Master of Conventions

Norman Mailer’s political journal of the summer of ‘68

norman mailer

Illustration by Marc Yankus

"I am a ‘left conservative.’” That was Norman Mailer’s jaunty but slightly defensive self-description when first I met him, at the beginning of the 1980s. At the time, I was inclined to attribute this glibness (as I thought of it) to the triumph of middle age and to the compromises perhaps necessary to negotiate the then-new ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. But, looking back over his extraordinary journal of a plague year, written 40 years ago, I suddenly appreciate that Mailer in 1968 had already been rehearsing for some kind of ideological synthesis, and discovering it in the most improbable of places.

Party conventions have been such dull spectacles of stage management for so long that this year it was considered nothing less than shocking that delegates might arrive in Denver with anything more than ceremonial or coronational duties ahead of them. The coverage of such events, now almost wholly annexed by the cameras and those who serve them, has undergone a similar declension into insipidity. Mailer could see this coming: having left the 1968 Republican gathering in Miami slightly too early,

he realized he had missed the most exciting night of the convention, at least on the floor, and was able to console himself only with the sad knowledge that he could cover it better on television than if he had been there.

This wasn’t quite true yet: what we have here is the last of the great political-convention essayists, and the close of a tradition that crested with H. L. Mencken and was caught so deftly in Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man. You will note the way in which Mailer decided to write about himself in the third person, using the name “the reporter.” This isn’t invariably a good idea, but it generally works in this instance, even when Mailer muses, of himself, that the

Democratic Convention in 1960 in Los Angeles which nominated John F. Kennedy, and the Republican in San Francisco in 1964 which installed Barry Goldwater, had encouraged some of his very best writing.

Naturally, much of the material has become “dated,” but in interesting ways. It now seems absurd that anyone ever thought Nelson Rockefeller could become the GOP nominee in 1968, but Mailer swiftly concluded at the time that the idea of a Rockefeller victory was ridiculous. (He had learned a lot from that Goldwater convention, as he repeatedly demonstrates.) Nor does he ever forget the context in which these still-stately bunting-decked occasions were managing to occur:

The novelist John Updike was not necessarily one of his favorite authors, but after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, it was Updike who had made the remark that God might have withdrawn His blessing from America. It was a thought which could not be forgotten.

At all times, Mailer had the apocalyptic available to him, and was perfectly receptive to the images of civil war, military coup, sniper fire, and racial conflagration. (“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 …”) However—and this has to be set against his somewhat promiscuous attitude toward violence and obscenity and les actes gratuits—he did shamefacedly admit that there was a bourgeois side to these matters, too:

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 caveats there, almost embarrassed—and embarrassing, too, as Mailer grunts that if he lost his country, he might also lose his fictional subject—are less important than the admission that they are half intended to qualify and cannot entirely succeed in obscuring: the gruff admission that our Norman could be a patriot after all.

More remarkably, instead of locating the then-bruited “white backlash” in other people (such as southern Republican voters), Mailer in Miami confessed it stirring in himself:

It was a simple emotion and very unpleasant to him—he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights … He was weary to the bone of listening to Black cries of Black superiority in sex, Black superiority in beauty, Black superiority in war … the claims were all too often uttered by Negroes who were not very black themselves.

It was in 1968 that the Republican Party lost—or more accurately abandoned—its historic status as “the party of Lincoln,” and Mailer’s own resentments against black militancy did not prevent him from seeing this. He had always detested the sly author and beneficiary of the “southern strategy,” so it is to the credit of the reportage here that he attempted to find the thin but definite human pulse that animated the middle-class base of Richard Milhous Nixon. He located it, aptly enough, in the distant connection that Nixon could claim with the hero of Republicanism:

They venerated Nixon for his service to Eisenhower, and his comeback now—it was his comeback which had made him a hero in their eyes, for America is the land which worships the Great Comeback, and so he was Tricky Dick to them no more, but the finest gentleman in the land; they were proud to say hello.

Pauline Kael was later to make herself a laughingstock by exclaiming in astonishment that she didn’t “know anybody” who had voted for Nixon. Mailer was determined to avoid this mistake in advance, confessing his ignorance and admitting that in a large Miami ballroom filled with delegates, “there were not ten people he recognized.” The only other person of liberal/radical temper who tried to avoid condescending to Nixon and to Nixonism was that other master of convention-floor prose, the late Murray Kempton.

