May 17, 2008
Nostalgia for 1968 is in the air, at least on the part of wingnut pundits like Rush Limbaugh, who harken back to the riots during that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago and hope for a reprise. But a different kind of nostalgia will arrive this summer when Norman Mailer’s masterpiece, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is returned to print by New York Review Books, one of the classiest print lines now going. Mailer, sent to cover both the GOP and Democratic conventions that year, wrote the book that showcases what used to be called New Journalism at its finest.
As Frank Rich notes in his introduction to the NYRB edition, the book is also an unanswerable reproach to the conventions of political journalism:
As a narrative of the summer’s actual political events it is both compactly comprehensive and dead-on, often hilariously so. And not just when serving up Richard Nixon. Mailer’s Dickensian portraiture revivifies even the half-remembered. Eugene McCarthy seemed less a presidential prospect than “the dean of the finest English department in the land.” John Connally boasted “a thin-lipped Texas grin, a confident grin—it spoke of teeth which knew how far they could bite into every bone, pie, nipple or tit.” Hubert Humphrey employed “a formal slovenliness of syntax which enabled him to shunt phrases back and forth like a switchman who locates a freight car by moving everything in the yard.” Mayor Richard Daley looked at his worst “like a vastly robust peasant woman with a dirty gray silk wig” and at his best “respectable enough to be coach of the Chicago Bears.”
The accounts of both conventions begin with definitive appreciations of the antithetical American cities where they took place. Mailer marvels that the Grand Old Party, “the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness, hygiene, and balanced budget, should have set itself down on a sultan’s strip.” In Chicago, which he rightly celebrates as “the great American city,” he apotheosizes both the “clean tough keen-eyed ladies” of the near North Side and “the fear and absolute anguish of beasts dying upside down” at the slaughterhouses. By the time Daley’s beastly police set off the massacre of Michigan Avenue, Mailer has painted an urban landscape vivid enough to ground his metaphor: “The Democratic party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville’s whale charging right out of the sea.”
Mailer spoke truer than he knew when, watching the way politicians rushed the television cameras, he predicted that political conventions would soon be held in TV studios. As it turned out, the conventions themselves became TV studios, but he was on to something.
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Since a great many wingers are fond of invoking Neville Chamberlain, Munich and Winston Churchill, even if they don’t quite know much about why they are important — this poor ass, for example — they might want to sit down with this excellent article about a spate of recent books about Winston Churchill and World War II, including two (Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke and Patrick Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and ‘The Unnecessary War’) that attempt to demolish conventional thinking about “the good war” from leftish and rightist perspectives.
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Memo to George F. Will: Here’s what a review of Rick Perlstein’s superb Nixonland looks like when its written by somebody who’s intellectually honest and with no ideological ax to grind. Just thought you might like to read it and remind yourself what it was like not to be a hack.