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Miami and the Siege of Chicago

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"I am a Left conservative:" That was Norman Mailer's jaunty but slightly defensive self-description when 1st I met him at the beginning of the '80s. At the time, I was inclined to attribute this glibness to the triumph of middle age & to the compromises perhaps necessary to negotiate the then-new ascendancy of Reagan. But, looking back over this 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, & discovering it in the most improbable of places.
Party conventions have been such dull spectacles of stage-management for so long that this year (I happen to be writing on the day after the closing Democratic primaries) it has been considered nothing less than shocking that delegates might arrive in Denver in August with any more than ceremonial or coronational duties ahead of them. The coverage of such media-events, now almost wholly annexed by the cameras & those who serve them, has undergone a similar declension into insipidity. Mailer could see this coming: having left the Republican gathering in Miami slightly too early "he realized he had missed the most exciting night of the convention, at least on the floor, & was able to console himself only with the sad knowledge that he could cover it better on tv 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, & the close of a tradition that crested with H.L. Mencken & 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 3rd person, using for a title the name "the reporter." This isn't invariably a good idea but it generally works in this instance, even when he muses, of himself, that: "The Democratic Convention in 1960 in Los Angeles which nominated John F. Kennedy, & the Republican in San Francisco in 1964 which installed Barry Goldwater, had encouraged some of his very best writing." "They venerated Nixon for his service to Eisenhower, & 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, & 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 laughing stock 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 own ignorance & admitting that in a large Miami ballroom filled with delegates, "there were not 10 people he recognized." The only other person of liberal/radical temper who tried to avoid condescending to Nixon & to Nixonism was that other master of convention-floor prose, the late Murray Kempton.
It was from Kempton himself that Mailer annexed what eventually became the running theme & 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 (& 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 stock-yard 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 & the Chicago PD. Of necessity, the Illinois chapter was much longer & more intense than the Florida one, but before we shift the scene it is worth saluting Mailer 1st for seeing clearly that Nixon would be "the one" & 2nd for guessing that Ronald Reagan might well be the next one. His method in the 2nd case was equally intuitive. He noticed the clever rebound from the Goldwater defeat while also understanding the purely showbiz aspect. Could that gifted but gruesome twosome of Burroughs & Genet help to explain Mailer's recurrence to the threat of "nihilism"? He hated the war & the police and had contempt for the mobbed-up big mayors & union men who constituted the muscle of the Democrats. But he found Eugene McCarthy brittle & dislikeable, & 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 the above account 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 making familiar poetic citations. Mailer quotes Edward Kennedy as saying of Bobby's supporters that they had "followed him, honored him, lived in his mild & magnificent eye," & 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 dryly watched the roll-call in Chicago & noted that the state which put Hubert Humphrey over the top (Pennsylvania) was the one where McCarthy had received 90% of the primary votes. To touch on another comparison with today's politics, Mailer also 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 & similar reflections are of interest & value in a year where 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,' he could have told her, 'we will be fighting for 40 years.'" He got that right, among many other things.--Christopher Hitchens

224 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1968

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About the author

Norman Mailer

271 books1,223 followers
Norman Kingsley Mailer was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and film director.

Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, but which covers the essay to the nonfiction novel. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once. In 1955, Mailer, together with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, first published The Village Voice, which began as an arts- and politics-oriented weekly newspaper initially distributed in Greenwich Village. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from The National Book Foundation.

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Profile Image for brian   .
248 reviews3,120 followers
February 22, 2015
his book is as lumpy and oversized as his heart and testes and ya just can’t ask for more. i mean, check this description of ‘professional republican’ meade alcorn:

‘Alcorn had a friendly freckled face and sandy hair, black horn-rims, a jaw which could probably crack a lobster claw in one bite, his voice drilled its authority. He was the kind of man who could look you in the eye while turning down your bid for a mortgage.’

hell yeah. i love ol' norm. i love him for his great books (executioner’s song, ancient evenings) and for his pieces of shit (american dream, barbary shore). i love him for the white negro and for stabbing his wife and for running for mayor and for head-butting gore vidal and for being an asshole and a provocateur and for inhabiting, more than anyone else, the marrow of his time.

i love him for playing the tough guy but getting past all that romanticized bullshit and fessin' up to what a coward he is by nature and how hard has been the internal struggle not to shrink away from adversaries, foes, women, ideas, etc… i love him for the complexity and contradiction of his political views, for his skepticism, for, in miami and the siege of chicago, admitting to being sick of ‘black superiority’ since civil rights, to admitting an admiration for hippies (whom he kind of loathes by nature) after watching the supreme courage they displayed when walking, night after night, directly into tear gas and blood-stained billyclubs.

& check this shit as mailer stands amongst the revolutionary youth of the siege of chicago… and doubts himself:

“And then with another fear, conservative was this fear, he looked into his reluctance to lose even the America he had had, this insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts and its profound dishonesty. Yet, it had allowed him to write – it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income. He had lived well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, good booze, he had even come to enjoy wine. A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke…”

viva la mailer!

Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,265 followers
March 13, 2018
The Reporter Inside History

Norman Mailer dubbed this work “an informal history of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968”.

It’s effectively a non-fiction account with Mailer (“the Reporter”) inserted into the narrative, sometimes inside the action and sometimes 19 floors up in his hotel room or two suburbs away in a bar having a bourbon. Whatever, it makes explicit the author’s/reporter’s perspective or bias, and, to that extent, gets to the heart of the matter more honestly, even if we disagree with him.

Monsters of Opportunism

The shorter of the two sections deals with the Republican Convention, which nominated Richard Nixon (ahead of Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan). Nixon went on to win the Presidency in November, 1968, by defeating Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. The incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded John F. Kennedy on his assassination, didn’t stand for nomination by the Democratic Party.

Despite the different social, economic and political times, the first section reveals how little National Conventions have changed, particularly in relation to the Republican Party. Mailer’s account focuses on the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, as best he can. He also devotes a lot of attention to the (female) entertainment, the dancing girls and singers, whose bodies (and noses) he can’t resist assessing (“Six of the thirty-six had aquline curves, six were straight-nosed, and the other twenty-four had turned-up buttons at the tip.”)

Mailer is less sympathetic to the Republican delegates themselves:

“They were a chastened collocation these days. The high fire of hard Republican faith was more modest now, the vision of America had diminished. The claims on Empire had met limits...they were in the main not impressive, no, not by the hard eye of New York.”

He comments on Nixon’s “false smile”:

“As he spoke, he kept going in and out of focus, true one instant, phony the next, then quietly correcting the false step…

“While he was never in trouble with the questions, growing surer and surer of himself as he went on, the tension still persisted between his actual presence as a man not altogether alien to the abyss of a real problem, and the political practitioner of his youth, that snake oil salesman who was never back of any idea he sold, but always off to the side where he might observe its effect on the sucker.

“...he had become an absolute monster of opportunism…”

In his acceptance speech, Nixon refers to:

“...the quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting...the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans - the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators...They give drive to the spirit of America...life to the American dream...steel to the backbone of America...Good people...decent people...work and save...pay their taxes…”

Carnality and Chaos

Mailer paints a more vivid portrait of the host city when he moves from Miami to Chicago for the Democratic Convention. He visits a slaughteryard, and draws inferences about the human condition:

“Watching the animals be slaughtered, one knows the human case - no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there. So be it. Chicago makes for hard minds...in Chicago, they did it straight, they cut the animals right out of their hearts - which is why it was the last of the great American cities, and people had great faces, carnal as blood, greedy, direct, too impatient for hypocrisy, in love with honest plunder.”

These observations resonate later, when we encounter Mayor Daley, the Chicago Police and the National Guard.

The Democratic Party was hopelessly divided in 1968. LBJ had conducted the Vietnam War and had decided not to contest the Presidential election. The candidates included his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, and the liberal George McGovern. Bobby Kennedy had been a candidate, but was assassinated before the Convention.

Mailer says of the convention that it was “the wildest Democratic convention in decades, perhaps in more than forty years, and the bitterest, the most violent, the most disorderly, most painful, and in certain ways the most uncontrolled - beyond [the control of LBJ’s Administration] was absolute chaos...

