Joan Didion: Tough Girl

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For those writers who began as conservatives on his magazine and graduated into liberalism, William F. Buckley of National Review called them the “apostates.” Probably the most notorious of these figures was Joan Didion, who, in the words of Buckley’s sister Priscilla, started as “a conservative” staffer and ended up a “flaming liberal.”

At first glance, Joan Didion’s trajectory seemed to bear this out. She went from writing for National Review and voting for arch-conservative 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. But in her view, though, this “Goldwater girl” never really changed. Like Reagan (who Didion criticized and was alone in seeing him as too unprincipled to qualify as the heir to Goldwater), she stated that the “parties changed” and that her “unorthodox conservatism” hadn’t. She reminded readers into the 21st century that she was still criticizing those in power no matter what their party affiliation.

There is a good case to be made for this self-characterization. For 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 uber-liberal Woody Allen for extolling a limousine liberalism (none of his characters were ever poor; all lived on the West Side of Manhattan) in his films. 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” while denouncing Hollywood as “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 was recently diagnosed with lung cancer but stoically continued making action films). Wayne’s authenticity would be one of the reasons she would despise Nancy Reagan. In an essay entitled “Pretty Nancy,” she derided the future first lady as retaining a studio mindset (an entity whose catering to every need of its stars smacked of socialism to Didion) in which every action of Reagan’s was scripted in advance. Didion recalled a moment where the news people asked her to “fake” nipping a flower bud, and made her do three takes. Didion could take comfort that henceforth the First Lady refused to be interviewed by female journalists.

She spent years as a screenwriter, but never stopped attacking Hollywood liberalism. She expressed disdain at liberal actors/activist stars—a familiar figure for our time–and their immature method of reducing everything down to absolute good and absolute evil. For her, even while she worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood throughout the 80s and 90s, she saw a continuation of this immaturity. Her warts-and-all script about the doomed and self-destructive journalist Jessica Savitch was morphed by studio executives into a feel good Star-is-Born type vehicle for Robert Redford.

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

At times she is hard to pin down ideologically. What emerges when one studies her life is that she 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 she stands staring at them with a bemused expression.

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

Didion’s cussedness was at times compromised by her melancholy, hypochondria, and daytime drinking.

But her overall achievement revealed a tough-mindedness in trying to impose order on a chaotic period where the inmates had taken over the asylum, both on the barricades and in public office.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.