The literature of our party conventions is not Mencken. It’s Mailer.
Starting with his still-breathtaking Esquire account of the 1960 Democratic convention that nominated John F. Kennedy in Los Angeles (Superman Comes to the Supermarket), Norman Mailer’s is an astonishing record of observation, invective, prophecy and lyricism–something of each mixed all together in one of many unforgettabable lines about JFK:
“Yes, this candidate,” Mailer wrote, “for all his record, his good, sound, conventional liberal record, has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.”
This was the magazine piece that first filled out the vision of JFK as existential hero. On newsstands three weeks before election day, it probably rallied as many votes to the vaporous Kennedy margin as Mayor Daley’s graveyard precincts in Chicago did. It made a difference, and it is still must reading about American politics.
I’ve got a wicked new crush on this blue-eyed handsome shark forty-four years later. Mailer received me and nonpareil producer Mary McGrath at home in Provincetown last week to talk about the Bush Republicans in Madison Square Garden, where his rickety knees won’t let him track the story in person. The fruits of our conversation are here in five fat slices.
Here’s a taste: “I think the Republicans are going to have a very successful, by their lights, convention. The fact that they’re going to be beleaguered–there are going to be protesters outside–will give them a sense of mission. They’ve always had a cock-eyed sense of mission, ’cause they believe they’re God’s people and they square that with the idea that they’re also greedbags. I mean, one of the fascinating things about the Republican Party is the way, on the one hand, they believe in Christ and love and selflessness, and, on the other, they’re the most selfish people in America and they love to amass money and power. So given that divide in them, they always need a crusade. They need some sense that they’re terribly important and that they’re beleaguered, and if they fail everything goes down with them…
“The Democrats decided not to play their trump card, which is to play to the 50 percent of America that hates Bush. I think they may be saving it for later. I hope they are. If they ignore it, they’re losing their strength. But you can always count on the Democrats to do something anemic. Clinton did it. Jimmy Carter, with all his decency, did it. Democrats find a way to lose, even though they’re the majority party. They tend to listen too much to wonks. And wonks say to them: the thing to do is attack the center, get those center votes; prove to America you’re almost as conservative as George Bush. Allright, I don’t disagree with that as a strategy. But to pretend that he’s going to be more pro-war in Iraq than Bush–I found astonishing.”
First, the risky New York setting; the dramatis personae on Bush’s stage (only Donald Rumsfeld gets Mailer’s respect); the great expectations set on the independent players–Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudoph Giuliani and John McCain; and the political value of stupidity.
Second, the “what it takes” question about Bushes in national politics, and Mailer’s take on the “loutish, low” son’s struggle with the father who couldn’t get himself reelected.
Third, a Mailer summing-up on “what had happened to American politics;” the wounds of the Cold War and the rise of corporations; and the very perishable grace of democracy itself.
Fourth, the prophetic novelist’s vision of the coming clash between Republican “crusade and mission” and the Democratic inclination to “do something anemic.”
Fifth, John Kerry, the Windsurfer, who learned to navigate the faintest breezes of politics without finding a cause he’d fight and die for. And, finally Mailer’s rueful speculation about the route that may have led from Hipdom in the 1950s to Abu Ghraib in a new century.
Or, if you like, listen to an edited 20-minute version of the whole conversation.
And hear, please, why we must honor this man. What Norman Mailer has written through the years (I have been wolfing down his 1280-page auto-anthology, The Time of Our Time) is an episodic history of misgivings about the free society we live in. To put it another way, we seem all to have arrived in this Bush-bedeviled summer of 2004 at what is for Norman Mailer a chronic nightmare. “A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve,” he wrote in his famous hipster essay, “The White Negro,” back in the halcyon days of 1959.
Some other timeless Mailer crystallizations along the way:
1960, on the Kennedy nomination: “Panic was the largest single sentiment in the breast of the collective delegates as they came to convene in Los Angeles… [Kennedy] looks young enough to be coach of the Freshman team, and that is not comfortable at all… So the boss is depressed, profoundly depressed. He comes to this convention resigned to nominating a man he does not understand, or let us say that, so far as he understands the candidate who is to be nominated, he is not happy about the secrets of his appeal, not so far as he divines these secrets; they seem to have little to do with politics and all too much to do with the private madnesses of the nation…”
1962, on the early rise of Conservatism, in a debate with William F. Buckley: “I think somewhere, at some debatable point in history, it is possible man caught some unspeakable illness of the psyche, that he betrayed some secret of his being and so betrayed the future of his species. I could not begin to trace the beginning of this plague, but whether it began early or late, I think it is accelerating now at the most incredible speed, and I would go so far as to think that many of the men and women who belong to the Right Wing are more sensitive to the disease than virtually any other people in this country. I think it is precisely this sensitivity that gives power to the Right Wing’s passions.”
1966, on LBJ at war in Vietnam: “The great fear that lies upon America is not that Lyndon Johnson is privately close to insanity so much as that he is the expression of the near insanity of most of us, and his need for action is America’s need for action–not brave action, but action, any kind of action, any move to get the motors going. A future death of the spirit lies close and heavy upon American life, a cancerous emptiness at the center which calls for a circus.”
1991, on the campaign politics of George H. W. Bush in 1988: “George Bush was keen, lean, competitive, and wanted the presidency as much as any vice president before him. Without it, he had nothing to anticipate but an enduring reputation as the ex-vice presidential wimp. Male pride is insufficiently appreciated. It can approach earthquake force. George Bush was not to be stopped by the likes of Dole or Dukakis; George Bush knew that you win elections by kissing the great American electorate on the mouth–‘I want a kinder, gentler nation’–and by kicking the opposition in the nuts.”
1996, on the unsatisfying choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and on discovering that the ballot in Provincetown did not list Ralph Nader as an alternative: “Would America never have a major candidate to give again some promise that politics could become as great and exciting as our dream? There was something immeasurably insolent in the way politicians patronized the American heart. Marilyn Monroe once commented on the way strangers could be awfully rude to her. ‘I guess,’ she said, ‘when they say those things, they think they’re only doing it to your clothing.'”
1998, in his Foreword to The Time of Our Time: “So, yes, the question was alive–would greed and the hegemony of the mediocre–the media!–triumph over democracy?”
So, yes, Mailer is alive–a fearless shark indeed, tearing through the pretty pretenses of our public scene, bursting through the surface of his own words. Norman Mailer has been a celebrity since his mid-twenties, with the success of his war novel, The Naked and the Dead. Yet remarkably he has somehow remained a citizen, one of us, a dreamer, an idealist, a visionary and a regular genius in conversation at the bar. Listen in.