“The event was a convention which took place during a continuing five-day battle in the streets and parks of Chicago between some of the minions of the high established, and some of the nihilistic of the young…”

Socialists and Existentialists

Mailer spends just as much time in the streets and parks as he does in the convention hall. This was where the real political action was occurring. But it also highlights Mailer’s own political philosophy and how it differed from the protesters.

“There were two groups to the army of young people who assembled in Chicago; one could divide them conveniently as socialists and existentialists.

“The socialists, you can be certain, believed in every variety of social and revolutionary idea but membership in the Socialist Party, which of course, being young people, they detested; for the most part they were students of the New Left who belonged to SDS, the Resistance (a movement of confirmed draft resisters) and a dozen or more peace organisations…

“The New Left was interested for the most part in altering society (and being conceivably altered themselves - they were nothing if not Romantic) by the activity of working for a new kind of life out in the ghettoes, the campuses, and the anti-war movement. If one could still refer to them generically as socialists, it is because the product of their labor was finally, one must fear, ideological: their experience would shape their ideas, and ideally these ideas would serve to clarify the experience of others and so bring them closer to the radical movement...A number, devoted to the memory of Che [Guevara], were elevated as well to militant ideals of revolution. A few had come to Chicago ready to fight the police…”

Mailer doesn’t discuss the existentialists with the same precision. I infer from this later description that he was referring to the Yippies:

“On one flank was the New Left, still generically socialist, believing in a politics of confrontation, intelligent programmatic warriors, Positivists in philosophy, educational in method, ideological in their focus - which is to say a man’s personality was less significant than his ideas; on the other flank, Yippies, devoted to the politics of ecstasy, programmatic about drug-taking, Dionysiacs, propagandists by example, mystical in focus.”

Whether or not this description of the Yippies is correct, it seems that they are what Mailer had in mind when he referred to existentialists:

“A tribal unity had passed through the youth of America (and half the nations of the world) a far-out vision of orgiastic revels stripped of violence or even the differentiation of sex…

“They made a community of sorts, for their principles were simple - everybody, obviously, must be allowed to do (no way around the next three words) his own thing, provided he hurt no one doing it…”


Crazy Gaiety and Horror

Soon after witnessing a concert in Lincoln Park (in which, he saw both crazy gaiety and horror), Mailer asks:

“Were these odd unkempt children the sort of troops with whom one wished to enter battle?”

Mailer acknowledges that he doesn’t have the courage to risk what the Yippies have:

“To protest being ejected from the park, to take tear gas in the face, have one’s head cracked…”

He has a fear. He’s a writer, if he’s injured or arrested, he won’t be able to write, he won’t be able to fulfil his assignment for Harper’s Magazine. He won’t get paid.

He retreats to his nineteenth floor hotel room, from which he watches the march:

“The police attacked with tear gas, with Mace, and with clubs, they attacked like a scythe through grass, lines of twenty or thirty policemen striking out in an arc, their clubs beating, demonstrators fleeing. Seen from overhead, from the nineteenth floor, it was like a wind blowing dust, or the edge of waves riding foam on the shore.”

Even his metaphors suffer that high and far away from the action, though he adds that “the action went on for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, with the absolute ferocity of a tropical storm:”

“The guiltier the situation in which a policeman finds himself, the more will he attack the victim of his guilt.

“They might comport themselves in such a case not as a force of law and order, not even as a force of repression upon civil disorder, but as a true criminal force, chaotic, improvisational, undisciplined, and finally - sufficiently aroused - uncontrollable.

“So an air of outrage, hysteria, panic, wild rumour, unruly outburst, fury, madness, gallows humour, and gloom hung over nominating night at the convention…

“The night was in trouble and there was dread in the blood, the air of circus was also the air of the slaughter-house...The sense of riot would not calm…

“The disease was beneath the skin, the century was malignant with an illness so intricate that the Yippies, the Muslims, and the rednecks of George Wallace were all in attack upon it.”

The Old Left Embraces the Existentialists

When the Democrats nominate Humphrey by a huge majority, “the reporter discovered an impulse in himself to get drunk.

“[On the other hand,] these liberals who he had always scorned had the simple dedication tonight to walk through strange streets, unarmed, and with candles. Was it remotely possible that they possessed more courage than himself?...

“Had his courage eroded more than his knowledge of fear the last few days? He continued to drink.”

Then he rationalises:

“One simply could not accept the dangerous alternative every time: he would never do any other work. And then with another fear, conservative was this fear, he looked upon his reluctance to lose even the America he had had, that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts and its profound dishonesty. Yet it had allowed him to write - it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income...A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke; he belonged in England where one’s radicalism might never be tested…”

He turns to the Yippies:

“The Yippies might yet disrupt the land - or worse, since they would not really have the power to do that, might serve as a pretext to bring in totalitarian phalanxes of law and order.”

In the latter case, he “would have to throw his vote in with revolution - what a tedious perspective of prisons and law courts and worse; or stand by and watch as the best Americans white and Black would be picked off, expended, busted, burned and finally lost.

“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? Was he ready to give up the pleasures of making his movies, writing his books? They were pleasures finally he did not want to lose.”

“Yet if he indulged his fear, found all the ways to avoid the oncoming ugly encounters, then his life was equally spoiled, and on the poorer side. He was simply not accustomed to living with a conscience as impure as the one with which he had watched from the nineteenth floor...Where was his true engagement? To be forty-five years old, and have lost a sense of where his loyalties belonged - to the revolution or to the stability of the country...was to bring upon himself the anguish of the European intellectual in the Thirties.

“And the most powerful irony for himself is that he had lived for a dozen empty hopeless years after the second world war with the bitterness, rage, and potential militancy of a real revolutionary,...but no revolution had arisen in the years when he was ready…”

Afraid of a Fray

So Mailer accepts an invitation to speak in the park. His recollection of his speech is self-indulgent and uninspiring, but he joined the fray, if not the subsequent march. He ceased thinking of the protesters as children and started thinking of them as “soldiers”, himself as a “demagogue”, no longer the “General of an army of one”.

Somebody in the crowd, perhaps by way of assessment of his speech, called out, “You’re right, baby, do the writing!”

Mailer returns to the Convention, where Humphrey is anointed:

“Everybody knew he would lose. The poor abstract bugger.

“...he was all the bad faith of twenty years of the Democratic Party’s promises and gravy and evasion and empty hollers. He was the hog caller of the mountain and the pigs had put him in - he would promise pig pie in the sky.”

Ironically, Mailer comes away from Chicago more sympathetic to the Yippies than the New Left. They had “a vision not void of beauty”, whereas the New Left represented “only a nightmare of smashing a brain with a brick”.

He is convinced there is a “new American axis. Put your fingers in V for victory and give a wink. We may yet win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do.”

Needless to say, Nixon won the 1968 election, not to mention the 1972 election.

On Revolutions

“Those who would make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

President John F. Kennedy


Dino Valenti - "Let's Get Together"


The Youngbloods - "Get Together"


Jefferson Airplane - "Let's Get Together"


1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago

Profile Image for Mike.
306 reviews149 followers
September 15, 2019
On the last trip back to the Hilton, Mailer took a pass through Grant Park. It was all but empty. Fifty communicants sat on the grass, mountaineers, varlets, knaves, Hindu saints, musketeers, tank men, and wanly beautiful Yippie girls, while a priest in a violet satin chasuble recited the Mass over their bloody heads and an acolyte held the cross. The sight, by now, after all the sights, seemed perfectly conventional. Then he crossed the line of National Guard for the last time...and went into the Hilton. On the steps he met Senator McCarthy's daughter, a lovely and formidable young dark-haired lady, now in a quiet horror over the fury of the bust, and she asked him what he would do about it.

I'm going to catch a plane and see my family", he told her, smiling into the proud disapproval of her eyes. "Dear Miss", he could have told her, "we will be fighting for forty years."

Style is one of the mysteries of writing. It's one of the mysteries of music, as well. There must be a reason, for example, that I find the guitar solo at the end of Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb' so moving, but have never gotten anything out of Guns N' Roses. Clearly, the reason I prefer one over the other is not just a matter of technical proficiency; Slash, guitarist for G N' R, obviously knows how to play guitar. Not being a musician, I'm even open to the possibility that Slash could better Floyd's David Gilmour in some kind of contest of virtuosity. There must be some other quality.

