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Joan Didion Knew The Job Had Been Butchered

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It’s fashionable to like Joan Didion. They printed her on tote bags, and for obvious reasons. The Corvette, of course. The cigarette. The effortless cool of long, untamed hair and a flowing dress.

You can read about her “radicalization” in The New Yorker. Didion, who passed this week, started her career with a healthy respect for Barry Goldwater, contributing essays to National Review. By the late 1980s, Didion developed a healthy skepticism of the American right. The essays in “Political Fictions,” released in 2001, start with “Insider Baseball,” a cutting critique of campaign theater with enduring relevance. She flays Dinesh D’Souza. She roasts Newt Gingrich.

Yet the book is almost transpartisan, unamused with the ritual choreography of American politics. Her 1996 review of Bob Woodward’s “The Choice” is above all a brutal piece of media criticism.

“What seems most remarkable in this Woodward book,” said Didion, “is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders’ inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

The charge Didion brings against Woodward, that he only obtains insider information by protecting the interests of those insiders, she also levels against the entire industry.

“The genuflection toward ‘fairness’ is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal,” wrote Didion. “In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what ‘fairness’ has often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.”

In the book, that essay appeared under the headline, “Political Pornography.”

Chomsky, of course, wouldn’t be caught dead in a hot rod. And therein lies the appeal of Joan Didion, whose life had all the glamor and tragedy of America in the 20th Century, and whose travels “South and West” and everywhere else had all the romance of the American imagination, of scribbling in a notebook from the bed of a midcentury motel on a stretch of remote highway far from home. She really did it.

Didion’s disillusionment with the left became a disillusionment with the system itself — as well it should have. While her thinking may have shifted, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” remains exact in its prescience, much like her musings on Woodward. Indeed, reading Didion can feel like mining for gold, finding in her dry wit and precise descriptions those standout passages that captured something true about her time then and our time now.

Burdened by anxiety before it became a national burden, Didion leaves us at a time when there is much to be gained from her work, just as bellbottoms return to the racks and cities return to decay. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” begins with five famous words: “The center was not holding.”

“It was not a country in open revolution,” Didion wrote. She continued:

It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco.

It’s really too bad she can’t go back.