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How to Cover an Election

When, in the summer of 1968, Norman Mailer covered the Republican and Democratic conventions on assignment for Harper’s magazine, he was forty-five, an aging rebel looking for a new cause. He had started to drift restlessly from his single-minded pursuit of the Great American Novel into filmmaking and journalism, two callings that were also in the throes of seismic generational change.

Mailer juggled his reporting forays to Miami and Chicago with the shooting of Maidstone, his most ambitious contribution to the new wave of American independent cinema. Miami and the Siege of Chicago, meanwhile, was his latest contribution to a literary revolution that had been fomented throughout the decade by a pair of iconoclastic magazine editors, Harold Hayes of Esquire and Willie Morris of Harper’s. Mailer’s take on the 1960 Democratic convention for Esquire, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” had been an early salvo. By 1968, Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), Hunter S. Thompson (Hell’s Angels), and, at The New Yorker, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) had created nonfiction “novels” that upended the staid conventions of newspaper and magazine writing by injecting strong subjective voices, self-reflection, opinion, and, most of all, good writing that animated current events and the characters who populated them. Mailer’s book-length recounting of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night (subtitled History as a Novel, The Novel as History), had arguably been his most well-received venture since The Naked and the Dead. His book Miami and the Siege of Chicago was its eagerly awaited sequel.*

New Journalism was a much-needed antidote to the status quo. Early in Miami, Mailer rubs in the point by reprinting a New York Times account of a confrontation he had missed between white Republican delegates and black demonstrators in the unlikely setting of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel. Unable to glean the feel or meaning of this episode from the newspaper’s account, Mailer writes, “It was a good story but the Times was not ready to encourage its reporters in the thought that there is no history without nuance.”

But the battle had in fact already been won elsewhere: New Journalism had even established an outpost in the Times‘s former competitor, the New York Herald Tribune, where another cheeky editor, Clay Felker, created New York magazine, the high-style Sunday supplement that became a stand-alone weekly in 1968 after the paper’s demise. When Mailer describes running into William Burroughs and Jean Genet in Lincoln Park in Chicago, he doesn’t mention that even these unlikely figures had now been drafted into the journalistic ranks; both were covering the Democrats for Esquire.

The American tumult of the 1960s required a new language to chronicle it. As Mailer writes, “It was as if the historical temperature in America went up every month.” What happened in America in 1968—Lyndon Johnson’s unexpected decision not to seek reelection, two assassinations, spiraling urban and campus riots—was just too explosive to be contained by the tidy columns of a newspaper’s front page. Nor could it be captured in book form by a journalistic mandarin like Theodore H. White, whose Time-bred access to (and trust in) establishment sources was a tonic in The Making of the President 1960 but proved ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic bottom-up politics generated by the civil rights and antiwar movements. Even the relatively conventional Nixon campaign of 1968 was better captured by an upstart New Journalist, the twenty-six-year-old Joe McGinniss, whose Selling of the President gently mocked White’s title and stole his thunder on the best-seller list.

In lesser hands, New Journalism could also be a recipe for self-indulgence, solipsism, and mischievous fictionalization, but that is not the case with Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Mailer’s book holds up better than most political journalism written last week, let alone four decades ago. Indeed it survives better than it has any right to—as history, as literature, and as a portrait of America both then and now.

As a narrative of the summer’s actual political events it is both compactly comprehensive and dead-on, often hilariously so. And not just when serving up Richard Nixon. Mailer’s Dickensian portraiture revivifies even the half-remembered. Eugene McCarthy seemed less a presidential prospect than “the dean of the finest English department in the land.” John Connally boasted “a thin-lipped Texas grin, a confident grin—it spoke of teeth which knew how far they could bite into every bone, pie, nipple or tit.” 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.” Mayor Richard Daley looked at his worst “like a vastly robust peasant woman with a dirty gray silk wig” and at his best “respectable enough to be coach of the Chicago Bears.”

