APRIL 25, 2020
BY 1972, Norman Mailer’s literary career had been more topsy-turvy than almost any of his contemporaries. His record as a novelist was streaky, hitting amazing heights and some rather embarrassing lows. His big debut novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), had made him a household name, but follow-ups like Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955) had been a mixed bag at best. Sometimes, when an artist tends toward the grandiose and overly ambitious, they benefit by focusing more intently on what’s directly in front of them. The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, broke new journalistic ground, because it featured Mailer himself as a robust central character immersed in an unnerving story that was being written and rewritten by the minute. Four years later, in St. George and the Godfather, Mailer was back on the political scene, sizing up the ultimately lopsided race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon.
What set Mailer apart from most (though certainly not all) political journalism is how openly he filtered his subjects through his own idiosyncratic philosophy, with all his unique obsessions and metaphysical musings brought center stage. Whenever Mailer changed gears from fiction to journalism, the novelistic keen eye for character and detailed scene-setting merged with the beat reporter’s feel for the smoke-filled back rooms. Today’s sleeker, ESPN-like punditry looks neutered by comparison. The 1972 Republican National Convention was held, for a second time, in Miami Beach, Florida, a city that Mailer had dissed in rather ungallant terms before, but he is struck, this time, by how the locals don’t seem to mind. “Miami Beach was the true surrealist froth on the wave of Populism, […] there was sunlight, makeup, plastic and prosthetics, mutual interest at all ages, and tolerance for every kookery of the middle class.”
The postmodern reliance on TV to provide meaningful information, and the resultant packaging of entertaining personae to keep feeding the spectacle, is something Mailer loudly criticized back when TV wasn’t as culturally central to our political life: “Television pollutes identity and television cameras are about them all the time.” Mailer referred to TV as “a small and modest malignancy, wicked and bristling with dots,” which seems pretty prescient in a time when a reality TV star is president, even if the screens are much more high-definition now. Mailer used this damning phrase in an essay that appeared shortly after a boorish appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, but the point is still well taken.
Instead of reciting data points and sound bites, Mailer finds insights from examining politicians’ faces, studying how they move, and listening to the tone of their voice, noting the reactions of their family members and how their supporters respond. Even when he’s wildly off base, Mailer stays interesting because he never forgets that public figures are real people, with nervous systems and internal organs, who happen to be maneuvering through some of the most dramatic moments of their times. Existentialist that he was, Mailer was always keenly aware of how we all live our lives moment by moment, choice by choice, and that a great deal can be learned from observing people’s perpetual improvisations. This goes double when they participate in events that are already heavily scripted.
Here’s Mailer’s description of how Nixon moves: “He walks like a puppet more curious than most human beings, for all the strings are pulled by a hand within his own head, […] he handles his body like an adolescent suffering excruciations of self-consciousness with every move.” Oddly, Nixon walks like this while he’s on his way to give a speech to an adoring crowd outside of the convention, a situation where most normal people might feel especially spry. When Mailer provides an anecdote about Nixon’s courtship of Pat Nixon, back when they attended different colleges — he would drive her both to and from her dates — he suggests something of Nixon’s core of anxiety and determination. Nixon doesn’t exactly win, even when he does get the girl in the end, but this may be because he will always grimly do his very best not to lose.
Unlike Mailer, we now know how the 1972 United States presidential election will turn out. The final result will actually be close to what Mailer intuits from pondering the ironies of Nixon’s character: Nixon will end up beating McGovern by an enormous landslide, only to have his secret (and ironically unnecessary) campaign skullduggery come to light not long after — and this will mar his legacy forever. But Mailer also perceives how Nixon is riding a darker wave of social forces that both propel and transcend him. Comparing the Republican delegates to a crowd at a football game whose team is winning but who are only made greedier for more points, he uncovers a still relevant insight:
It is records they wish to set, as if only a high-scoring record can cauterize the last of their inferiority complex, and Republicans had a huge if private inferiority complex — it was that America really did not want them, not that melting-pot majority of America they had once been so foolish as to let in.
