Displaying the same uncanny gifts for observation, portraiture, and understanding that marked her two prior celebrated essay collections—Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album—Joan Didion takes us inside the overlapping worlds of American politics and media during the 1980s, her focus the defining narratives and image-making during the Reagan presidency and 1988 presidential race. Elsewhere, Didion, a Berkeley alumnus, chronicles return visits to campus in the 70s and 80s, weaving together memories of her undergraduate years and “Atomic Age” childhood, interviewing nuclear scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and reflecting brilliantly on kidnapped California heiress Patty Hearst, a student at Berkeley when apprehended by radical leftists.
“Fire season” in Southern California. The Cotton Club murder trial, a real-life L.A. noir with roles played by a top movie producer, a porn tycoon, and Columbian drug-cartel contacts. In “Times Mirror Square,” she tracks the stories and agendas of the men who built the Los Angeles Times, a prime shaper of Los Angeles for a century-plus. In the searing New York-set closing essay “Sentimental Journeys,” she lays bare the racial and class biases, the political and media strategies framing the narratives surrounding the Central Park jogger case.
Excerpt from After Henry
In the Realm of the Fisher King
President Ronald Reagan, we were later told by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, spent his off-camera time in the White House answering fifty letters a week, selected by the people who ran his mail operation, from citizens. He put the family pictures these citizens sent him in his pockets and desk drawers. When he did not have the zip code, he apologized to his secretary for not looking it up himself. He sharpened his own pencils, we were told by Helene von Damm, his secretary first in Sacramento and then in Washington, and he also got his own coffee.
In the post-Reagan rush to establish that we knew all along about this peculiarity in that particular White House, we forgot the actual peculiarity of the place, which had to do less with the absence at the center than with the amount of centrifugal energy this absence left spinning free at the edges. The Reagan White House was one in which great expectations were allowed into play. Ardor, of a kind that only rarely survives a fully occupied Oval Office, flourished unchecked. "You'd be in someone's home and on the way to the bathroom you'd pass the bedroom and see a big thick copy of Paul Johnson's Modern Times lying half open on the table by the bed," Peggy Noonan, who gave Ronald Reagan the boys of Pointe du Hoc and the Challenger crew slipping the surly bonds of earth and who gave George Bush the thousand points of light and the kinder, gentler nation, told us in What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era.
"Three months later you'd go back and it was still there," she wrote. "There were words. You had a notion instead of a thought and a dustup instead of a fight, you had a can-do attitude and you were in touch with the Zeitgeist. No one had intentions they had an agenda and no one was wrong they were fundamentally wrong and you didn't work on something you broke your pick on it and it wasn't an agreement it was a done deal. All politics is local but more to the point all economics is micro. There were phrases: personnel is policy and ideas have consequences and ideas drive politics and it's a war of ideas . . . and to do nothing is to endorse the status quo and roll back the Brezhnev Doctrine and there's no such thing as a free lunch, especially if you're dining with the press."
Peggy Noonan arrived in Washington in 1984, thirty-three years old, out of Brooklyn and Massapequa and Fairleigh Dickinson and CBS Radio, where she had written Dan Rather's five-minute commentaries. A few years later, when Rather told her that in lieu of a Christmas present he wanted to make a donation to her favorite charity, the charity she specified was The William J. Casey Fund for the Nicaraguan Resistance. She did not immediately, or for some months after, meet the man for whose every public utterance she and the other staff writers were responsible; at the time she checked into the White House, no speechwriter had spoken to Mr. Reagan in more than a year. "We wave to him," one said.
