Why you should watch Netflix’s Joan Didion documentary

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo (cc) 2013 by David Shankbone.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at m place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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A malign force from Nixon to Trump: Revisiting the Roger Stone biopic

Roger Stone. Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

How sleazy is Roger Stone? After the on-again, off-again Trump operative was arrested last week and charged in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, news reports invariably brought up Stone’s boasts that he and Richard Nixon were thisclose. Once again, we were subjected to those appalling photos of the Nixon tattoo that adorns Stone’s back. And the Nixon Foundationsprung into action on Twitter:

When even an organization devoted to “the consequential legacy and relevance” of the original unindicted co-conspirator wants nothing to do with you, it may be safely assumed that you are no ordinary political dirty trickster. And surely no one would call Stone ordinary.

What we should call Stone is the man who, more than anyone else, inflicted the presidency of Donald Trump upon us. It is easy to dismiss Stone as a foppish buffoon. But in rewatching the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” this week, I was reminded of how crucial Stone was to the entire Trump political enterprise — starting in the late 1980s, when Trump visited New Hampshire at Stone’s instigation.

“The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” says Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote a profile of Stone for The New Yorker and is one of the principal talking heads in the 2017 film, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro.

By Stone’s own telling, his dirty tricks extend all the way back to elementary school, where he rigged a mock election between his candidate, John F. Kennedy (Stone was not yet a Republican), and Richard Nixon.

“I went to the cafeteria, and as each kid would go through the cafeteria line with their tray, I would tell them, ‘You know, Nixon has proposed having school on Saturdays,’” Stone recalls. “Well, then the mock election was held, and to the surprise of the local newspaper, Democrat John Kennedy swept this mock election. For the first time ever, I understood the value of disinformation.” With a slight smirk he adds, “Of course, I’ve never practiced it since then.”

Stone has somehow managed to convince himself that he has political convictions that go beyond notoriety and cashing in. Yes, at one point we learn that he holds libertarian views on issues such as reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana. What really motivates him, though, are the same inchoate resentments that have helped elect the Republican presidents he’s served.

“Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, are losers. Those are bitter losers,” he says, sitting in a limousine in a pinstriped suit, wearing a lavender hat and his trademark round dark glasses. “Everything I have done, everything I have worked for, is to propel ideas and a political philosophy that I want to see dominate in government. Donald Trump has now elevated the issues that I believe in: anti-elitism that was first identified by Richard Nixon, mined by Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump.”

Anti-elitism as a “political philosophy.” Well, it carried Trump to the presidency, and it continues to resonate with his base. In Stone’s world, as in Trump’s, winning is its own justification.

The range of dirty tricks attributed to Stone, often exaggerated by the man himself, is breathtaking. Arranging for a campaign donation from a phony socialist group to Pete McCloskey, Nixon’s 1972 Republican primary opponent. Destroying Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential campaign by means too complicated to explain here (Trump played a cameo), thus helping to ensure the election of George W. Bush. Instigating the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that stopped the 2000 Florida recount. Breaking the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. Possibly even supplying CBS News with the George W. Bush National Guard documents that led to the departure of several journalists from the network, including anchor Dan Rather, after they were shown to be fake.

Toobin again: “Roger is unique in my opinion because he embraces infamy. He doesn’t worry that you’ll think he’s a sleazeball. He wants you to think he’s a sleazeball.”

Among other things, “Get Me Roger Stone” demonstrates that the Trump campaign had its origins many years ago, tying together such nefarious figures as Roy CohnPaul Manafort, Stone, and Trump himself. Trump and Manafort spoke extensively to the filmmakers, with Manafort saying, “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald.”

It seems likely that Stone would have been regarded as more of a real player and less of a sideshow freak if he hadn’t gotten caught up in a sex scandal of his own while working for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, thus relegating him to the shadows. Indeed, in the film we see Stone in such ridiculous situations as yelling into a megaphone while wearing a Shepard Fairey-style T-shirt of Bill Clinton emblazoned with the word “Rape” and holding forth on Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering “Infowars” program.

Roger Stone may come across as an absurd character. But as the film makes clear, he’s also one of the most important political operatives of the past four decades. As “Get Me Roger Stone” winds down to its conclusion, his unseen interlocutor asks, “What message would you have for the viewers of this film who will loathe you when the credits roll?” Stone’s answer: “I revel in your hatred. Because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”

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