Van-Loads of Campaign Fiction

The Girls in the Van

by Beth J. Harpaz

St. Martin's Press, 294 pages, $24.95

Political Fictions

by Joan Didion

Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pages, $25.00

Had she been obliged to cover the Senate race of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joan Didion would have set her hair on fire. Granted, that's a strange coincidence of an observation, but it is not without its points of relevance.

It came to me upon back-to-back readings of two very differently angled chronicles of American politics. Didion's Political Fictions, a compendium of previously published essays, vivisects the triviality of American campaign politics. The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary, by Beth J. Harpaz, who followed Clinton's campaign for the Associated Press, documents it.

True confession: As someone who happened to have been one of the girls in the van, I often felt like torching my own hair (like most of the press pack, I pop up here and there in the narrative). No question, the author interprets the candidate much more generously than I would. "As she blathered on about issuing technology bonds to help communities finance high-speed Internet connections," Harpaz writes of a "listening tour" event at the very outset of the Clinton campaign, "I noticed that most of my colleagues had stopped taking notes. This lady was all substance and no soundbites."

On the contrary, I eventually took to teaching myself Spanish during most of Clinton's policy addresses out of the exact opposite realization that the then-first lady was much closer to being all soundbites and no substance. It was just that the soundbites were dull by design, and the non-substance was delivered in such great torrents of her native Wonk that it apparently emitted the same sound wave as substance. I remain absolutely stunned at how well this worked.

Clinton was, of course, never asked whether she would favor going to war against the Taliban, but one can well predict exactly how she would have answered: by stating approximately how many people there were in Afghanistan; what they ate; what some of their customs were; that she had heard of a group called the Northern Alliance that disliked the Taliban; how she had once met the exiled king ... anything but the original question. I'm not kidding. Clinton gave that kind of answer all the time, about everything - about Social Security, about health care, about welfare reform - and she was "all substance." This drove me up the wall throughout the campaign, and it drove me up the wall throughout this book. But it's Harpaz's book, not mine, and lord knows, she tracked the candidate enough to come honestly to her own conclusions.

Of course, it is tracking the candidate, and not the candidate per se, that is the book's focus. Therefore, it isn't Clinton that you end up wondering about. It's the press. Harpaz makes an after-hours cell phone call to attempt (unsuccessfully) to nail down whether Hillary's college boyfriend really was saying, as he had recently hinted in a book by Gail Sheehy, that she had smoked pot. Harpaz tries a series of ploys in an effort to pry from the campaign a list of the first lady's "favorites" - colors, foods, and all that. The author rushes to an urgent Sunday afternoon press conference to hear Hillary respond to an accusation that several decades before, she had called a non-Jewish campaign worker a "fucking Jew bastard." (No, the Secret Service would not allow Harpaz into the house to use the facilities.) In short, Harpaz spent the better part of two years furiously, frantically, fervently chasing crumbs. We all did - and, to one degree or another, we all do, news cycle after cycle after cycle. It is not Harpaz's painting of this picture that is a problem; it is the picture itself. In fact, the single most valuable feature of her book is that it implicitly but utterly refutes the now-familiar conceit that if candidacies are cynical and vacuous, it is the fault of the media - the horrible, voracious, nitpicking media. Please. Read only a little of this, and you will see that the media are very rarely dictating the terms of a campaign. Most of the time, we are hostages.

Didion is a parachutist. She is, of course, a figure of stature in American letters, but she is only intermittently a campaign correspondent. This gives her a certain advantage in the seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees department. She does not, for instance, start with the assumption that most campaigns are constructed for idiots or amnesiacs. And Didion doesn't then proceed, as so many of the press regulars do, to analyze how well they are so constructed. Thus, she not only reads campaign literature on "substance," she measures it against such values as veracity, consistency, and feasibility. "The single 'entitlement reform' detailed as an actual monetary saving in Putting People First [the Bill Clinton-Al Gore campaign's 1992 tract] was the Medicare cutback for those with incomes over $125,000, and it was hard not to remember that Gov. Clinton, just four months before, had saturated Florida retirement condos with the news that Paul Tsongas, who had proposed to limit cost-of-living increase on Social Security benefits with incomes over $125,000, was against old people." No, Joan, it's not hard to forget that, especially when you were almost certainly not aware of it in the first place, and if you were, "just four months" seems like half a lifetime ago to a reporter trapped in the campaign box. But it should be hard to forget that, and it should be a matter of shame that it's not.

Didion is nothing if not bipartisan in her choice of targets; it is, for instance, apropos of Newt Gingrich that she writes: "Those arguments in To Renew America not immediately suggestive of ethical conflict tend to speed headlong into another kind of collision...." That may be the very best of the very many good things about her writing on this subject: that lethal but marvelously clipped contempt that makes one very glad never to have been, say, a boyfriend she wished to dump. As a reader, I loved every word of this book - which is not to say that I agreed with every word of it. Didion eloquently attacks journalists, politicians, political consultants, filthy rich contributors, and almost everyone present at the election circus.

There is only one group she spares, and she spares it absolutely: the American public, which appears here strictly as a victim of an expensively made, cynically operated political machinery, and never as a crucial enabler of it. To me, that is not populism. It's condescension. But that's a droplet of objection in a sea of admiration for someone who acknowledges "the political narrative, designed as it is to maintain the illusion of consensus rather than addressing actual issues."

On second thought, maybe if she had been a girl in the Hillary van, Didion would not have set her hair on fire. She would have kept her own point of view, her own kind of cool.