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224 pages, Mass Market Paperback
First published January 1, 1968
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.
...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...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:
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.
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...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.
...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?
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!