Joan Didion, Perpetual Outsider

Didon in 2012 (Jemal Countess/Getty)
She claimed her ideas didn’t change — the political landscape changed around her.

Bill Buckley called Joan Didion one of the “apostates.” His sister Priscilla, who was Didion’s managing editor at National Review, was more specific, calling her “a conservative” staffer who ended up a “flaming liberal.” At first glance, Joan Didion’s trajectory seems to bear this out. She went from writing for National Review and voting for Barry Goldwater to defending Bill Clinton at the height of his impeachment proceedings, to lambasting George W. Bush, to voting for Barack Obama in 2008. She seemed to be that familiar figure of the Baby Boomer generation: a conservative pushed leftward by the Sixties. In her own view, though, this “Goldwater girl” never really changed. Like Reagan (whom Didion was alone in seeing as too unprincipled to qualify as the heir to Goldwater), she stated that the “parties changed” and that her “unorthodox conservativism” hadn’t. She reminded readers into the 21st century that she was still criticizing those in power no matter what their party.

There is a good case to be made for this self-characterization. As Tracy Daugherty’s excellent new book, The Last Love Song, shows, Didion pioneered conservative cultural criticism as much as she did the “New Journalism” (applying novelistic techniques to journalism), bequeathing arguments and terms used by the movement today. In the 1960s, she accused the New York Times of having a “liberal bias.” She attacked über-liberal Woody Allen for extolling limousine liberalism in his films (none of his characters were ever poor; all lived on the West Side of Manhattan). She located this snobbery as peculiar to the “coastal cities” — a rhetorical gift she bequeathed to those who today characterize Manhattan as a type of “people’s republic” and denounce Hollywood as being typical of “the Left Coast.” While at National Review she attacked liberals who snickered at John Wayne’s death in The Alamo while the rest of the audience cried. Five years later, with Wayne even more despised by liberals, she devoted one of her best essays to celebrating his authentic, unscripted heroism (he had been recently diagnosed with lung cancer but stoically continued making action films).

The lack of this sort of authenticity would be one of the reasons she would despise Nancy Reagan. In 1968, she interviewed Mrs. Reagan, whose husband had been governor of California for a little over a year. In the resulting essay, entitled “Pretty Nancy,” she derided the future first lady as retaining a studio mindset (the way the studios catered to their stars’ wishes smacked of socialism to Didion), in which every action of hers was scripted in advance. Didion recalled a moment when the news people asked Nancy to “fake” nipping a flower bud, and made her do three takes. Didion could take comfort that henceforth Mrs. Reagan refused to be interviewed by female journalists.

Didion spent years as a screenwriter, but never stopped attacking Hollywood liberalism.

Didion spent years as a screenwriter, but never stopped attacking Hollywood liberalism. She expressed disdain for liberal activist stars — familiar figures in our time — and their immature method of reducing everything down to absolute good and absolute evil. Even while she worked in Hollywood throughout the Eighties and Nineties, she saw a continuation of this immaturity. Her warts-and-all script about the doomed and self-destructive broadcast journalist Jessica Savitch was morphed by studio executives into a feel good A-Star-Is-Born type of vehicle for Robert Redford.

Although she had by then registered as a Democrat, she still saw most Democrats as elitist and fashion-conscious lefties. She was repelled by George W. Bush (another Manichean, in her book), but she didn’t succumb to the “hope and change” platitudes of Obama and his followers. Unlike those who rejoiced at his election, believing it would usher in a period of peace and progressivism, she lamented these attitudes and declared, “Irony was now out. Naïveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in.”

Daugherty makes no definite categorizations of Didion’s politics, allowing her the last word. But what becomes apparent throughout the book is that Didion was less a political animal and more the perpetual outsider possessed of Western cussedness (she was born in that last outpost of Western pioneering, California). A photo of her covering Haight-Ashbury says it all: To one side are the flower children clumped together, while on the other side she stands alone staring at them with a bemused expression.

This cussedness crossed party lines. While at National Review she championed leftist Norman Mailer, and she refused to criticize him when he attacked feminists in the 1970s. And yet, she found the free-speech and anti-war movements at Berkeley, which Mailer applauded, to be engaging in self-delusion.

Daugherty’s résumé as a writer — he is an award-winning novelist and a biographer of Joseph Heller — makes him an ideal biographer of Joan Didion. He “gets” Didion — the melancholy, the hypochondria, the depressions accompanied by daytime drinking. Most of all he is able to show that her quest as a writer was not to push a political agenda, but rather to somehow find a narrative in a period when the inmates had taken over the asylum, both on the barricades and in the government.

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