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…

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