Chatterbox vs. Joan Didion

Chatterbox has never known what to think about Joan Didion. On the one hand, he thinks she’s a wonderfully skillful writer who’s brilliant at demolishing the sentimental “narratives” by which the press and the public try to make sense of the news. On the other hand, Chatterbox never feels quite satisfied with the nihilistic alternative interpretations that Didion always hints at, but never quite spells out, because Argument is just the sort of false neat construct she deplores. (Chatterbox also thinks that anyone who has spent her screenwriting career penning endless remakes of A Star Is Born–the first was called A Star Is Born, the second was called Up Close And Personal–should consider her own glass house before she throws stones at other people’s hackneyed “narratives.”) Didion’s latest essay, “Clinton Agonistes,” in the Oct. 8 issue of the New York Review of Books, will be hitting the newsstands in a day or two. Prompted by New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s declaration that it’s a must-read, Chatterbox got an advance copy. Chatterbox agrees that it’s worth reading, and that it does a highly effective job of lampooning the outrage of Beltway blowhards over the public’s unwillingness to agree with them that Clinton must go. However, Chatterbox is perplexed at the outlines of Didion’s counterargument, as sketched out in wry parenthetical phrases tossed here and there, and which Chatterbox will attempt, as a public service, to assemble and argue with here:

  1. Bill Clinton is an asshole. (“No one who followed his appearances [in 1992] on The Road to The White House on C-SPAN could have missed the reservoir of self-pity, the quickness to blame, the narrowing of the eyes, as in a wildlife documentary, when things did not go his way….”)

Chatterbox replies: Nice observation on the “wildlife documentary” bit, but I rather like Clinton, think Democrats would be unwise to hold in automatic contempt the only Democrat who’s managed to serve two presidential terms since FDR, yet nonetheless am distressed by his behavior in Flytrap, most especially the bit where he lied under oath (in both the Jones deposition and the grand jury proceeding).

  1. The press and public knew Clinton was an asshole when he was elected, and decided to live with it.

Chatterbox replies: I never dreamed he’d commit sexual antics in the Oval Office and perjure himself about it. Call me naïve, but I thought he had more self-control than that.

  1. Ken Starr provides fresh evidence that Clinton is an asshole, but he has a weak legal case on factual grounds. (“Perhaps because not all of the experts, authorities, and spokespersons driving this news had extensive experience with the kind of city-side beat on which it is taken for granted that the DA’s office will leak the cases they doubt they can make, selective prosecutorial hints had become embedded in the ongoing story as fact.”)

Chatterbox replies: Press accounts were, in retrospect, remarkably accurate. Even the thong story turned out to be true!

  1. He also has a weak legal case on legal grounds: It’s unusual to prosecute perjury in a civil suit, the Jones deposition was on a matter ruled inessential to the Jones case, and the Jones case itself was later thrown out.

Chatterbox replies: It’s also unusual, and entirely galling, for the president of the United States to be resorting to legal loopholes (which may or may not exist; there’s some debate within the legal profession over this) to defend lying under oath.

  1. So now the debate has shifted to solipsistic “practical” grounds (e.g., he can’t govern, Washington insiders say, without pointing out they’re the ones who won’t let him) and moral grounds (he’s too much of a creep to stay president).

Chatterbox replies: Good point on the solipsism. But a.) I don’t yield the legal case; and b.) I’m not averse to hearing moral arguments about whether somebody is fit to remain president.

  1. But Clinton, even though he’s an asshole, isn’t made more of an asshole for having engaged in “masturbation” in the White House with a young woman. Get hip, it happens. (“The average age of first sexual intercourse in this country has been for some years sixteen, and is younger in many venues….Six of every ten marriages in this country are likely to end in divorce, a significant percentage of those who divorce doing so after engaging in extramarital sexual activity.”)

Chatterbox replies: “Masturbation” is an odd euphemism for “blow job.” I don’t mind that Clinton is an adulterer; I do mind that he gropes White House interns in his office, and I especially mind that he may have committed crimes to cover that up.

  1. Polls show Americans don’t care. Politicians care because the few citizens who bother to write or call are all Christian Right assholes.

Chatterbox replies: If you want the Christian Right in this country to mushroom, keep taking that blase attitude toward Flytrap. Politicians won’t keep caring about this if the polls don’t come around. Indeed, Chatterbox won’t keep caring if the polls don’t come around; although he thinks Clinton should resign, what he mostly thinks is this should get settled one way or another very quickly.

  1. Therefore, politics is an asshole pursuit.

Chatterbox replies: Politics is a noble pursuit, worth caring about, and intellectuals should stop sneering at it.

–Timothy Noah