And it was from Kempton that Mailer borrowed what eventually became the running theme and essential insight of his attendance at both events:

Politics is property … a delegate’s vote is his holding—he will give it up without return no more than a man will sign over his house entire to a worthy cause.

More self-evident, perhaps, among the Chamber of Commerce types in Miami (and Nelson Rockefeller, with his “catfish mouth”), this extended metaphor worked particularly well—and Mailer did his level best to extend it—in the gaunt, unsentimental world of Chicago-stockyard ward-heeling: that rugged inland coast on which the waves of ’60s idealism broke in vain. It wasn’t to be “new phalanxes of order” that were conjured. It was the bitter old phalanx of the Daley machine and the Chicago PD. Of necessity, the Illinois chapter was much longer and more intense than the Florida one, but before we shift the scene it is worth saluting Mailer, first for seeing clearly that Nixon would be “the one” and second for guessing that Ronald Reagan might well be the next one. His method in the second case was equally intuitive. He noticed the clever rebound from the Goldwater defeat while also understanding the purely showbiz aspect:

If [Reagan] didn’t get the girl, it was because he was too good a guy to be overwhelmingly attractive. That was all right. He would grit his teeth and get the girl next time out. Since this was conceivably the inner sex drama of half of respectable America, he was wildly popular with Republicans. For a party which prided itself on its common sense, they were curiously, even outrageously, sentimental.

If the aperçu in that last sentence was slightly stronger than the grammar in which it was expressed, it must be said in general that for deadline prose, this was written to an exceedingly high standard. It was a goodish year for the literary man as frontline magazine reporter: quitting Lincoln Park as he sensed violent confrontation that would go beyond his probable endurance, Mailer ran into Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Terry Southern on their way in. And one guesses a very slight problem of journalistic etiquette here, in that Mailer was the accredited correspondent of Harper’s magazine, while Burroughs and Genet had been retained by Esquire, and it would have made a rather better story if it had been Mailer arriving while the others were getting themselves discreetly out of the line of fire, instead of the other way about.

Could that gifted but gruesome twosome of Burroughs and Genet help to explain Mailer’s recurrence to the threat of nihilism? He hated the war and the police and had contempt for the mobbed-up big mayors and union men who constituted the muscle of the Democrats. But he found Eugene McCarthy brittle and dislikable, and McCarthy supporters addicted to defeat. Then there was this:

He liked his life. He wanted it to go on, which meant that he wanted America to go on—not as it was going, not Vietnam—but what price was he really willing to pay?

Mailer here was being plaintive but honest, as in the case of his admission of his Lincoln Park funk. It was becoming another of those moments where the best lacked all conviction while the worst … well, we know how that goes. Incidentally, one can’t be too careful about citing familiar poetry. Mailer quotes Edward Kennedy as saying of Bobby’s supporters that they had “followed him, honored him, lived in his mild and magnificent eye,” and one suddenly realizes that he thinks he is quoting Teddy himself rather than Robert Browning’s famous lines from “The Lost Leader.” As Joan Didion once observed, there are those who say “No man is an island” who firmly believe that they are echoing Ernest Hemingway.

Our Democratic primaries are run the way they are now mainly because of the way they were run then. Mailer drily watched the roll call in Chicago and noted that the state that put Hubert Humphrey over the top (Pennsylvania) was the one where McCarthy had received 90 percent of the primary votes. To touch on another comparison with today’s politics, Mailer noticed in Miami that Nixon had won the nomination in such a way as to also win the election: in other words, without splitting or embittering his party. These and similar reflections are of interest and value in a year when the Democratic nominee is, in one of his many protean incarnations, a Chicago South Side operator with a wife whose father was a Daley precinct captain, while the Republican candidate is a repository of something in which almost nobody in 1968 would ever have believed: America’s residual pride about its own valor in Vietnam. The almost-closing line of the book is the prediction that Mailer wishes he had made to Eugene McCarthy’s daughter: “Dear Miss, we will be fighting for forty years.” He got that right, among many other things.

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist.
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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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