Schopenhauer wrote, in a book that I misplaced last year somewhere between Moscow and Phoenix, that the first rule of style is having something to say. At the risk of amending Schopenhauer, I'll go a little further: the thing that's being expressed, consciously or not, is a vision of life...except of course when it isn't. Style can also be used to obscure (to yourself more than others, that's the tricky part) the fact that you don't know exactly what you mean to say, to signal erudition and group affinity (see most contemporary 'literary' fiction), and/or, of course, for money and countless other forms of gain.

Then again, that doesn't really resolve the mystery of why some styles are more appealing than others. Guns N' Roses may express a vision of life, and it just happens to be one that doesn't...speak to me, is the phrase that sounds most natural. Hitler expressed a vision of life as well, which just goes to show that my definition is entirely amoral. And yet when it comes to, say, Michael Herr's Dispatches or most of Norman Mailer's nonfiction from the 60s, I think that the reason I find their styles so edifying is that these writers had experiences that changed them, altered their perception, and then they wrote only what was needed to render those visions faithfully.

Mailer was very prolific around this time. After having been arrested at the March on the Pentagon in October of 1967, he wrote The Armies of the Night. The following summer, in an election year, he covered the RNC in Miami and then the DNC in Chicago for Harper's. A lot had changed on the national stage in that brief span of time. The Viet Cong had staged the Tet Offensive; Eugene McCarthy had mounted a Democratic primary challenge against Lyndon Johnson, with Johnson subsequently announcing that he would not seek re-election; Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, the latter after having won the Democratic primary in California, narrowly, with McCarthy a close second (45% to 42%); and Nixon was back, zeroing in on the Republican nomination. The book's first section, about Miami, is worth reading for many reasons: its portraits of Nixon, Rockefeller, Reagan and Abernathy, yes, but one of the things that's so refreshing about Mailer is how unsuited his restless mind is to ideology- his willingness to question the side he tends to feel most partial to and, in turn, to contemplate the visions of life opposed to his own.
Of course, Republicans might yet prove frightening, and were much, if not three-quarters, to blame for every ill in sight, they did not deserve the Presidency, never, and yet if democracy was the free and fair play of human forces then perhaps the Wasp must now hold the game in his direction for a time. The Left was not ready, the Left was years away from a vision sufficiently complex to give life to the land...the Left was still too full of kicks and pot and the freakings of sodium amytol and orgy, the howls of electronics and LSD. 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.
If the present day is any indication, I can only imagine the objections to passages like this. Do you want Nixon to win? It's probably already clear that Mailer's style is not at all objective; he expresses his vision obsessively, sharply attuned to his own fears and intuitions, like when a celebration among Young Republicans and assorted Republican delegates in an innocuous-sounding watering hole called Joe the Bartender's reveals itself as a prose poem of future tyranny, a tyranny that has survived and crossed an ocean.
Two banjos in black shirts, red and blue striped pants, were there to whang away, one of the girls played a drum, a red drum, there was a rooty-toot to the barnyard, and rebel yells from the crowd all next to broken eggs and splats, some stew of loutishness, red-eyed beer drinkers pig-faced in the dark, and the hump on the back of their neck begins to grow fat, beef on beef, pig on pig, primeval stirrings, secret glee, fun and games are mounting and vomit washed in blood, it was oom-pah, oom-pah and upsy daisy weight lifters dancing, merry and raw, beer hall, beer hall, bleat of a cow, snort of a pig, oomps went the tuba and yes, the boar of old Europe was not dead, the shade had come to America, America it was.
And yet the Miami section only accounts for about 33% of the book, inevitably overshadowed by the Chicago section, because Chicago is where the Democrats nominate Hubert Humphrey, and all hell breaks loose on the streets. For Mailer, Chicago's virtue is that it offers the possibility of meaningful drama. Before explaining, he sort of hilariously dismisses just about every other major American city ("Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis, and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French Quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town, Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle, nights in Kansas City close early..."). Residents of these cities duly alienated, he continues. Chicagoans are
...simple, strong, warm-spirited, sly, rough, compassionate, jostling, tricky and extraordinarily good-natured because they had sex in their pockets, muscles on their back, hot eats around the corner, neighborhoods which dripped with the sauce of local legend...the clangor of the late nineteenth century, the very hope of greed, was in these streets...the people had great faces, carnal as blood, greedy, direct, too impatient for hypocrisy, in love with honest plunder.
They choose not to flood the city, Mailer continues, with Odorono or Pinex or No-Scent, not to mask the smells of the slaughterhouse ("...their brother in heaven was the slaughtered pig- they did not ignore him...they had honest guts to smell him to the end..."). It's not a moral vision- Mailer even makes them sound, well, evil- but they render themselves (in a sense) as they are, without ornamentation.

All politicians, in Mailer's view, now possessed a degree of this appealing quality, willingly or not; all visibly aware of their own mortality, of the fact that "death could come like the turn of a card."
...a potential assassin, tipped to Rockefeller's entrance...could have packed a piece to within a yard of him- of course, afterward, he never could have escaped. Like pieces of flesh fragmented from the explosion of a grenade, echoes of the horror of Kennedy's assassination were thus everywhere: helicopters...state troopers with Magnums on their hips and crash helmets, squad cars, motorcycles, yet no real security, just powers of retaliation. It forced one to cherish major politicians- no matter how colorless, they all had hints of charisma now that they were obviously more vulnerable to sudden death than bullfighters...
Eugene McCarthy, poet and Senator from Minnesota, first to challenge Lyndon Johnson from within his own party in the '68 primary, seems to have consciously renounced ornamentation and ego.
He spoke in his cool, offhand style, now famous for its lack of emphasis, lack of power, lack of dramatic concentration, as if the first desire of all men must be not the Presidency, but the necessity to avoid any forcing of one's person...To attempt to carry the day by the energy of his own means would be vanity. Everything in McCarthy's manner, his quiet voice, his resolute refusal to etch his wit with any hint of emphasis...gave hint of his profound conservatism...yes, everything in McCarthy's manner spoke out in profound detestation of the Romantic impulse.
But it's precisely McCarthy's refusal to play the game, to trade and acquire what Mailer calls "properties", to compromise his vision, that ensures he won't win.
Being a leading anti-Communist used to be an invaluable property for which there was much competition- Richard Nixon had once gotten in early on the equivalent of an Oklahoma landgrab by staking out whole territories of that property. 'End the war in Vietnam' is a property to some, 'Let no American blood be shed in vain' is obviously another. A politician picks and chooses among moral properties...To the extent a politician is his own man, attached to his own search for his own spiritual truth- which is to say willing to end in any unpalatable position to which the character of his truth could lead him- then he is ill-equipped for the game of politics. Politics is property.
Even individuals, and especially in death, can become property. Stalin acquired Lenin. The modern US Republican Party still absurdly holds on to Lincoln. And before Humphrey's nomination in '68, the convention is shown a video of Bobby Kennedy, who has been dead for less than three months.
Since his brother's death, a subtle sadness had come to live in his tone of confidence, as though he were confident he would win- if he did not lose. That could also happen, and that could happen quickly. He had come into that world where people live with the recognition of tragedy, and so are often afraid of happiness, for they know that one is never in so much danger as when victorious and/or happy- that is when the devils seem to have their hour, and hawks seize something living from the gambol on the field...

Even dead, and on film, he was better and more moving than anything which had happened in their convention, and people were crying. An ovation began. Delegates came to their feet, and applauded an empty screen- it was as if the center of American life was now passing the age where it could still look forward; now people looked back into memory...they applauded the presence of a memory. Bobby Kennedy had become a beloved property of the party.
One of the common criticisms of Mailer is moral- that he is fascinated by violence, even that he revels in it. It's true that violence is a central theme in much of Mailer's writing, but in the second half of this book, at least, Mailer certainly doesn't revel in it. Instead, he's sobered by what he witnesses on the streets of Chicago. If anything, he seems to think that there is no avoiding the necessity of physical courage, that life demands it and that there's a certain satisfaction in meeting life's challenges; and maybe that's not an entirely unreasonable conclusion to draw after having fought in World War II. Furthermore, he offers this vision without an exaggerated sense of piety, righteousness, or certainty that 'his' side (he has one, but he's not terribly comfortable with the idea) is correct; instead, and this is one of the things I find most identifiable in his writing, he constantly questions himself, his own motivations and courage:
There was much structure to the fear, much reasoned argument in its support. He had an enormous amount of work before him...and only two weeks to do it if his article were to appear before election. A bad beating might lose him days, or a week; each day of writing would be irreplaceable to him. Besides, a variety of militant choices would be present for years. One could simply not accept the dangerous alternative every time...And then with another fear, conservative was this fear, he looked into his reluctance to lose even the America he had had, that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways...Yet, it had allowed him to write- it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income...

