Revisiting the '68 Conventions

As historical animals, we seem to have a curious blindspot: about a decade that precedes and then includes our birth. When we are young, this time has not sufficiently settled into the past to count as "history," and thus doesn't show up in our history textbooks. It is also an era that has been lived, shared and thus assumed by the adults around us; they needn't talk about it because they've all been there.

For me this blindspot has been particularly disappointing and frustrating because it means "the sixties"--an era that hovers in our collective consciousness as either a past nirvana or the time when hell's handbasket showed up on our doorsteps--has always been just out of reach, a fuzzy apparition that I've never quite been able to grasp. Having been born in 1970, I have no personal memories of the tumultuous and frenetic shape of the sixties and early seventies: the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK; the civil rights movement and urban riots; the moon landing; Vietnam; the Kent State shootings; Watergate; and so much more. (Being born and raised in Canada is also a factor here.)

If there was a year I could live in that decade, I think it would be 1968. As an academic, and particularly as a philosopher specializing in French philosophy, '68 has always loomed over the figures I study--which includes the soixante-huitards who barricaded the Sorbonne. But given that such time travel is not likely any time soon, I was at least encouraged by the NYRB's republication of Norman Mailer's account of the 1968 presidential nomination conventions in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Sensing, I guess, that the 2008 conventions will be "historic" (I don't quite share that sentiment, but I understand where it's coming from), the reissuing of this classic actually shows how gutted and disappointing the nomination process has become.

Mailer brings his flair and cadence as a novelist to this "new journalism" account of the conventions (the Republicans in Miami, the Democrats [in]famously in Chicago) originally written for Harper's. Punctuated by rapid-fire brilliance and mad, dazzling metaphors, the book reads like a dispatch by beat poets. And Mailer inserts himself into the story (hence the "new journalism") but not intrusively. This is never about Norman Mailer; rather, the anxieties and hopes of "the reporter" (always in the third person) are simply taken to be portals that intersect with his quarry.

Mailer brings this period to life in ways that had me astounded--partly because of my ignorance of just what happened in Chicago that August, and partly because of Mailer's character studies of figures like Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, even Richard Nixon. Indeed, what is perhaps most surprising from Mailer is his generosity, which functions as a kind of objectivity that prevents his "new journalism" from just sliding into propaganda. Indeed, the Maureen Dowds and Michael Moores of the world would do well to read this and see how Mailer--who ceretainly didn't lack commitments--could even be fair to Nixon (Nixon!). "In 1962 the reporter had given a small celebration for the collapse of Richard Nixon after his defeat in the election for Governor of California," Mailer confessess. "Now, in 1968, he was on the edge of becoming the nominee. It was obvious something was wrong with the reporter's picture. In his previous conception of Richard Nixon's character there had been no room for a comeback" (p. 42).

Mailer's descriptions are wry and incisive. His account of the Republican convention is concerned with the plight and fate of the WASP, observing "the muted tragedy of the Wasp--they were not on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love so very much, they were here to serve, and serve they had in public functions and public charities...--and so much of America did not wish them to serve any longer" (35). This might explain why "you could not picture a Gala Republican who was not clean-shaven by eight A.M." Hence the irony "that in a year when the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon, visions of future Vietnams in our own cities upon us, 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 Miami (14). (Brings to mind the complete lack of intuition when the Democrats recently organized a conference on faith and politics--in Las Vegas!)

At times Mailer's descriptions border on reverie, like his closing reflections on cops and the police mentality, or his early riff on the religion of "Americanism":

So far as there was an American faith, a belief, a mystique that America was more than the sum of its constituencies, its trillions of dollars and billions of acres, its constellation of factories, empyrean of communications, mountain transcendent of finance, and heroic of sport, transports of medicine, hygiene, and church, so long as belief persisted that America, finally more than all this, was the world's ultimate reserve of rectitude, final garden of the Lord, so far as this mystique could survive in every American family of Christian substance, so then were the people entering this [Republican] Gala willy-nilly leaders of this faith, never articulated by any of them except in the most absurd and taste-curdling jargons of partriotism mixed with religion, but the faith existed in the crossroads between the psyche and the heart where love, hate, the cognition of grace, the all but lost sense of the root, and adoration of America congregate for some" (33-34).

Most harrowing, as you'd expect, is the first hand account of the violence and police brutality in Mayor Daley's Democratic Chicago. ("Daley," Mailer comments, "was not a national politician, but a clansman--he could get 73% of the vote in any constituency made up of people whose ancestors were at home with rude instruments in Polish forests, Ukrainian marshes, Irish bogs--they knew how to defend the home: so did he" [104].) This, I'm embarrassed to say, was all news to me. Here is Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy, with Mayor Daley's army and Bobby Kennedy's ghost both looming over the Amphitheatre. Here we run into Alan Ginsberg and Jean Genet making their way to Grant Park, camped out with the Yippies across from the Hilton. Mailer's account of Chicago, "the last of the great American cities," includes a stark account of the stockyards and slaughterhouses that would be the milieu of the Democratic convention. I can't do justice to it here and simply counsel reading the book; it broke open this fuzzy area of my historical blindspot.

Perhaps most surprising, given what I knew of Mailer, is his honesty and self-knowledge, his almost confessional mode--wrestling with his own cowardice, racism, frustrations. One can feel the divided conscience of the now middle-aged Mailer who owns up to a "conservative" fear that he might lose the America he knew--"that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts and its profound dishonesty" (186-187). And yet...

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 (187).

This sort of honesty seems to be lacking from those who consider themselves the heirs of new journalism. Mailer fesses up to feeling caught: "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" (188).