July 27, 2016

The Art of Convention Coverage, Or Where’s Norman Mailer When You Need Him?

book revMy earliest memory of political excitement was rooting for Eisenhower during the suspenseful first roll call at what the New York Times called the “bitterly divided” 1952 Republican convention in Chicago. My childhood party loyalty was due to love of Lincoln, who the history books said was a Republican, which was good enough for me—until Kennedy came along. Even so, my first vote almost went to Richard Nixon. I have Norman Mailer’s Esquire essay “Superman Comes to the Super Market” to thank for helping save me from so ignominious a fate.

I only wish Mailer, who died in 2007, had been covering events in Cleveland last week. Is there a writer in the summer of 2016 brash or brilliant or courageous enough to make something novelistically engaging out of that festival of hate and its nightmare nominee? Trump would have been rich dessert for Mailer’s hungry, equally huge and infinitely more stylish and self-aware ego. In a photo online of the two tuxedo-clad men with their wives taken at a 1987 Trump Plaza party for Trump’s The Art of the Deal, Mailer is looking boisterously genial at 64, a barrel-chested battler ever ready for a brawl, while Trump looks hale and handsome at 41, an age at which he had “the attention span of a 9-year-old,” according to a Fox News interview with Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote the book being so lavishly celebrated. 

Mailer’s Movie

Here’s one of the passages from Mailer’s piece on the 1960 Democratic convention that made Kennedy the hero of a movie I paid my vote to see: “His personal quality had a subtle, not quite describable intensity, a suggestion of dry pent heat perhaps, his eyes large, the pupils grey, the whites prominent, almost shocking, his most forceful feature: he had the eyes of a mountaineer. His appearance changed with his mood, strikingly so, and this made him always more interesting than what he was saying …. [Then] he would look again like a movie star, his coloring vivid, his manner rich, his gestures strong and quick, alive with that concentration of vitality a successful actor always seems to radiate.”

In Mailer’s Harper magazine coverage of the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, Richard Nixon appears “like an actor with a good voice and hordes of potential, but the despair of his drama coach”(“Dick, you just got to learn how to move”). To make the inept actor worthy of his movie, Mailer concocts a comeback scenario based on Nixon’s infamously abject response to reporters after losing the 1962 election for governor of California (“you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more”). In 1968 Mailer gives him “the attentive guarded look of an old ball player” or of “an old con seriously determined to go respectable.” Behold, Tricky Dick has “grown from a bad actor to a surprisingly good actor.” What Mailer’s actually doing is an extended analytical stream-of-consciousness dissertation on the theme of Nixon, a political pariah about whom The Norman has never, until now, had anything “nice” to say. Finally, the only way the reporter can make the candidate interesting is to rewrite him in his own image, old/new Mailer channeling old/new Nixon.

Of all the impressions Mailer brought back from the 1968 Republican convention, however, his sketch of failed candidate Nelson Rockefeller remains the most memorable. Beginning with another movie hero analogy (“Spencer Tracy’s younger brother gone into politics”), Mailer describes “an all but perfect face for President, virile, friendly, rough-hewn, of the common man, yet uncommon,” with “only one flaw–an odd and unpleasant mouth, a catfish mouth, wide, unnaturally wide with very thin lips. In the center of the mouth there seemed almost another mouth which did the speaking, somewhat thicker lips which pursed, opened, deliberated–all the while the slit-thin corners of the mouth seemed off on their own, not really moving with the center.”

Given that devastating, indelible image of Nelson Rockefeller, imagine what Mailer would do with the slit eyes and killer shark mouth of the man the Republicans nominated at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.

The Anger Is Viral

A recent example of what a contemporary writer with serious literary creds might make of the Trump phenomenon is George Saunders’s long July 11/18 New Yorker article, “Trump Days.” With Mailer, you have a famously competitive novelist providing a dense, expansive, intensely personal approach. Saunders, who is known primarily for his short fiction, goes straight to his subject with a “side view of a head of silver-yellow hair and a hawklike orange-red face, the cheeks of which, if stared at steadily enough, will seem, through some optical illusion, to glow orange-redder at moments when the crowd is especially pleased.”

