Convention Flashback: Miami and the Siege of Chicago

Forty years and ten elections on, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the late Norman Mailer’s classic account of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions, has just been reissued with a smart new introduction by New York Times columnist Frank Rich. But the copy in front of me is the ancient Signet paperback I bought as a precocious tenth-grader — price, 95 cents, or roughly one week’s allowance — and I can’t help feeling fond of it. There aren’t many books I can give as much credit for ruining my life.

Most of the others are also by Mailer, something that flabbergasts my wife no end. “Can you please tell me why you want me to read this egomaniac?” she groaned soon after our wedding, pitching the great man’s Advertisements for Myself across the room. Once I’d checked on our cats’ survival and glanced at a few pages, it didn’t seem like too goofy a question to her newly crestfallen worse half, but payback isn’t my style. When we go see Swan Lake, I don’t remind her that she spent her own adolescence dreaming of dancing Odette/Odile’s part one day.

The difference is that trusty old Swan Lake is still with us. That puts Tchaikovsky one up on the gusto-happy zeitgeist that egged on pups like me to measure our budding writerly ambitions against Mailer’s heroic definition of the job. Something postmillennial newcomers to Miami and the Siege of Chicago and his other political journalism are likely to find incomprehensible is that the author’s rhetorical stance — his ongoing dramatization of himself as a lightning rod with the gift of gab, naming every crackle and trying to spot secret patterns even as the storm whips around his jug ears — isn’t just a private fantasy getting an unseemly public airing. Heck, no: in the ’60s, that was what they hired him for.

After the runaway 1948 success of his still-celebrated World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer had already reinvented himself more often than Cher. Burdened at the age of 25 with the kind of insomnia-inducing fame that keeps asking “What next?,” he’d spent a dozen uneasy years groping for a role that satisfied his sense of consequence. The last of the Marxist heretics? The first of the pot-head revolution’s PR men? Meanwhile, literature’s grip on both public consciousness and Mailer’s own restless attention eroded. But something crystallized with “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” his high-wire Esquire piece on the Democratic convention that nominated John F. Kennedy for president in 1960. Visualizing JFK as the ultimate movie star of a suppressed America’s fever dreams was a real leap in the dark, at a time when politicians just didn’t get talked about in such gallivanting metaphorical lingo.

Once that famously explosive decade’s political turmoil and pop nirvana started playing hopscotch in earnest, Mailer was always ready with more chalk. Drawing new squares he hoped both would land on, he’d invented a version of “Where’s Waldo?” that asked “Where’s Ralph Waldo Emerson?” — and the answer was always the same. If America’s literati wanted the transcendent take on whatever was going down, they soon learned to spot the middle-aged enfant terrible standing by in the yeasty three-piece suit. Ruminating in overdrive, he’d deliver himself of so many idiosyncratic perceptions that you couldn’t object to all the times vainglory steered him into calling a harpsichord a spade. That one real shovel always brained everybody.

When Harper’s sent him to size up the resurrected Richard Nixon’s 1968 anointment by the GOP in Miami and the Democratic donnybrook in Chicago that spewed forth Hubert Humphrey, Mailer was coming off the defining book of his stormy career: The Armies of The Night, a fabulously multifaceted chronicle of his grudging participation in and eventual arrest at the massive anti-Vietnam War protest now known to history, thanks partly to him, as the March on the Pentagon. The summer after Nixon’s inaugural, Life magazine shelled out a king’s ransom for Mailer’s perspective on Apollo 11, published in book form as Of a Fire on the Moon. Leaving its readers in no doubt who the star attraction was, Life‘s cover didn’t feature any of the astronauts. Instead, Mailer himself gazed out from newsstands, looking ruggedly pensive. By then, as critic Alfred Kazin remarked, asking him to cover the moon shot was like assigning Hamlet to lecture on “Monarchs I Have Known.”

