A novelist, screenwriter, and withering essayist for nearly four decades, Joan Didion comes to the political arena as the consummate outsider, unsympathetic to either of the major parties, distanced from the chummy complacency of the press, and not beholden to her subjects' self-interested agendas. The search for a kind word anywhere in Political Fictions, a stellar collection of eight essays written for The New York Review Of Books between 1988 and 2000, would yield only the dedication and a few nods to erstwhile California Gov. Jerry Brown, whom she admires for his rare integrity. Though many similar compilations, most recently Michael Lewis' Next and John Seabrook's Nobrow, fail to stitch disparate articles under even the broadest thesis, Didion's pieces have a clear chronological progression and circle around the same themes with a buzzard's persistence. In vague terms, she's primarily concerned with "the process," a routine collaboration between the political and media elite to stage elections and news events that narrow democracy's participants to a select few, shutting out the majority of a justifiably apathetic electorate. Covering many of the major benchmarks of the last dozen years, from the elections of George Bush Sr. and Jr. to Bill Clinton's emergence to the "Republican Revolution" to the Lewinsky scandal, Political Fictions exposes the "narratives" designed by insiders to keep them in power. In "The West Wing Of Oz," Didion sees the genesis of this movement in Ronald Reagan's presidency, a triumph of flash over substance, literally placing an actor in the role of Leader Of The Free World. Occasioned by Dinesh D'Souza's fawning Reagan biography, which bore the subtitle How An Ordinary Man Became An Extraordinary Leader, Didion's savage review finds that the turning point came when looking presidential became more valuable than being presidential, and the speechwriters were left to set the agenda. From there, "Eyes On The Prize" explores the more highly evolved rhetoric of Bill Clinton's "Putting People First" program, which was fashioned with language largely determined by focus groups. In the scramble for all-important swing votes in the center, the Democratic Party abandoned any mention of the disenfranchised, unless by disenfranchised it meant the allegedly forgotten middle class. (George W. Bush would later make a successful grab for the same voters by softening his conservatism with the meaningless word "compassionate.") The dearth of substantive ideas behind the "Republican Revolution" in Congress is revealed in "Newt Gingrich, Superstar," a side-splitting review of the former House leader's bullet-pointed To Renew America and his novel 1945, which envisions a future culled from cut-rate science fiction. But in "Political Pornography," Didion reserves her greatest wrath for Bob Woodward, the ultimate insider journalist, whose book The Choice was built on extensive interviews with Bill Clinton and Bob Dole—access gained, she suspects, from his idea of "fairness," namely a refusal to ask tough questions. The essays in Political Fictions would seem like knee-jerk cynicism if her observations weren't so devastatingly on-target. With half the ballots in the 2000 race cast by voters with incomes above $50,000, her point about the marginalized electorate seems inarguable. Is this democracy?