A few paragraphs later Saunders offers a choice quote from who else but Mailer on the country’s “pioneer lust for the unexpected and incalculable,” and there are passages throughout that the master would appreciate, as when Saunders notes how Trump’s “autocratic streak is presentationally complicated by a Ralph Kramdenesque vulnerability.”  Reflecting on the behavior of Trump’s audiences, a subject he fully and fair-mindedly explores, Saunders asks, “Where is all this anger coming from? It’s viral, and Trump is Typhoid Mary.”

Toward the end of the article, Saunders rounds back to Mailer and his description of democracy’s “terrifying premise” that there is ultimately “more good than bad in the sum of us and our workings.” To which Saunders says, “We’ll see,” before expanding on America’s “two minds about the Other,” a less exercised variation on Mailer’s running war between God and Satan. In his penultimate paragraph, however, Saunders enters a similar area of thought with his uneasy response to a rally poster celebrating Trump as “a guardian angel from heaven.” Having been, as his subtitle promises, “up close with the candidate and his crowds,” Saunders makes an admission that Mailer avoided, at least in 1968: which is that the American “experiment” could, within his “very lifetime, fail.”

Racial Profiling

Among the few sixties artifacts I’ve held onto is the issue of Harper’s headed “Politics ’68″ featuring Mailer’s “Miami and Chicago” in big red white and blue letters. The magazine is an interesting document in itself, particularly if you’ve seen AMC’s hit series, Mad Men. Liquor ads predominate, with Dewars and Johnnie Walker on the back and inside front covers, while the Lincoln Continental (“America’s most distinguished motor car”) occupies the inside back cover, where a handsome white couple of obvious if casual means stand beside a big dark car with an unmistakable resemblance to the one President Kennedy rode through the streets of Dallas in; behind the couple is a large, lavish showpiece of a house.

The most remarkable ad, however, is the one for Western Electric that greets you as you open the magazine. Headed Now daddy brings home the bacon, it shows a handsome African American man holding a bag of groceries in one arm and his infant daughter in the other. The message is that Western Electric is offering job training programs to make sure “men who can’t read or write too well” have a chance at getting “a decent job.” In a program that lasts as long as 44 weeks, a man works for six hours, learns basic educational skills for two, and gets paid for eight. And when the course is over, trainees stay with Western Electric. The ad ends with this sentence, “In a country like ours, there’s no reason why every man shouldn’t have the right to be a breadwinner, in every sense of the word.”

Anyone interested in the state of “the American experiment” mere months after the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King might be struck by the narrative implicit in a politically correct black and white Western Electric ad that seems to be speaking to what Saunders calls “the somewhat better angels of our nature” almost 50 years later in an issue of The New Yorker whose cover image, the work of Kadir Nelson, is titled “A Day at the Beach.”  The cover shows an African American father holding his daughter’s hand while his little boy rides on his shoulders and his pretty wife adjusts her sunglasses. The man’s swimming trunks have a red band above blue and white stripes. He’s an imposing figure, masked by a pair of sunglasses reflecting the summer sky, a detail  some readers might see simply as an “artistic” touch. People like those in the crowds described by Saunders, however, might read a hint of menace into the powerfully built man with the no-nonsense expression. The first ad you see, the one facing the contents page, is for the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club in Bermuda and shows an exotic-looking white woman not unlike the ones seen in erectile dysfunction ads up to her shoulders in water.

What can you say? Let Gertrude Stein have the last word.

Gertrude Stein’s Q and A

On this day, July 27, in 1946, Gertrude Stein died following surgery for stomach cancer. Alice B. Toklas has provided several versions of her partner’s last words, though the essence of the message never varies. Before going into surgery, Stein said, “What is the answer?” When Toklas said nothing, Stein said, “In that case, what is the question?”

Which seems a pretty good assessment of the state of things in the summer of 2016.