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A compelling compilation of political reporting

("Vintage Didion"; By Joan Didion; Vintage, 208 pp.; paperback, $9.95.)

The title "Vintage Didion" is misleading, suggesting a retrospective anthology showcasing her multifaceted talent. But a reader will not find in these pages the Joan Didion of the classic personal essays such as "On Self-Respect," "On Keeping a Notebook," or "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind." Nor will one find the Joan Didion who covered the cultural landscape of the late '60s and early '70s with such clarity and incisiveness, the Didion who wrote about Haight- Ashbury and the Manson murders in collections such as "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album." Nor is Joan Didion the novelist ("A Book of Common Prayer," "Play It As It Lays," "The Last Thing He Wanted") represented.

What this book does show, quite splendidly, is the work of Joan Didion the political reporter from the Reagan era through the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The majority of these essays were originally published in the New York Review of Books, and all of them now appear in books published by the Vintage imprint of Random House -- hence "Vintage Didion."

The collection begins with a brief homage to the "White Album" period of her career, a 1982 review of Patricia Hearst's "Every Secret Thing" that contains as compelling an account of the Hearst case as I've ever read.

"Vintage Didion" also includes excerpts from her acclaimed books "Salvador" and "Miami." Both show her at the top of her form as a prose stylist. The "Salvador" excerpts reveal her gift for matter-of-fact reporting of horrific details, a juxtaposition of tone and material designed to convey the inevitable jadedness of life in a war zone: "There is a special kind of practical information that the visitor to El Salvador acquires immediately, the way visitors to other places acquire information about the hours for the museums. . . . One learns that vultures go first for the soft tissue, for the eyes, the exposed genitalia, the open mouth."

In the "Miami" pieces, her relentless qualification of every reportable assertion ("the details [of how Steven Carr got back to South Florida] were disputed, but either did or did not involve American embassy officials in Panama and San Jose who did or did not give him a plane ticket and instructions to `get the Hell out of Dodge' ") captures the air of conspiracy and rumor in a city that was the nerve center of both Cuban exile politics and illicit gun-running to Nicaragua.

In "Sentimental Journeys," her account of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, Didion reveals a dysfunctional New York that used the rape and its aftermath to create a public drama that obscured the city's profound race and class problems. She points out that 3,254 other rapes were reported in New York City that same year, but none of those provided the same symbolic fodder as an attractive young investment banker attacked by unemployed black youths -- who were convicted in spite of the troubling fact that their confessions contradicted the available forensic evidence. (The convictions were later overturned.)

"Clinton Agonistes," her analysis of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, poses the pertinent question of why, in a country where the lives of most citizens include nine to 11 years of nonmarital sex, a presidency could be threatened by the private conduct of two consenting adults. Her answer is a chilling summation of political realities in a country where a decreasing percentage of the electorate votes, and "issue" voters, small in number, have become a decisive factor in domestic politics.

The most timely piece in this pertinent collection is her concluding reflections on the national reaction to Sept. 11. With clear-eyed intelligence, she recounts how Americans briefly struggled to understand Islam, the developing world, and recent US foreign policy before any meaningful national discussion was drowned out by the cliches of the war on terror.

In spite of the range of topics covered within "Vintage Didion" -- the El Salvadoran civil war, the sociopolitical realities of New York City, the internal politics of the Reagan White House -- the anthology has a sustaining unity. Didion invariably explores the gap between the complications of events and the stories people tell themselves to smooth over the messy realities. The theme is a poignant one for an anthology that begins with a tale of domestic terrorism (Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army), continues through the wealth-dazed years when the Reagan White House blithely armed insurgents worldwide, and concludes with the lost opportunities for understanding in the weeks following Sept. 11.

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