Anyone who expects Miami and the Siege of Chicago to be the inside dish on convention electioneering should know that, by all sorts of yardsticks, Mailer was an awful political reporter. Lacking the intricate but also dulling knowledge of the players that can only be acquired by covering politics as a beat, he was the equivalent of a sportswriter who breathlessly shows up for the World Series without much notion of how either team got there. One of the funniest hallmarks of his convention pieces is his habit of gassing up the rhetoric machine to generalize about all the deals being cut and Machiavellian strategies in play behind the scenes, hoping we won’t hold it against him that he plainly doesn’t have a clue how they worked and didn’t particularly grasp that they were going on. Even “Politics is property,” the mantra he works increasingly operatic variations on throughout the Chicago section, is an aphorism he first hears from one of his betters: Murray Kempton, Manhattan journalism’s mandarin version of Jiminy Cricket.

But you don’t read Mailer on politics for his nuts-and-bolts savvy. You read him for his heightened reactions to people and situations, his inspired and occasionally ridiculous jumps from metabolic receptivity to hyperbolic dread — his apprehensions, in both senses of the word. You read him for passages like the awed description of good Republicans filing into the Miami convention’s opening gala — “In their immaculate cleanliness, in the somewhat antiseptic odors of their astringent toilet water and perfume, in the abnegation of their walks, in the heavy sturdy moves so many demonstrated of bodies in life’s harness, there was the muted tragedy of the Wasp” — that caroms off a flash of pure gold: “They could not ever really expect that America might collapse and God yet survive.” The burbling worthies he’s painting probably wouldn’t recognize their group portrait, but as a sociologist, he’s often a first-rate drama critic.

Or casting director, since comparing politicians to Hollywood luminaries is one of his favorite tropes. He’s understandably sheepish when then California governor Ronald Reagan, a dark horse in the 1968 GOP nomination race but already a white knight to right-wing delegates, turns the analogy tautological. Yet to the Brooklyn-raised Mailer’s Rialto-trained eye, Nelson Rockefeller is easy to peg: “Spencer Tracy’s younger brother gone into politics.” And born rich, which any 1930s Tracy fan would know is a recipe for schizophrenia.

Observing the Democrats in Chicago, he goes in the space of a page from deciding Hubert Humphrey has “the same kind of truth as an actor playing Napoleon — with the lights on him, he is Napoleon” to remarking that if Hollywood ever needed “a Boy Scout leader who could play Romantic lead in a ten-million dollar movie,” George McGovern would be the man. The distinctively modern note is or was that his intention isn’t pejorative. Instead, he’s evaluating what might be called the authenticity of their inauthenticity — that is, whether they’re good actors or bad ones.

That’s why so much of the best writing in the Miami section comes out of his fascination with Nixon, not only “the most interesting figure at the convention” but the most authentically inauthentic American of the century. Doing its best to call a spade a harpsichord, even Nixon’s own campaign was pitching him as “the New Nixon” that year, and Mailer can be entertainingly cruel about the nominee’s helplessly programmed public tics: “SMILE said his brain. FLASH went the teeth,” goes one line that my mother never tired of quoting. Yet he’s also well ahead of the liberal chattering class — that kaffeeklatsch in putsch’s clothing — in recognizing that making fun of Nixon doesn’t satisfy him anymore. Instead, a wary new respect alternates with even more reluctant compassion for “one of the most disciplined men in America…habituated to loneliness after all those agonies in the circus skin of Tricky Dick.”

Both empathies get goosed along by a glum hunch that this tortoise in search of his own shell could be a better choice to run the country than another Democratic hare. Watching Moby-Dick Nixon accept the nomination and fumble a red-meat line that Tricky Dick Nixon would have knocked out of the park, Mailer has an oddly poignant intuition: “He had gotten smarter than his habits.” As he couldn’t guess then but Watergate showed, the tragedy of our 37th president was that his habits always won.

Even so, because the Democrats’ convention that year is the one that passed into legend, many readers may feel they’re sitting through an episode of The Love Boat — where Nixon is predictably self-conscious, but Reagan seems right at home — while waiting for Titanic to start. Just like James Cameron’s movie, Chicago ’68 was an event whose emotion was all in its spectacle, almost obscenely right for Mailer’s uncanny alertness to atmosphere and the Georg Grosz streak in his renderings of outsize personalities. For once, nobody had much call to find either his style overwrought or his reactions inordinate.