...if it [civil unrest] continued, then the particular solution which had provided him with a modicum at least of worldly happiness- the fine balance he might have achieved between the satisfaction of idealism and the satisfaction of need (call it greed) would be disrupted altogether, and then his life could not go on as it had. In the size of his fear, he was discovering how large a loss that would be. 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?
And so this book is at least as much a novel as anything else, a story of the individual set against history. Mailer questions himself, but he also suggests that each of us question ourselves, wherever and whenever we happen to be. How much comfort is enough? How much am I willing to risk to advance my own vision of life against another's? When a politician asks these questions, of course, they're almost always rhetorical; the complicated, individual answer disappears in the orgy of flag-waving and anthem-singing. Bleat of a cow, snort of a pig, oomps goes the tuba...Mailer's questions, on the other hand, aren't rhetorical. Like most great writers, he wants us to question ourselves.

It's as if he's saying, yes, it would be nice not to have to advance our own vision of life, our own dream, against the dreams of others- the arrogance is distasteful, and besides, we have no way of ever knowing that we're right. But if we don't, what fills that void? Have you seen some of those other visions?
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,730 followers
January 17, 2020
"Men whose lives are built on the ego can die of any painful disease but one--they cannot endure the dissolution of their own ego, for then nothing is left with which to face emotion, nothing but the urge to grovel at the enemy's feet."
- Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago


It is closing in on the 2020 primaries and all to soon we will be watching at least ONE party conventions of 2020. Makes me look back on some crazy times in American politics. Perhaps, the only years within recent memory to rival 2016 and 2000 would be 1968. It was the middle of the Vietnam war, MLK was assassinated, Johnson had dropped out and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. American was bat shit. And nobody captures batshit better than Norman Mailer (well, maybe Hunter S. Thompson).

I've recently come back to Mailer after an intermission of 20 years. He is a writer you need to take in small doses, but as usually happens, I read over 1000 pages of Mailer and discover like alcohol he might just be no good for me, but maybe just one last book. I do tend to prefer his nonfiction writing to his fiction, so this book was a delight. One can still enjoy something that isn't healthy, right?
Profile Image for Maureen.
726 reviews89 followers
June 2, 2009
Oh, yah, baby, Norman Mailer scored a home run. Mailer may have been a misanthropic bastard, but Holy Toledo, the man could write. He was a chronicler, a first-rate observer, and a commentator the likes of which we may never see again. In his coverage of the Miami and Chicago conventions, he kowtowed to no one. Unlike the reporters on the national beat today, who seem to still be reeling from the punishments they received during the Bush administration, Mailer barreled his way though both conventions, demanding to be spoken to and demanding to be heard. His is a uniquely American voice, covering a uniquely American time period. I don't know if passions in this country will ever again run as high as they did in the summer of 1968. I, for one, am glad that Mailer was there to cover some of the most confrontational moments in our modern history.
Profile Image for Sara.
491 reviews
September 15, 2012
Why read this now? Why didn't I read it in the 60s? I think because the buzz was that it was as much about Mailer as about the conventions, and that is true. But at this historical distance, it has power, even with its occasionally turgid Faulknerian/Joycean heaps of clauses and sentence fragments. A new kind of journalism it was indeed, and welcome, but embarrassing in parts, especially in Chicago when Mailer begins to dissect his own cowardice that leads him to avoid being in the thick of the conflict. When he proposes to lead a march of "minimum 300 delegates" to the Amphitheater, on an impulse in mid-speech to demonstrators in Grant Park, we cover our faces in embarrassment for him, knowing how it will turn out. His intuitions are sometimes right on - "we will be fighting for forty years" - but when turned toward himself, often faulty.
And yet, and yet, it does convey the sweaty tear-gas-laden reality of the whole thing. Daley, Johnson, Humphrey become larger-than-life Beasts and that is over the top, but at the time and in the moment the police violence was unprecedented, at least its open use against whites. The seeds of today's partisan hatred can be found here, growing like a boa constrictor out of the slimy failure of Goldwater in 1964. Oops, Mailerian-simile-infestation...
I've lived in Miami and his description of the sulphuric 87 degree heat on the Beach will remain in my mind forever:
"Traveling for five miles up the broken-down, forever in-a-state-of-alteration and repair of Collins Avenue, crawling through 5 P.M. Miami Beach traffic in the pure miserable fortune of catching an old taxi without air conditioning, dressed in shirt and tie and jacket...the sensation of breathing, then living, was not unlike being obliged to make love to a 300-pound woman who has decided to get on top."
There is some true insight here into Nixon:
"Nixon had entered American life as half a man [as Eisenhower's veep], but his position had been so high, the power of the half man had been so enormous that he could never begin to recognize, until he fell, that he was incomplete."
"he had worked among the despised nuts and bolts of the delegates' hearts, and it showed up here in the skill and the pleasure with which he greeted each separate delegate"
"It might even be a measure of the not-entirely dead promise of America if a man as opportunistic as the early Nixon could grow in reach and comprehension and stature to become a leader."
Nixon and McCarthy have one thing in common, they are both enigmas, and as such are the most interesting people at these conventions. The dissection of McCarthy is good but not as much fun as that of Nixon.
A prophetic view of today's GOP:
"Denied the center of political power, the corporation and the small town had remained ideologically married for decades; only by wielding the power could they discover which concepts in conservative philosophy were viable, and what parts were mad. One could predict: their budgeting would prove insane, their righteousness would prove insane, their love for order and clear-thinking would be twisted through many a wry neck, the intellectual foundations of their anti-Communism would split into its separate parts. And the small-town faith in small free enterprise would run smash into the corporate juggernauts of technology land...their love of nature would have to take up arms against the despoiling foe, themselves, their own greed, their own big business." p. 63
And of the Left of that time:
"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. For certain the world could not be saved by technology or government or genetics, and much of the Left had that still to learn."
We're still muddling through while both sides learn.
Interesting to remember that Mitt Romney's dad was passed over in favor of Spiro Agnew as Nixon's Vice President. Is Mitt driven by that mortification?
Worth reading.
Profile Image for Steve.
820 reviews237 followers
September 22, 2018
I'm late getting back to this. I really liked it. The "book" is basically two very different panels. One, the Republican National Convention of 1968, has a more traditional feel to it, though it's punctuated by Mailer's ("the reporter") deep imaginings, coupled with sharp observation, of various Republican camps (Nixon, Rockefeller, Reagan). Mailer really sets the stage on very first page (of the Library of American edition), in his overripe description of Miami:

The vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas. Ghosts of expunged flora, the never-born groaning in vegetative chancery beneath the asphalt came up with a tropical curse, an equatorial leaden wet sweat of air which rose from the earth itself, rose right up through the baked asphalt and into the heated air like a hand slipping into a rubber glove.

That lush and reeking description is followed by Mailer's chilly air-conditioned accounts of the various Republican camps, and their followers. Beneath these mostly brittle and futile maneuverings (Nixon's going to win the nomination), you sense a brooding and inevitable savagery collecting itself. This was on-the-ground stuff, so Mailer's sense of what is getting ready to transpire in the upcoming election is impressive. Mailer's a really good writer. At his best, I was reminded of the gonzo imagination of Hunter Thompson, but with the tighter control of Joan Didion.

