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.