The accounts of both conventions begin with definitive appreciations of the antithetical American cities where they took place. Mailer marvels that the Grand Old Party, “the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness, hygiene, and balanced budget, should have set itself down on a sultan’s strip.” In Chicago, which he rightly celebrates as “the great American city,” he apotheosizes both the “clean tough keen-eyed ladies” of the near North Side and “the fear and absolute anguish of beasts dying upside down” at the slaughterhouses. By the time Daley’s beastly police set off the massacre of Michigan Avenue, Mailer has painted an urban landscape vivid enough to ground his metaphor: “The Democratic party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville’s whale charging right out of the sea.”

For all Mailer’s ability to make the present real, he sees a bigger picture that is, in retrospect, remarkably prescient about the future. His book is haunted by delicate invocations of an avatar of post-1968 racial politics who never appears in close-up, George Wallace. The cameo glimpses of a B-list player, Ronald Reagan, seem to prefigure the California governor’s ultimate ascension from the ashes of Goldwaterism. Mailer sees clearly the political death rattles of the old WASP aristocracy, destined to “grow more insane each year, like a rich nobleman in an empty castle chasing elves and ogres with his stick.” He recognizes just what it means when newly converted Southern Republicans, exemplified by the former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, seal the selection of Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s running mate over the last tribunes of Rockefeller progressivism (Charles Percy, Mark Hatfield, John Lindsay). The intellectual foundations of the political establishment’s anticommunism, Mailer observes, would soon “split into its separate parts.”

The Republicans “did not deserve the presidency, never,” he concludes. Yet he is dubious about the prospects for the Democrats in the wake of their Vietnam implosion:

The Left was not ready, the Left was years away from a vision sufficiently complex to give life to the land, the Left had not yet learned to talk across the rugged individualism of the more rugged America, the Left was still too full of kicks and pot…. The Left could also find room to grow up. If the Left had to live through a species of political exile for four or eight or twelve good years, it might even be right. They might be forced to study what was alive in the conservative dream.

And where does that leave the author? As he says, in a typical third-person construction, “the reporter stood in the center of the American Scene.” Unlike so many on the ramparts of 1968, Mailer is genuinely ambivalent. Now that Bobby Kennedy is gone, he is left to contemplate the Yippies in Lincoln Park with their signs of “Vote Pig in 68”: “Were those unkempt children the sort of troops with whom one wished to enter battle?” He frets that Vietnam and “Black Power” are “pushing him to that point where he would have to throw his vote in with revolution,” and asks, “What price was he really willing to pay?”

This question is not resolved by the end of the book, which finds the author, manhandled but unbowed by Daley’s thugs, repairing to the revels at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion. But Mailer knows the trajectory that lies ahead for the country. “We will be fighting for forty years,” he suggests. Perhaps he thought that was hyperbole at the time, but we now know it was portent.

Mailer also knew where journalism was headed. The politicians, he noticed, “rushed forward to TV men, and shouldered note-pads aside.” When he misses an exciting night on the convention floor, he consoles himself “with the sad knowledge that he could cover it better on television than if he had been there.” He predicts that “soon they would hold conventions in TV studios.”

Mailer’s election-year chronicle has its progeny—most notably Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 and Richard Ben Cramer’s opus of the 1988 race, What It Takes—but its literary energy and intellectual independence remain the exception rather than the rule in American campaign coverage. For all the books churned out each election cycle, they are often throwbacks to Teddy White, not Mailer and Thompson. Occasionally a fresh voice breaks through—Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone in 2008—but much of what passes for political reportage now in print, whether on paper or on a Web site, succumbs to the same kind of small-bore pack mentality that Mailer set out to vanquish. Open up Miami and the Siege of Chicago to any page and you’ll see how American journalism flowered even as the country lost its way.

  1. *

    This essay will appear as the introduction to a new edition of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, to be published by New York Review Books in July.

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