The convention might well have become a debacle even if Chicago’s finest hadn’t started playing “Blame It on the Bastinado” with antiwar demonstrators all over Grant Park. The party’s internal schisms over Vietnam had cracked wide open in the wake of insurgent peace candidate Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. Robert F. Kennedy’s belated entry into the race was followed by Lyndon Johnson’s bombshell March 31st decision not to seek reelection, followed by Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles in June. Humphrey hadn’t run in a single primary, but as LBJ’s loyal vice president — one unable, in Mailer’s caustic southward (or northward) relocation of the vital organ that did Hubert in, to “find sufficient pride in his liver to ask for a divorce” — he was the choice of party regulars. They had the clout to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, but only in the sense that a house can burn to the ground and still leave the chimney standing.

Saying that Mailer rose to the occasion is like calling the Hindenburg a mite flammable. He’s superb on the brackish tensions roiling the convention floor, above all in his description of its single most cathartic moment: the chaos that erupted when Senator Abraham Ribicoff, nominating McGovern in the slain RFK’s place, denounced “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago” to the delegates’ shock and Mayor Daley’s roaring fury. Admiring but laced with doubt, his portrait of McCarthy, the antiwar forces’ odd Galahad — less like a potential president than “the dean of the finest English department in the land” — is unsurpassed. The old war novelist in him comes to the fore as he gives us a virtuoso panorama of the violence erupting below his 19th-floor hotel window one night, with police on a rampage chasing demonstrators “like a razor cutting a channel through a head of hair.”

Adding to the turbulence, Mailer himself is much more of an active player in the drama than he was in Miami, thanks in part simply to a change in status. A nobody or worse to most Republicans, in liberal circles he’s, well, Norman Mailer: a fellow whose endorsement was worth half an hour of Bobby Kennedy’s precious time, a man who’s swapped cocktail-party quips with McCarthy not as a journalist but as a fellow heavyweight. To the protesters in the park, he’s a hero — or a big name they’re thrilled to have on their side, anyhow — and his private ambivalence about them doesn’t survive a turn at the microphone that immediately sets him to fantasizing himself as a general and them as his revolutionary army. Then he runs afoul of the National Guard on his way to — where else? — the Playboy Mansion to brood about what he’s seen.

The book’s real art is that no writer since Stendhal had put his own vanities, stunts, and addle-pated musings to such shrewdly expressive use. Not least because Mailer-the-character’s bids to play the hero so often turn out to be ineffectual and wrongheaded, the gamble that keeps paying off for Mailer the chronicler is the way his chaotic experiences end up dramatizing the country’s confusions and his own generation’s slippery place on the ’60 slope. One phenomenal example of his reckless but illuminating candor is a flashback to the 3 a.m. phone call from “an old drinking friend” who relays the news that Robert Kennedy has been shot, opening the floodgates of Mailer’s guilt about the adulterous tryst he’s just enjoyed that afternoon. In a stew of displaced moral calculus, he imagines confessing to his wife would be “a warrant of magic to aid Senator Kennedy on the long voyage through the depth of the exploded excavations in his brain,” then faults himself for his own gutlessness when he recognizes he can’t face her “illimitable funds of untempered redneck wrath.” All this is fatuous, bathetic, downright embarrassing — and utterly true to the nature of a trauma that must have prompted any number of similarly self-centered reckonings in other American homes. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to imagine John Updike, say, or even Saul Bellow having the same jangled reaction to that witching-hour phone call. What’s inconceivable is that either of them — or anyone but Mailer, really — would commit it to print without the safeguard of a fictional mask.

Brother, did he spoil things for the rest of us. I covered my own first political convention when the alternative weekly I then worked for sent me to watch George H. W. Bush’s 1992 renomination in Houston. But when the shrewd friend tasked with editing me got to my excited account of being charged by police horses during a protest demonstration, he knew all too well what I was imitating. “Come on,” he teased when I looked stricken about cutting it. “You can’t do Armies of the Night. You’re doing Miami and the Siege of Chicago, remember?” Knowing by then that neither of us would ever do either, we both laughed.