Friday, August 29, 2008

Miami & the Siege of Chicago

I’m reading Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, re-released by New York Review Books on the 40th anniversary of the tumultuous political conventions in those cities. In 1968 Mailer was sent to cover both parties' conventions for Harper's magazine.

At the time, Mailer was stepping away from writing novels to become an enthusiastic writer of the kind of “new journalism” that challenged the status quo by inserting the writer directly into the action. Mailer was in great company. Over the course of his coverage he ran into William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Terry Southern and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom were also writing about the conventions for major media outlets. The status quo of the time, like the current model, was desperately in need of challenging.

The book is an exhilarating read. Mailer’s observations of the people and places of the time are wonderfully involving. Richard Nixon is his easiest target, but Mailer sees and skewers even the lesser lights. Hubert Humphrey employed "a formal slovenliness of syntax which enabled him to shunt phrases back and forth like a switchman who locates a freight car by moving everything in the yard." Chicago Mayor Richard Daley looked "like a vastly robust peasant woman with a dirty gray silk wig.” He correctly indentifies the 57-year-old Ronald Reagan as the GOP’s rising young man waiting in the wings. “He had the deferential enthusiasm, the bright but dependably unoriginal mind, of a sales manager promoted for his ability over men older than himself.”

Just as importantly, Mailer’s eye on politics turns out to be powerfully prescient. Mailer had little confidence in any of the mass ideologies of the day - not Communism, not Anti-Communism and not the peace movement which he called a "hopeless mélange, somehow firmed, of Pacifism and closet Communism." And the resulting national debate over Vietnam seemed to him twisted and fake: "The hawks were smug and self-righteous, the doves were evasive of the real question."

Mailer prophesied, correctly, that each of these movements was bound to collapse. He also understood that Nixon’s promise of “law and order” represented an end to the sober, careful conservatism that had always ruled the Republican Party and the beginning of something more sinister. At the end of the book, Nixon is on track to win the presidency, the Republicans are resurgent, and the Democrats are in complete disarray. Mailer says, again correctly, “We will be fighting for forty years.”

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