2012 political conventions: What would Norman Mailer say?

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

What would Norman Mailer have made of Clint Eastwood? I’ve been thinking about that these last few days, as we shift from one national nominating convention to another, as Tampa yields to Charlotte and the great miniseries of presidential politics continues its inexorable passage toward Election Day.

Mailer, after all, is the big daddy of participatory political reporting, spiritual godfather of Hunter Thompson, Timothy Crouse and Matt Taibbi — first with “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” his account of the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, and later with “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” a book that seems to me more underrated the further we get from the historical flashpoint it describes.

“Miami and the Siege of Chicago” is an almost perfect Mailer book, defined, as he was, by contradiction: bombast versus analysis, ego versus an unexpectedly nuanced sense of (let’s call it) patriotism, a sense that the center is not holding and that the author, like all Americans, is going to have make a choice he doesn’t want to make.


Composed of two long pieces, originally written for Harper’s, it recounts the 1968 presidential election through the filter of its conventions: the Republicans in Miami Beach in early August and the Democrats in Chicago three weeks after that.

This is the Democratic convention that ended, famously, in a police riot, the one where Chicago Mayor Richard Daley cursed from the audience at Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff during the latter’s convention speech. There’s a part of me that longs for a contemporary convention to have a moment so unscripted … although, I suppose, that’s what we got from Clint.

Eastwood’s speech was a moment made for Mailer, who opens his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Armies of the Night” with the story of an ill-advised speech of his own — a “scatological solo,” according to Time magazine, alcohol-fueled, which helped kick off the October 1967 march on the Pentagon. This is not to suggest that Eastwood was, in any way, similarly impaired, just that Mailer would have recognized his predicament.

Indeed, what’s remarkable about “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” is its empathy, its sense that we are all adrift, Republicans and Democrats, that we as a nation have lost our soul.

“The country was in a throe,” Mailer writes, “a species of eschatological heave. … It was a thought which could not be forgotten for it gave insight to the perspectives of the Devil and his political pincers: Left-wing demons, white and Black, working to inflame the conservative heart of America, while Right-wing devils exacerbated Blacks and drove the mind of the New Left and liberal middle class into prides of hopeless position. And the country roaring like a bull in its wounds, coughing like a sick lung in the smog, turning over in sleep at the sound of motorcycles, shivering at its need for new phalanxes of order. Where were the new phalanxes one could trust?”

Almost half a century later, that remains the essential question, no matter where on the ideological divide you stand. Mailer makes the point explicit in his report from Chicago (the best of the book’s two sections because he understands the Democrats, whereas with the Republicans he is always on the outside looking in), using the convention, and the chaos in the streets, as a template against which to play out his own fear.


“It was as if the historical temperature in America went up every month,” he writes, as the city slips into disorder. “At different heats, the oils of separate psyches were loosened — different good Americans began to fry.”

And then, this: “[H]e looked into his reluctance to lose even the America he had had, that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts and its profound dishonesty. Yet, it had allowed him to write — it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income. He had lived well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, good booze, he had even come to enjoy wine. A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke; he belonged in England where one’s radicalism might never be tested; no, truth, he was still enough of a novelist to have the roots of future work in every vein and stratum he had encountered, and a profound part of him (exactly that enormous literary bottom of the mature novelist’s property!) detested the thought of seeing his American society — evil, absurd, touching, pathetic, sickening, comic, full of novelistic marrow — disappear now in the nihilistic maw of a national disorder.”

The first time I read that passage, as a college senior, I hated it. Hated it and hated him. Hated the self-aggrandizement of it, the referring to himself in the third person, hated the compromise, the selfishness, the anxiety. But I was wrong — because what Mailer is articulating is the fundamental tension of America, the tension between need and aspiration, between pragmatics and ideals.

Not only that, he is also presenting himself as a proxy, an American everyman, given access, by virtue of his press pass, to the power centers that remain unavailable to most of us. This is why he insists on referring to himself throughout the book as “the reporter,” as if his identity had been nationalized.

And yet, with Mailer, identity is everything, which suggests another tension of the book and of the country: between the collective and the individual, between empathy and selfishness, between our concern for one another and our concern for ourselves.

It is, of course, an understatement to point out that such divisions continue to define us, that they will shape the coming election much as they did in 1968. Still, if “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” has a lasting message, it may be that they unite us also — if not in any way we want to know.

“Dear Miss,” Mailer imagines telling Senator Eugene McCarthy’s daughter at the end of the convention, “we will be fighting for forty years.” As for what that means, his assessment is so prescient it almost stops your breath: “We yet may win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do.”


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