The second part of this (Siege of Chicago), is like a different, more personal book. Mailer is clearly sympathetic to the ant-war movement, but he's also confused or uncertain about some elements of the movement. At one point he calls himself a "Left-Conservative." At the time he wrote this, he was in his mid-forties. As a writer, he certainly had his finger on the pulse of times, but didn't quite feel a part of it. But that seems to change during the demonstrations. There are times Mailer castigates himself for being a coward for not taking a more active part, but he's nevertheless drawn to the demonstrations. Weirdly, at one point, in a real WTF moment, he reviews the troops of the National Guard, giving them, as if trying to connect in some way, the
Old-Soldier look. He then goes to a nearby gathering of protestors to give a speech. I was actually impressed by that, because Mailer himself doesn't seem to know what to make of his actions and reactions. It just seemed real and honest and of the moment. By the end of the Chicago section, Mailer has come away with a grudging admiration for the protesters. He still has some well-founded reservations, but he also admires their courage in the face of the savage assaults by Mayor Dailey's police force. Like the Miami portion of the book, the Siege of Chicago has some sharp and revealing observations, the best of which are on the reluctant priest-politician, Eugene McCarthy. Mailer's dislike of Humphrey, and the old-school Democratic Party that he represents, is as intense as anything you'll find in Hunter Thompson's writings. His love and remorse for the recently assassinated Robert Kennedy runs like sad thread through both sections. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,098 reviews700 followers
July 2, 2017
I loved this book when it first came out in 1968, and I still love it. This country needs journalists like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson, especially in the Era of Trumpf, but all we have is a lot of wee, timorous beasties employed by various large corporations.

In Miami and the Siege of Chicago, we see both the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968, in which Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey were nominated by their political parties. The chapters on the Miami convention are better written, perhaps because of the distance that Mailer feels from the Republican cause; but then the Chicago convention turned into a general riot, and men's attentions were constantly being diverted between the convention hall and the streets.

Much of what Mailer wrote is still pertinent today:
From time to time, the reporter [Mailer] thought again of matters which did not balance him. He thought of the fear Bobby Kennedy must have known. This was a thought he had been trying to avoid all night -- it gave eyes to the darkness of his own fear -- that fear which came from knowing some of them were implacable. Them! All the bad cops, U.S. marshals, generals, corporation executives, high government bureaucrats, rednecks, insane Black militants, half-crazy provocateurs, Right-wing faggots, Right-wing high-strung geniuses, J. Edgar Hoover, and the worst of the rich surrounding every seat of Establishment in America.
We are still grievously affected today by the events of the 1968 convention and the spate of political assassinations that preceded it. And we have yet to come to terms with it!
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,166 followers
December 24, 2014
Although I was a Eugene McCarthy supporter and suspicious of Mailer's favorite, Robert F. Kennedy, I enjoyed reading his account of the 1968 election year and wish I'd read it earlier.
Profile Image for Steve R.
1,055 reviews40 followers
March 28, 2022
I read this 1968 ‘novel’ just a year or two after its publication in the wake of that most tumultuous year in American political history. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy having occurred earlier that year, Mailer took his acerbic wit to the sites of the Republican and Democratic conventions that summer. His distaste for both parties and their leaders is visceral: he concludes that he will in all likelihood not vote at all, but should he do so, it would probably be for Eldridge Cleaver.

Subtitled ‘An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968’, it is supposedly representative of the ‘new journalism’ movement then developing that allowed subjective voices to intrude upon analysis of objective realities. Maybe, this was sort of a precursor of our present day no-holds-barred ‘opinion-as-reporting’ of Tucker Carlson? If so, it is much less nauseating and much more insightful.

Mailer writes very well, and his critical gaze never lacked a straight conduit into his acid-tipped pen.

Profile Image for Jen Crichton.
81 reviews
April 27, 2021
Brooklyn boy with the Harvard accent, Mailer was a huge public figure in my 60s childhood: egomaniacal, combative and fetishistic about his own belligerence, libertine and anti-feminist, funny and -- yes -- larger than life, relentlessly crafting a public persona of the swaggering Hemingwayesque man of letters. He managed to produce a huge amount of work that rarely/never seemed to reach the level of truly great of which everyone seemed to think he was capable.

I was too young to follow the events of the conventions of 1968 -- the Democratic convention thrown open by the RFK assassination (Mailer's description choked me up as I remembered my own family's grief and seeing my father cry for the first time) held in Mayor Daley's police state of a city (let us never romanticize that beast) -- but Mailer captures it beautifully. He's hard enough on himself to call out his own rationalizations for not becoming involved in the demonstrations, ultimately tapping into his shame to do the right thing, if only to support his own heroic self-image.

His description of the Republican convention in Miami brings back that pre-Disney Florida and that age of less mediated political access, laying bare the chasm between stodgy old America and the post-1960s world, with Nixon and his followers on the wrong side of history. Usually he does this by contrasting the kinds of musical groups and dancing girls and canapés found in the different candidates' parties but I can't pretend that is not fun to read.

This is real time reporting, though, so the keen close read of characters without greater context historically and culturally would render much of the narrative meaningless to someone who doesn't have this background. It's like listening to great gossip about people you've never met: interesting at first but ultimately boring because gossip requires a personal connection. As an old timer, I have that connection and know the historical context. Mailer's description of Hubert Humphrey as a small time bookie who is a hero to his barber but terrified of his higher-ups is just one of a thousand zingers composed of wit, malice, and perspicacity.

The book ends with Mailer almost getting mauled by the Daley police state. On escaping by means of his fame and press pass, he proceeds to a late night party at the Playboy mansion which, in those good old days, was still located in Hefner's hometown of Chicago. Good times for the Great American (Male) Writer. When I was a girl in the 1960s, I would have accepted that the Great American Writer had to be male. But those were different times and we got where we are now because of the pivotal year, 1968. Mailer IS that year personified, and this book brings it all back. The book moves beyond a “you had to be there” perspective to one that is more “you are here with me because I brought you with me.” In being so of its moment, maybe it becomes a book for the ages, after all.
Profile Image for Jon Frankel.
Author 8 books22 followers
May 12, 2016
As relevant today as the day it was published in 1968, this is a great example of engaged journalism, written with literary style and a novelist's insight into character. Rockefeller, RFK, Eugene McCarthy, McGovern, Humphrey, Nixon, Reagan and Wallace, the whole kit and kaboodle, get the limousine treatment. Mailer writes as if Kerouac had control. Paragraphs a page long yield both the inner distress of a man in his forties who has been to war and been a part of the great rebellion against America, only to see it mutate in the mid to late sixties into forms he can barely comprehend. Funny, full of pathos and wise, read this book for where we've been and where we continue to go. He goes on long riffs and always returns to the tear gas of Chicago, to Daley's beefy face and the stench of the stockyards, braying like a pig with despair and grief when RFK is gunned down, with amazing takes on the Republican parade in Miami. He ends with the observation that the two party system in the USA was done for. He figured an extreme right wing lunatic party ruled by Ronald Reagan and George Wallace would emerge, and then gradates to the left, ending with Eldridge Cleaver! Oh well, it might be happening now, but, of course he lived to see that right wing lunatic become president. We've been suffering ever since the world changed for the worse in 1968. As Bob Mould put it, "No more hope and too much dope."
Profile Image for Padraic.
291 reviews26 followers
January 13, 2009
Gosh - what a flippin' blowhard! Mailer is like an overly loud uncle who bathes less frequently than you would wish. He's in full plumage here. Interesting note: the Chicago section is far less interesting than the Miami section, with its focus on the rival personalities of Rockefeller and Nixon. I suppose this points the way toward his ultra fictional bios of Oswald etc. One gets the feeling he was a mite too stoned in Chicago to really focus.

Yes I know the man is dead and this was written in the 60's but, really, you know...
Profile Image for Neil.
88 reviews
October 21, 2008
The awards and reputation of this book speak for themselves. What really fascinated me, were the descriptions of the protests and battles along Michigan Avenue and Grant Park. I couldn't help but juxtapose Mailer's Chicago with the Chicago of today-it was surreal. I tried to imagine that level of civil unrest today, that level of violence, but I could not.
Profile Image for David.
418 reviews9 followers
December 31, 2008
If you can get past Mailer's stupefying narcissism, you will find some beefy prose and technicolor imagery in this book. I particularly liked the description of Mayor Richard Daley, "looking like he had just been stuffed with a catfish." The political train wreck that was the Democratic convention in Chicago is mirrored in the psychic pileup that is Mailer.
12 reviews
January 25, 2023
Lashes the Republican Party with a cat o’nine tails of which each braid is an impressionist grade simile
Profile Image for Jason.
199 reviews14 followers
February 9, 2022
If modern politics are nothing but a shit-show, then the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions for the presidential primaries were a constipation conference. Such is the impression left by Norman Mailer in his semi-classic account Miami and the Siege of Chicago. From Mailer’s point of view, the notorious riots and demonstrations that accompanied these conventions of caucuses and primary votes outshine anything that happened politically that year. Mailer’s personal point of view, in fact, tends to override anything else that actually happens in this work of literary journalism.

