’s approval rating at the time of the Gulf War. And talking about how it‘s going to be a long-term plus for him because his one negative was what was starting to be called ”the Bush economy,“ and now it won’t be ”the Bush economy,“ it‘ll be ”the Osama bin Laden economy.“ In other words, they’re still talking process, still thinking in terms of the endless campaign. One of the problems with our dealings with the rest of the world is that they are so largely determined by the considerations of domestic politics.

So all this amounts to a kind of extremely unusual business as usual.

Everybody‘s still talking about how it plays. At one level, for the political class, it seemed not to have actually happened, or not to have penetrated. I was amazed by how rapidly everybody slipped this event into their previous agendas. People who thought that the liberals had tied the hands of the FBI or the CIA immediately jumped into that mode. Ann Coulter in the National Review talked about invading their countries and converting them to Christianity. Well [laughs], I don’t know how you do either one of those things. But people seem to find lessons in [the attack] that have very much reflected their underlying preoccupations. I was unable to find any lessons in it.

Yes, I was amazed and dismayed by what I see as the real tragedy of the left, the almost immediate spin of self-denigration and blame -- it‘s the U.S.-led global capitalism, it’s no worse than what we‘ve been doing to them all along -- rather than simply reacting with real human feeling.

Yeah, you kind of thought that this would leave people without words for just a minute. But no [laughs], it didn’t. The only person on the scene who actually responded in any kind of authentic way was, of all people, Rudolph Giuliani. It was amazing, and it still is amazing. I mean, talk about crash-and-burn -- he simply was totally out of control all summer. Then suddenly this happened, and he reached exactly the correct note. Which was dealing immediately with what needed to be done without resorting to rhetoric of any kind. And, in fact, discouraging rhetorical speculation at every opportunity.

One of the pieces in Political Fictions that would seem to be particularly pertinent, if not prescient, is ”God‘s Country,“ in which you follow Bush’s embracing of ”compassionate conservatism“ and ”faith-based diversity.“ Some of the rhetoric from the White House of late harks back to this -- our ”crusade“ and so on.

Yeah, ”finding the mission,“ ”God gave [Bush] his calling“ -- of course all of this is coming from ”White House sources.“ They have a certain agenda, right? What agenda Bush has is fairly opaque. We all know that he was born again after he woke up at the Broadmoor with a hangover or something. But what that means remains unclear.

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