This particular type of ressentiment has been on vivid display on cable TV and at Trump rallies for years.
Prescient as he often is, it must be said that Mailer misses the boat completely on quite a few subjects. Mailer was rarely good at writing about women, and his interpretation of the attitude of the women’s caucus at the Democratic debate doesn’t hold up very well.
A humorless friction was in the air. […] Not since militant Blacks arrived on the American scene, had a political group appeared who were as threatening. […] Whereas every injustice against a lady in Women’s Liberation gave every promise of poisoning her husband’s existence.
Ouch. Then he digs himself even deeper by suggesting that women’s liberation is ultimately totalitarian in nature, for reasons that aren’t terribly convincing. He is amused by seeing only a portion of a banner that reads “OMEN POWER” and playfully wonders if the women’s caucus may be up to some witchery after all, but it doesn’t begin to make up for his dickish obliviousness about what liberation really meant to the average woman, especially in 1972.
At one point, Mailer sits down for lunch with none other than Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security advisor. The two of them are at opposite sides of the political divide — the pot-smoking, rowdy revolutionary breaking bread with the ultimate ruthless statesman — and both men seem fairly amused by the other. It’s the kind of scene that, on the surface, would seem like a nice example of bipartisanship. Unfortunately, Mailer’s usual toughness is fended off by the urbane Kissinger precisely when it might have been most useful, which seems to surprise Mailer himself: “A hint of some sinister mentality would have been a recognizable aid.” At this point, a reader with even a passing knowledge of Kissinger’s brutal foreign policy record is bound to be gobsmacked. He can’t catch a sinister aspect while sitting face to face with Henry Kissinger, of all people?
Kissinger explains that it is hard to convince the Vietnamese that the United States really wants peace, which is a rather outrageous thing to say, and Mailer’s response suggests why: “Don’t you think a million tons of bombs a year makes it hard for them to believe?” Kissinger long-windedly says no, and the conversation moves on, but the missed opportunity to press someone in power about a very dire issue with real-life ramifications is very disappointing. At this point in history, the post–World War II Indochina wars had been raging for decades with millions of lives lost on all sides. The United States’s ability to believe in itself as a force for good in the world had been put through the wringer, and Mailer notes at different points how much this dissonance weighs on the national mood.
What decided the 1972 election wasn’t all that different from what decides most American elections: whether or not a majority of Americans can buy a particular vision of the country that they want to live in. Vietnam’s long shadow and the bitter intergenerational conflict that followed it, which Mailer wrote a great deal about, had put a noble conception of the United States’s true nature into question, which is extremely disturbing for some people both then and now. Maybe part of the reason for Nixon’s eventual landslide victory in 1972, aside from the Democratic Party’s utter clumsiness, is found in one of Mailer’s stray insights. If Franklin D. Roosevelt once spoke of the four freedoms, Mailer claims that at this point “[t]here is only one freedom looked for by the American voter who votes for Nixon — it is freedom from dread.” The particular kind of dread Mailer’s talking about might be because the noble United States which conservatives wanted so much to believe in had turned into something that might actually turn out to be either a naïve fantasy or an outright lie.
The left, by nature deeply critical of established institutions and traditions, has always had an easier time understanding that the United States isn’t what it claims to be. But for conservatives, there is usually a very different emotion involved when the United States’s true values are questioned. At one point, Mailer describes “a fear in these frozen Republican faces which could be equal only to the woe of their inability to comprehend the size of our acts in Vietnam.” Even the Democrats nominating an all-American guy like the decent Midwesterner George McGovern, with his impeccable personal and political reputation, couldn’t overcome the gnawing need for many millions more to have their idealized image of the country reinforced. They decided they needed Richard Nixon to give them what they thought they wanted, and we know how that turned out.