The tradition of journalism, like everything else in the 1960s, was changing at the time. Norman Mailer saw the profession as a form of psychosis, written by detached observers from a bird’s eye point of view with no emotional investment in their subject matter. This detachment was an illusion though, since true objectivity, especially involving human affairs, is impossible from a phenomenological perspective. In reaction to this stance of fake objectivity, the 1960s produced the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, with his gonzo journalism, and Norman Mailer who wrote from the point of view of a participant in the events described. Since pure objectivity is an impossibility, Mailer ran in the opposite direction and wrote journalistic works where his own subjectivity was front and center stage in the final literary product.

This book starts out with Mailer describing Miami, the location of the Republican National Convention of 1968, as being a place that once was covered with wild jungle and palm trees, sometime battered by hurricanes and subtropical humidity but this lush natural landscape, just a short swim across the sea from Cuba, has been paved over, transformed into an urban concrete armpit with bland, tacky hotels on the beach and clueless, happy-go-lucky tourists in bathing suits who have no concept of wildness to begin with. While the strangled jungle metaphor doesn’t get played out too much throughout the narrative, the feeling of being imprisoned and tamed inside an air-conditioned prison of kitsch is all-pervasive. The convention kicks off with Mailer watching a circus elephant flown in from California to perform tricks on the airport tarmac. The convention, with all its dull and droning speeches, moves on from there. Mailer himself roots for Nelson Rockefeller to win the primary but in the end it is Richard Nixon who takes the prize. He gets characterized as a smart but dark and sinister candidate who has to try hard and act like an attractive candidate. Mailer finds him captivating but not particularly charming. Then-candidate Ronald Reagan also puts in an appearance, looking slick and shellacked with his shoe-polished hair but also shallow and dim in a smarmy way, unable to answer questions after his speech because he doesn’t know anything about anything.

In fact, the entire convention is lackluster and devoid of spirit. The author compensates for his disinterest by boozing it up at hotel bards and waxing poetic in his descriptions of the crowds and the convention venues. When things gets too dull, Mailer’s subjectivity is given full vent with his Henry Miller-inspired prose, acting like a smokescreen to cover up the reality that nothing interesting is actually happening. There are a couple passages where this approach is taken too far and the author can be criticized for summoning up too much excitement over something that is inherently unexciting.

As the narrator moves on to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, the subject matter promises to take a turn in a darker but more interesting direction. Where the section on Miami begins with a description of untamed jungle, the Chicago section begins with the gruesome horrors of the stockyards and abattoirs, foreshadowing the brutality to come . Norman Mailer is a bit more enthused about this convention because his preferred candidate, Eugene McCarthy, is running for president on an anti-Vietnam War ticket. But as the speeches drone on, the issue of the Vietnam War is like the jungle vines struggling to grow under the pavement of Miami; the candidates skirt around the issue and make no deep dives into the subject as they squirm in the spotlight. McCarthy is slightly more bold in his oppositional stance while Hubert Humphrey blandly states that his policy on the war is the same as Lyndon Johnson’s. Mailer describes Humphrey as a mid-level Mafia boss who fears his superiors but has convinced his barber that he is a big shot. Mailer’s acerbic humor is often at its best when he describes American mediocrity, a national character trait that is on full display in Chicago politics 1968.

But the Democratic primary convention takes a turn towards the raucous due to the demonstrations and riots happening in the nearby parks and streets. A huge mix of New Left political activists, hippies, bikers, African-Americans, and other social odds and ends like high school kids, journalists, and Catholic priests turn out in angry droves to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, turning the convention’s focus away from bread and butter issues towards the one thing that was on everybody’s mind. The peaceful demonstrations turned into riots which were partially instigated by undercover police officers who wanted an excuse to bash in the heads of those attending while beating up a few innocent bystanders for good measure. A riot was what the police wanted and a riot was what they got. Mailer, at that time a middle-aged war veteran with a bad habit of getting into brawls, felt ambiguous about the demonstrators even though he had already taken a firm stance against the war. He observed the riots from a distance and he inserts quotes from other journalists to provide details of the violence. After seeing the police brutality and the demonstrators in their nearly fearless commitment to protesting the war, Mailer takes sides with the counter-culture and ends up joining in with them. The latter part of the book involves this transformative process and the narrator emerges more and more as a participating character and less of an observer lurking behind his own lens of subjectivity.

What Mailer succeeds in doing here is portraying America in the microcosm of the presidential primaries of 1968. He has a sharp and accurate sense of where America stands at that time and where it is going. His observation that the most mediocre candidates won the party nominations while the most dynamic and provocative candidates had little impact sets the tone for the grey decades ahead. His other significant observation, that the future of America is in the hands of the youth and the counter-culture, not the politicians, turned out to be somewhat true as well. In the end, his diagnosis of American society is one of disgust with the status quo and a rallying cry for the uprising of the young, even though he feels they are doomed to failure because of their naivety.

Some people have criticized Miami and the Siege of Chicago for being more about Norman Mailer than the presidential campaigns. It is true that all the usual Mailerisms are present: descriptions of smells, psychosis, witchcraft, existential crisis, combat, boxing and bullfighting metaphors, macho rampaging, Herclitean duality, and the incongruous references to anal sex. It is also true that the narrative subjectivity sometimes overshadows the events and even interferes with the story at times. But to say that this book is just about Norman Mailer can be considered a half truth at best. It is about the author but it is also about how the author perceives the events he has chosen to witness and those events are what really matters. If the author is more interesting than the politicians, that isn’t his fault. Instead of denying the journalistic bias, he indulges in it and opens up a new dimension in the way news and history are approached. Since history is witnesses and recorded by real humans, it would make sense to expand on that facet of writing instead of maintaining the false pretense of unbiased reporting.

If you are interested in the history of American politics this is one book about that era that can give some keen insight, but if you are interested in the history of journalism at a crucial turning point in its progression, Miami and the Siege of Chicago is a good place to go.
Profile Image for Tom Choi.
65 reviews3 followers
April 29, 2021
I learned so much! So much riveting and overstuffed information about all aspects of the infamous 1968 national presidential political conventions, but also so many new multisyllabic words (even words that don't officially exist: "phumpher," which in Yiddish convention is commonly spelled as "fumfer," or "to mumble"). *Only the deranged, unhinged ego of Mailer would do the extra labor to render the lowly "fumfer" in to a more regal, Queen's English-worthy: "phumpher". So pretentious! So subtle and so clever!

I was blown away by Mailer's depictions of the two principal cities of the drama: Miami, distilled through the stifling prevalence of modern air conditioning and the countless hotels that are all unhappy in that they are all hideously furnished; and Chicago, which is brought into its modern age through the history of the stockyards, and more provocatively, in the blood and stench drama of the slaughterhouses. (Mailer describes in full gory detail the horrible experience of livestock, as carcasses being processed in the brutally efficient modern factory system.)

There's also a really fascinating analogy of modern American politics as akin to property ownership that warrants a review and analyses from better informed political scientists. But the dense political activity of the 2 conventions (and in the case of the DNC in Chicago, also out in the streets) as retold through the metaphor of crude economics (not the glamor of day trading, but merely the boring exchange of property!) has the effect of stripping the heavy-winded political actors and their minions of any pretense to nobility, higher intelligence, and beneficence.

Ultimately, Mailer's prose is wild, beautiful, funny, profane, and strange (like Mozart!?!) and the ending is something to behold: Mailer, as "the reporter" begins to unpack his feelings of guilt, futility, and shame as a middling, middle age man (the Norman Mailer of 1968 wasn't quite the NORMAN MAILER after 1968) who was prone to bursts of false bravado that were small in comparison to the larger scale of human conflict, and in the case of Chicago, real violence.

