Three Beach Reads For Convention Season

Norman Mailer, “Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968” (Random House)

Random House couldn’t have chosen a better time to reprint Norman Mailer’s account of 1968’s political conventions than in the current 2016 election season. We’re living in a funhouse mirror image of the country in 1968. Mailer here is our Virgil as he takes us through the levels of hell the country was going through with Vietnam, the civil rights abuses in the South, and coming assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, the golden boy meant to defeat a hungry Richard Nixon in the general election.

The book begins in Miami with Republican Party hacks hashing it out between Tricky Dick, Ronald Reagan (in what was essentially an audition that would pay off 15 years later), billionaire Nelson Rockefeller, and Michigan governor George Romney, among others in a crowded field. The Republican convention goes off without a real hitch as Nixon wins the nomination.

But back then, for overt, Trump-like, racist, anti-immigration policies, you would have to look to the Democrats and pro-segregation*, anti-immigrant, and anti-big government firebrand George Wallace, who dominated the southern states. The Democratic establishment, in disarray following the second Kennedy assassination, ignores the voters and shoehorns in former Vice President Hubert Humphrey despite him not winning a single primary. Compound these shenanigans with thousands of righteously angry students, anti-war protesters, and a fascist Chicago police force, ill-equipped and bloodthirsty for hippie meat, and you have a one of the worst political riots in American history. Mailer loved every minute of it, and it shows in the writing. Who’s to say that this year’s conventions won’t repeat the same history, what with the whispers of a Humphrey-like “savior” candidate being shoehorned in on the rightand a contested convention on the left. Reading “Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968” is like Mailer shouting from beyond the grave, “I warned you.” (J.M. Giordano)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated that George Wallace was anti-segregation. The opposite was true. City Paper regrets the error.

Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” (Simon & Schuster)

The 1972 conventions weren’t much better than the ones in 1968. With Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern returning to the primaries and Ted Kennedy entering the race late, 1972 was like a bad disaster movie sequel. Though the culture of the ‘60s had been spat into the dustbin of history, the country’s political climate hadn’t changed much at all. “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson set out to document the party primaries as a series of dispatches in Rolling Stone, which would be collected into one of his best and most focused books, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” Whereas Norman Mailer entered the political arena with a literary mind, Thompson went in as an astute political reporter (and not as drugged-out bystander, as would be expected). That’s not to say there’s no humor or any of Thompson’s trademark ramblings in this masterpiece. His passages on Democratic candidate “Big” Ed Muskie psyched out of his mind on the old school hallucinogenic drug Ibogaine, which was just a rumor but had a serious effect on Muskie’s campaign, and giving his press credentials to a drug freak and setting him loose in a candidate’s campaign train are some of the most hilarious political writing ever put to paper. But overall, here’s Thompson dragging the weed and denim culture through the jungle of wide ties and polyester suits with great and rebellious results. (JMG)

Theodore H. White, “The Making of The President 1964” (Harper Perennial Political Classics)

Nobody remembers F. Clifton White, but they should. And hardly anyone rightly remembers Barry Goldwater, the man White made the Republican Party’s 1964 Presidential nominee—even though he became the standard-bearer for two generations of the most powerful and effective political class the country has lately known. So, as Donald Trump demolishes every illusion Goldwater and his acolytes confected, we ought to remember.

That’s why a re-reading of Theodore H. White’s “The Making of The President 1964” should be mandatory for voters this summer. White’s book was as much about Clifton White (no relation) as Goldwater, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the rest of the characters atop the nation’s politics after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Clif White was the first to use the party’s hardcore rank and file to outflank its staid leadership, and the first to use computers to target key delegates. Goldwater wasn’t the first to appeal to racism, but he was arguably the first to reckon with racism’s appeal, with his forthright rejection of White’s half-hour campaign movie, “The Choice,” which contrasted the righteous old white America with a “new”America dominated by criminals, fast-buck artists, black rioters, and drug-dealing Mexicans. It is but one sharp contrast between the man who last remade the GOP and the one who will next.

The party establishment (and the author himself) denigrated Goldwater. “The program of the Goldwater leadership consisted of indignation, not proposals,” White wrote. Like all presidential aspirants since, Clif White’s LBJ ran a dirty-trick operation, spying on Goldwater and sending hecklers to his campaign rallies. Goldwater refused to play that game, at one point telling his supporters, who had booed Johnson’s name, not to boo the office of the presidency. Goldwater did not play into the crassness and unseemly passion of his base. One wonders what would have happened if he did.

The Wall Street types fled Goldwater and his loyalists. He won only six states, all in the deep south, mostly because he refused to vote for the Civil Rights Act. His party took the hint, and here we are.

And that’s but one live wire running through the book. There are many others, and once you look past White’s adoration of the late Kennedy—and the now-quaint idea that a serious thinker and journalist would ever worship a president—White’s 52-year-old masterpiece carries surprising relevance. “Issues are talk about what’s already happened or happening,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then a 38-year-old assistant labor secretary, told White. “But these aren’t the issues, really. Only a handful of people can see the advance issues. Can you explain that the greatest issue 20 years from now may be what’s beginning in our knowledge of the human cell, and biology, and reproduction? Can you explain that we’re beginning to control our environment, maybe even change the weather—and discuss what should be done about it? Or can you talk about what we have to do to keep old people from growing lonely? Or can you ask them whether they think the purpose of industry should be changed from making things to making jobs?”

The bedrock of White’s thesis is that wiser and cooler heads will always and evermore rein-in our pockets of extremism. The Goldwater groupies are depicted as a nettlesome fad. Many commentators still agree (see: Ron Brownstein’s “The Second Civil War,” Paul Krugman’s “The Conscience of a Liberal,” et cetera), taking as their starting point the idea that Americans are a naturally cooperative bunch, compromisers at heart and politically middle-of-the-road.

But history reveals scant evidence of this. Instead, what we see is a nation of dreamers, of radicals, of extremists of every stripe. This strain of American life is not only political and religious, but cultural. It manifests itself in rock-climbers and no-holds-barred fighters, in pool hustlers who play for days without a break, in heroin addicts and crack barons, in astronauts and test pilots, drag racers and monster truck builders, in inventors and investors, in pyramid schemes and housing booms and gold rushes and megachurches and franchising opportunities.

Whatever the mundane realities of their lives, Americans are taught to think of themselves as exceptional, and they learn at a young age that competence, loyalty, and character lose every time to scheme, ruthlessness, and excellence in one narrow and specific field. We have acquiesced to a superstar society with a winner-take-all economy, and that colors every aspect of our lives.

White’s book doesn’t see all that coming, of course, but it does show where we’ve been. And if (or, rather, when) the Trump Organization unveils a series of videos this summer depicting the two Americas and the “choice” we face between, on the one hand, the forces of corruption, elitism, and brown hordes and on the other hand, cleanliness, luxury, and “winning,” you’ll know where he’s coming from—and where we are going. (EE)

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