In the absence of an actual president, this resourceful child of a large Irish Catholic family sat in her office in the Old Executive Office Building and invented an ideal one: she read Vachel Lindsay (particularly "I brag and chant of Bryan Bryan Bryan / Candidate for President who sketched a silver Zion") and she read Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whom she pictured, again ideally, up in Dutchess County "sitting at a great table with all the chicks, eating a big spring lunch of beefy red tomatoes and potato salad and mayonnaise and deviled eggs on the old china with the flowers almost rubbed off) and she thought "this is how Reagan should sound". What Miss Noonan had expected Washington to be, she told us, was "Aaron Copland and 'Appalachian Spring' ". What she found instead was a populist revolution trying to make itself, a crisis of raised expectations and lowered possibilities, the children of an expanded middle class determined to tear down the established order and what they saw as its repressive liberal orthodoxies: "There were libertarians whose girlfriends had just given birth to their sons, hoisting a Coors with social conservatives who walked into the party with a wife who bothered to be warm and a son who carried a Mason jar of something daddy grew in the backyard. There were Protestant fundamentalists hoping they wouldn't be dismissed by neocon intellectuals from Queens and neocons talking to fundamentalists thinking: I wonder if when they look at me they see what Annie Hall's grandmother saw when she looked down the table at Woody Allen."
She stayed at the White House until the spring of 1986, when she was more or less forced out by the refusal of Donald Regan, at that time chief of staff, to approve her promotion to head speechwriter. Regan thought her, according to Larry Speakes, who did not have a famous feel for the romance of the revolution, too "hard-line", too "dogmatic", too "right-wing", too much "Buchanan's protégée". On the occasion of her resignation she received a form letter from the president, signed with the auto-pen. Donald Regan said that there was no need for her to have what was referred to as "a good-bye moment", a farewell shake-hands with the president. On the day Donald Regan himself left the White House, Miss Noonan received this message, left on her answering machine by a friend at the White House: "Hey, Peggy, Don Regan didn't get his good-bye moment." By that time she was hearing the "true tone of Washington" less as "Appalachian Spring" than as something a little more raucous, "nearer," she said, "to Jefferson Starship and 'They Built This City on Rock and Roll' ".
The White House she rendered was one of considerable febrility. Everyone, she told us, could quote Richard John Neuhaus on what was called the collapse of the dogmas of the secular enlightenment. Everyone could quote Michael Novak on what was called the collapse of the assumption that education is or should be "value-free". Everyone could quote George Gilder on what was called the humane nature of the free market. Everyone could quote Jean-Francois Revel on how democracies perish, and everyone could quote Jeane Kirkpatrick on authoritarian versus totalitarian governments, and everyone spoke of "the movement", as in "he's movement from way back", or "she's good, she's hard-core".
They talked about subverting the pragmatists, who believed that an issue could not be won without the Washington Post and the networks, by "going over the heads of the media to the people". They charged one another's zeal by firing off endless letters, memos, clippings. "Many thanks for Macedo's new monograph; his brand of judicial activism is more principled than Tribe's," such letters read. "If this gets into the hands of the Russians, it's curtains for the free world!" was the tone to take on the yellow Post-It attached to a clipping. "Soldier on!" was the way to sign off. Those PROF memos we later saw from Robert McFarlane to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North ("Roger Ollie. Well done—if the world only knew how many times you have kept a semblance of integrity and gumption to US policy, they would make you Secretary of State. But they can't know and would complain if they did—such is the state of democracy in the late 20th century. . . . Bravo Zulu") do not seem, in this context, quite so unusual.
"Bureaucrats with soft hands adopted the clipped laconic style of John Ford characters," Miss Noonan noted. "A small man from NSC was asked at a meeting if he knew of someone who could work up a statement. Yes, he knew someone at State, a paid pen who's pushed some good paper." To be a moderate was to be a "squish", or a "weenie", or a "wuss". "He got rolled," they would say of someone who had lost the day, or, "He took a lickin' and kept on tickin'." They walked around the White House wearing ties ("slightly stained," according to Miss Noonan, "from the mayonnaise that fell from the sandwich that was wolfed down at the working lunch on judicial reform") embroidered with the code of the movement: eagles, flags, busts of Jefferson. Little gold Laffer curves identified the wearers as "free-market purists". Liberty bells stood for "judicial restraint".