I'm still in awe of the closing words, which could have been Rick's closing remarks, after his closing remarks, in "Casablanca":

"Put your fingers in V for victory and give a wink. We may yet win, the other are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do."

The panache! the style! the casual allusion to something deeper and greater that lies just beyond our comprehension and grasp! the we/us...

This is great stuff.
Profile Image for Jason Smith.
80 reviews1 follower
January 20, 2009
One can't help but see Miami and the Siege of Chicago as a kind of sequel to Armies of the Night. In both we find Mailer narrating his first person account of these two events, profound moments in our cultural history, from the distance of a self-analytical third person. But here we find not the same Mailer of Armies, that brash, powerful leader—unafraid to face beatings, arrest but in fact seeking them out. No, here we see a writer who avoids the scene of the tragedy. He is disillusioned with the young people he led on his march to the pentagon. And its fairly clear that they no longer have much use for him. Mailer's flaccid attempt at organizing a march on the Democratic convention, after taking great pains to avoid all previous scenes of Daley's manufactured violence, ends in a pathetic whimper. Most of the scenes of the chaos are witnessed from his hotel room high above Grant park and Michigan Avenue. The best descriptive passages of the violence come from the pages of the Village Voice and other reporters who suffered brutal police beatings in order to write their pieces. Mailer gives a litany of excuses for avoiding the violence, perhaps rationalizing an absence from the action he wouldn't dare have missed in his earlier years.

And yet, here is this book that puts the acrid taste of the defeat that was to come to the idealists. Their failure is there in these pages, riding write along side Mailer's. That magnificent self-awareness that allows him to see his diminished role in their cause was certainly capable at hinting the diminished role that his "soldiers" would play in the world to come. He was able to see the magnificent power that Nixon would be able to wield against them with the help of America's "silent majority." All the hope of change and the ego of the first book is gone, and a somber note of the dirge to come lingers...

I also want to put down one of the best descriptions of Hubert Humphrey, or just about anybody else, I have ever read:

"Humphrey had a had had a face which was dependent upon cosmetics as the protagonist of a coffin."

Read Armies of the Night as quickly as you can get your hands on it, then when you are finished, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.
Profile Image for Amity.
23 reviews
November 13, 2008
I have mixed feelings about this book. It didn't quite have the vitriol of Thompson when describing Nixon, and it didn't quite capture the terror and excitement of the protests in Grant Park.

While Mailer can paint a beautiful portrait of pomp and circumstance, as well as behind-the-scenes political theatrics at their finest, I didn't completely believe he had a firsthand account of the events that he captured. His third-person narrative and hoaky use of the term "the reporter" stifled and confined what could have been a more vivid, raw account of some of the most thrilling moments in American history.

I was also infuriated with his forty-page, indulgent analysis of the inconsequential intricacies of the DNC stump speeches before he finally launches into:

"We have been present until now at an account of the Democratic Convention of 1968. It has not, however, been a description of the event. The event was a convention which took place during a continuing five-day battle in the streets and parks of Chicago between some of the minions of the high established, and some of the nihilistic of the young."

He later goes on to dissect what he thinks is the ideological make-up of the "nihilistic" in a very ill-informed, condescending manner. While he did hit the streets with the protesters, the narrative still feels too isolating.

Basically what upset me the most was that he admits to indulging in the most uninteresting details first and holding off the most important historical events as they occurred. Big mistake--never underestimate the inverted pyramid.

Norman Mailer: taking the "Journalism" out of "New Journalism."
Profile Image for Craig Werner.
Author 13 books166 followers
July 23, 2022
Better on the reread than I'd remembered it, which might be in part because I last read it when it was published in 1969. The strength of the book lies in Mailer's honest and unsparing portrait of the impossibility of thinking through the maelstrom of summer 1968 with any clarity. Surprisingly, the part on the Republican convention has aged better than the part on Chicago. Chapters 11 ands 12, in particular, present a compelling and profoundly uncomfortable image of what it was like for a white left-liberal confronting Black Power and feeling an untrustworthy urge to give Nixon a chance.
Profile Image for Jake.
269 reviews25 followers
November 15, 2020
If there is a point in time that seems to have fixed the hostilities of America's culture wars into place, it is the summer of 1968. It is impossible not to be demoralized by the extent to which the corrosive hatred of 2020 has been a rehashing of 1968, in nearly every major contour other than the pandemic; reading this book this summer was thus deeply unsettling. Mailer's self-important reportorial voice has not aged well, but his writing is nearly photographic in terms of its adeptness with visual description and his eye for a telling moment.
Profile Image for Alejandro.
54 reviews4 followers
October 29, 2008
Great start, I vaguely remember the decor of decrepit deco architecture which housed aging gamblers and hookers searching for a thrill. Mix in the infamous Nixon campaign, whoah I was a mere kid when I first heard of the remnants of that ugly patch of history... Creepy feeling as I turn a chapter it feels as if the GOP influencing powers are fresh off of the headlines today.
Profile Image for Karlo Mikhail.
400 reviews111 followers
July 29, 2017
I recently read the late Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the American Political Conventions of 1968 and it’s interesting how nothing much has changed since Mailer wrote his coverage of the events leading to the 1968 U.S. presidential elections.

Composed of coverage of the Republican convention in “Nixon and Miami, August 5-9,” and of the Democratic convention and the street protests around it in “The Siege of Chicago, August 26-29,” Mailer’s reportage provides sharp insights into American political culture.

Mailer’s description of the delegates of the 1968 Republican Party Convention in Miami is revealing of the strata really represented by this ultra-conservative party:

"Exceptions noted, they were obviously in large part composed of a thousand of the wealthiest Republicans in the land, the corporate and social power of America was here in legions of interconnection he could not even begin to trace."

This includes:

"The military power (to the extent that important sword-rattlers and/or patriots were among the company, as well as cadres of corporations not unmarried to the Pentagon, yes even the spiritual power of America (just so far as Puritanism, Calvinism, conservatism and golf still have the Wasp on American faith more intense than the faith of cosmopolitan, one-worlders, trade unionists, Black militants, New Leftists…"

Of course, there’s not much difference with the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago which Mailer also describes as attended by some of the most corrupt politicians in the country. But then, as in now, the Republicans still took home the prize for their explicit faith in the Manifest Destiny:

"They believed in America as they believed in God – they could not really ever expect that America might collapse and God yet survive, no, they had even gone so far as to think that America was the savior of the world, food and medicine by one hand, sword in the other, highest of high faith in a nation which would bow the knee before no problem."

The Republicans criticize a big government that threatens honest hardworking Americans with more taxes, state regulations over free enterprise, and welfare for lazy minorities. But then less taxes and state intervention would only give more leeway for big corporations to gobble up smaller businesses and provide lesser assistance to the needy. Mailer hits the mark in this observation:

"The corporation and the small town had remained ideologically married for decades… The small-town faith in small free enterprise would run smash into the corporate juggernauts of technology land; their love of polite culture would collide with the mad aesthetics of the new America; their livid passion for military superiority would smash its nose on the impossibility of having such superiority without more government spending; their love of nature would have to take up arms against the despoiling foe, themselves, their own greed, their own big business."

Yet it is clear regardless of the conflicting rhetoric that both contending political parties will defend the interests of the financial oligarchy that has lorded over the U.S. and a big chunk of the world since the turn of the 20th century and will launch wars of aggressions in behalf of their interests.

Regardless of which party gains the presidency, the U.S. will continue to keep the Philippines under its sphere of influence and control and retain it as a source of cheap labor and raw resources as well as a dumping ground for its surplus capital and manufactured goods.

This November 6, the choice is between President Barack Obama of the Democratic Party and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney of the Republican Party. But does the two actually offer the American people a real choice?

In the past decade, George Bush the Second invaded Afghanistan and Iraq for oil and did not hide his devotion to capital. Barrack Obama continued the occupation of the two countries and bailed out the big banks after they became bankrupt after a decade of financial hocus pocus.

But even as there are no basic differences between the two candidates in as much as they both represent the class interests of the corporate elite 1 percent, it is interesting to note how the two vying political parties and their presidential bets package themselves to the American people.

