There is, it seems, a certain type of woman that will always turn up at the chance to hear Joan Didion speak, and I was sandwiched in line between many of them at Sunday’s Brooklyn Book Festival. They are in their mid-twenties and work in publishing and are themselves writers. In two separate conversations writing workshops were mentioned. Still. Who can blame them for wanting an audience with her? Certainly not the hundreds of other ticket holders, not to mention those relegated to the stand-by line.
The panel was titled “The Consequences to Come,” and as with the Didion, the rest of the speakers were all contributors to the New York Review of Books. The discussion was meant to cover “the challenges and opportunities that will face the next American presidential administration,” but as there is much hand-wringing of late about the election, it turned naturally into an examination of the Republicans and their newly-minted star Sarah Palin. (Seriously, you cannot go anywhere without someone discussing her.)
Once the microphone situation was sorted, NYRB editor Robert Silvers gave the each of the writers the floor before opening the thing up for discussion. Mark Danner, in a promise made to Ronald Dworkin on the cab ride over, reeled off poll numbers and statistics that were meant to gird Democratic voters.
Didion, who said she was too short to read behind the table, took her brief essay up to the podium. She began by quoting the blustery Chris Matthews and an assertion he’d made, that he’d seen this election before. Indeed, she noted, for all the talk of change how similar the 2008 race is to the campaigns preceding it. And taking as she does an aspect of the process and giving it a gimlet-eyed read, she focused on what has been said by all the pundits and television talking heads about Palin: she has a great “story.” McCain, the war hero, has a great “story.” It is a tactic used, she asserted, to “downplay their capacity for trouble.” Condoleezza Rice had a great “story.” Hearkening back to the 2005 confirmation hearings to install her as secretary of state, she said how at the time everyone noted that Rice had great success as provost of Stanford. “It was as if everyone on the Fox News Terror Alert Team had come off the provost beat.”
There was then the noting of the Republican’s power of belief, as if saying a thing is such — the surge is a success — will make it so. This was a nice callback to Mark Danner’s opener, which started by going back to Ron Suskind’s famous New York Times magazine piece from 2004 which mentioned the “reality-based community.” The article quotes an aide to Bush — “Karl Rove,” Danner said. “On the record it’s ‘an aide’ but it’s Karl Rove” — as saying “‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
So yes, we’re in “our national coma” as Didion said, “self-induced,” and the Culture War still rages and yet again the Republicans have twisted what are essentially the issues of class disparity into racial issues.
Following exuberant applause, Dworkin had the unenviable task of laying out his own take on the campaign. It was logically sound, but his particular oratory style had the audience shifting in their seats. The woman next to me audibly sighed. Twice. An urgent and engaging Darryl Pinckney finished up with a rousing piece that could be summed up thusly: “Don’t freak out.” He is convinced Obama will carry the west, which is the new south, or something.
The back-and-forth discussion and questions still seemed to focus on Palin. Of the bump in support of the McCain ticket among white women, Didion said “something about it is beyond me.” Danner’s belief is that once the “ooh look, shiny” aspect of Palin wears away that any lead they have will dip.
Having run over time, the discussion concluded and those who were so inclined could have their books autographed at the signing table across the street. The choir had been preached too, intelligently and factually and sometimes humorously, but as we’ve learned, facts don’t seem to quicken the pulse like a good myth, however unreal.