The Republican Party does not hide its loyalties to monopoly capital but misrepresent this as favorable to small town white families and entrepreneurs. It prates about the primacy of free markets against the evils of so-called big government social welfare spending.

The Democratic Party on the other hand tend to prettify its allegiance to big business by the use of liberal language and empty populist promises of catering to the interests of the lower classes and marginalized minorities.

Like in the 1960s described by Mailer in his book, this reality continues to be reflected in the recent presidential campaign by Obama and Romney.

The U.S. now suffers from the worst socio-economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The American people are now confronted with soaring unemployment, homelessness, hunger, inaccessible education, health, and other social services, and worsening poverty and inequality. But these social realities are scarcely even mentioned by the Obama and Romney in their campaigns.

The differences between the two candidates are being played up in the mainstream media. However, there are more agreements between the two camps than points of divergences. Compare Obama and Romney’s statements on U.S. military and foreign policy:

"As long as I am commander-in-chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known."

"I believe a strong America must – and will – lead the future. I will insist on a military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it."

Now who said which? These are words spoken by a true imperialist. And it’s not just that. The two basically shares the same platforms on stimulating the private sector (i.e. big banks and companies) through massive tax cuts, the further privatization of education in the guise of school reforms, state support for US energy corporations, and cutbacks in health care!

In 1968 the election season did not prevent the American people, especially the youth, from agitating and marching against the Vietnam War, racism, and for civil liberties. Today’s Occupy Wall Street has been largely pushed back to the margins but when Mailer was covering the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago a few thousand youths were then fighting pitched battles against the police.

Incidents of police brutality, like the one Mailer himself experienced back in 1968, are one of those rare moments when the absence of difference between parties of the ruling classes are crystallized:

A National Guard officer said, “You’ll have to step back.”


“Just step back.”

I’m a reporter for Harper’s Magazine, and I wish to be able to describe the barbed wire on that Jeep.”

“Don’t be wise-apple around me,” said the officer. “Step back.”

“I’m doing a story.”

“All right, take him in!”

“For what? Describing your Jeep?”

He was seized. Three or four soldiers seized him… in his ear he could hear his drinking companions following behind, loyal enough to stay near in this fat squeeze of barbed wire Jeep. He could hear them saying to the soldiers, then the cops, “Have you guys gone crazy? He’s a journalist.”
Profile Image for Phil Greenland.
12 reviews
August 20, 2023
Dancing with Mailer again and I’m still not sure how I feel about him. Okay novelist? Hack biographer? Decent journalist? Misogynist, egotist, bully, borderline racist? Yet still I persist.

I first read this book getting in for 40 years ago, over a couple of days sat in the college library. Having recently re-watched Sorkin’s Chicago 7 movie, I thought it might be interesting to revisit.

This is a book of two halves. The first, shorter section covers the Republican part conference in Miami 1964. It is a straightforward perfunctory piece of reporting. The Nixon machine steam rollers into town does its thing and history tells us how that worked out.

The major section concerns the Democratic convention in Chicago and offers much more of interest. A party riven in two, full of corruption and backbiting. The terrifying Mayor Daley of Chicago, a mafia don by another name with an army of violent cops at his disposal. The massed and diverse ranks of the peace movement who descend on Chicago to protest the war in Vietnam. It was a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Mailer’s reporting is difficult as much of this book concerns his internal narrative as much as the events outside. He sees himself aligned with the peace protesters but he finds them alien to him in so many ways. He worries that the black power movement is just going to disrupt the comfortable life he has made for himself. He watches the massacre of Michigan Avenue from the nineteenth floor of the Hilton Hotel.

It is only in the final chapters that his writing really sings and at last he engages with what he is witnessing. He descends from the nineteenth floor and goes drinking. His thoughts on the assassination of Bobby Kennedy are genuinely moving. Once he gets into the thick of things and gets a beating for his trouble, his writing improves dramatically. The long showy sentences, where he is just trying to bully the reader with his own intellect disappear and are replaced by a more visceral, emotional reporting style.

This is always my problem with Mailer. When he wants to he can be brutally effective but he has a tendency to show off. The long rambling sentences just detract and annoy.

Ultimately a minor work, but an interesting piece of social history. A good introduction to the ‘new’ long form journalism of the 60s and 70s, but Wolf and Thomson would do it better.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
143 reviews20 followers
February 24, 2020
Normal Mailer is America's greatest writer, according to Normal Mailer. I love and hate the man in about equal measures, though the love slightly won out on this occasion, mainly because it's fascinating to read reporting of the two 1968 political party conventions as they were unfolding. Plus there are some fabulous passages among the general bloat. When he's trying to sum up the world at large he's painful blowhard, but when Normy focuses in on individuals, he's such a delight.

I have a strong urge to quote just about every description of every person in the book, but I will restrain myself to just one sentence from a description of Nixon: "There was something in his carefully shaven face - the dark jowls already showing the first overtones of thin gloomy blue at this early hour - some worry which gave promise of never leaving him, some hint of inner debate about his value before eternity which spoke of precisely the sort of improvement that comes upon a man when he shifts in appearance from looking like an undertaker's assistant to looking like an old con seriously determined to go respectable."

Okay, maybe just one more quote: "at his worst, Daley looked in fact like a vastly robust old peasant woman with a dirty gray silk wig."

And then there's the description of the Vice President taking a question on Vietnam, "Humphrey took his time going to the podium. It was a question he had obviously been ready to expect, and yet he seemed agitated. It is one thing to know that some day we will die, it is another to wake in the middle of the night and hear your heart."

And the last example of my one example, Mailer exploring his own racism: "it was possible the reporter had influenced as many Black writers as any other white writer in America."
Profile Image for John Oakley.
90 reviews
August 28, 2023
Compelling, informative, and confounding. The voice and sense of dread are great in both republican and democrat accounts. It was an intentionally biased account, and the narrative was engaging throughout. He could pick certain details to fixate on that felt off center, but in dwelling on them you still get a large scale sense of both conventions, and of the state of politics in America at the time. The book benefits from being a subjective account via mailers own personality, but that does get a little grating toward the end, and even possibly offensive at a few moments. I appreciated that he was exploring how these conventions were geared toward preying on the common persons inner dark feelings, but some of the dark feelings he was writing down weren’t that cool. But again, it was meant to be provocative, and I think the exploration was worthy of the point it was making beneath the surface. Toward the end it felt a little bit like he was writing about himself being a hero, even though all the while he was like “I’m no hero I was afraid of getting beat up by the cops I felt shameful” but that just felt like it was meant to get sympathy? And then he becomes an annoying hardo in the final few pages? I just liked it better when it was focused on the events just with a splash of his voice/personal point of view rather than actually being about him
Profile Image for Joseph.
101 reviews2 followers
January 8, 2022
It’s presented as two chapters, but really the book is divided into two distinct sections: “Miami” covers the 1968 RNC and is just 1/3rd of the book, and “The Siege of Chicago” which feels much more immersive regarding that year’s notorious DNC.

The self-reference in third-person, I don’t like at all. And I think what bothers me about Mailer’s style, now that I have two books in me (and therefore am a capital-e Expert 😇🤣) is the rumination and run-on sentences really take away from the action. Ordinarily I enjoy the style a lot, but here they’re not asides as much as complete distractions.

Having said that: the “politics is property” section beginning on page 105 and spanning about 13 pages is GOLD. The definition of power and what is mutually valuable and open for trade, almost none of it tangible, is riveting. And the immediate connection of it to the Democratic leadership race that year is worth the price of the book alone (but again, I can’t recommend the entire thing).
253 reviews5 followers
April 22, 2021
Norman Mailer constantly refers to himself as “the reporter” in this account of incidents that happened during the 1968 political conventions. In my mind he became “the Asshole Reporter.” He came off as arrogant, alcoholic and a jerk. My opinion of him was confirmed when I read his bio In Wikipedia. He actually was charged with attempting to murder one of his 6 wives! That said, I would recommend anyone interested in this book to skip the entire first section of the book about the Republican National Convention. It is just a normal political convention with politics as usual, good and bad. But the second part of the book about events that happened surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is very interesting. What a shit show! Manipulation, riots, police brutality and Mailer's inept attempt to become sort of a leader of a rally.
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