The More Things Change: Norman Mailer and the 1964 Republican Convention

The letters of Norman Mailer, excerpted in the Oct. 6 New Yorker, reminded me all over again why I loved that left-conservative bastard. He's grandiose but self-effacing. He's far-sighted and non-doctrinaire. He admired both Fidel Castro and William F. Buckley, and even contributed money to The National Review, but, at the same time, or later (in '76), he could write to a friend, "But as for Ford, Reagan, Dole and the rest of that pirate ship -- Mary, they're puke." His letter to Don DeLillo, praising him for Libra, is a good reminder that Norman's ego, which so many people can't get around, was at least matched, if not outmatched, by the largeness of his spirit.

The letters also led me back, for whatever reason, to his piece, "In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964," from Cannibals and Christians, which I first read over a decade ago. I remember I didn't particularly like it back then. Norman went off on too many tangents, he reduced too many groups -- "Goldwater girls ran to two varieties," etc. -- and while sometimes this stuff felt close to truth, other times it just felt hollow and mean.

Parts of it still feel hollow and mean but the rest feels shockingly contemporary. It makes the 1964 election feel like the first half of a bookend whose second half we may be fashioning.

An Arizona senator is running for president by appealing to the worst elements of the Republican party. The Midwestern and western elements of that party viciously attack the eastern establishment, the media, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There's a down-home folksiness in the candidate's voice: "I think we're going to give the Democrats a heck of a surprise," he says. There's a callback to Christianity: "The thing to remember is that America is a spiritual country, we're founded on belief in God, we may wander a little as a country but we never get too far away," he says.

At the convention, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco of all places, a senator from Colorado, Peter Dominick, gives a speech favoring extremism by quoting a New York Times editorial from 1765 which rebuked Patrick Henry for his extremism. Norman writes:

Delegates and gallery whooped it up. Next day Dominick confessed. He was only "spoofing." He had known: there was no New York Times in 1765. Nor was there any editorial. An old debater's trick. If there are no good facts, make them up. Be quick to write your own statistics. There was some umbilical tie between the Right Wing and the psychopathic liar.

Yet for a time Norman considers voting for Goldwater. There are elements of LBJ and the Democratic party he can't abide -- its modern, clinical quality -- and he thinks it may be worse to die a slow, suffocating death than to go out with Goldwater in a blaze of glory. But finally:

One could not vote for a man who made a career by crying Communist--that was too easy: half the pigs, bullies and cowards of the twentieth century had made their fortune on that fear.

Cuba comes up, and Norman writes of the U.S.:

One could live with a country which was mad, one could even come to love her (for there was agony beneath the madness), but you could not share your life with a nation which was powerful, a coward, and righteously pleased because a foe one-hundredth our size had been destroyed.

Again and again, from a distance of 44 years, Norman describes what we are today.

Goldwater lost that election, of course, he lost big, but in later years even the much-hated media would see that convention, and that loss, as the birth of the modern Republican party. They'd bend to Goldwater and see him through orange-colored glasses. Re-read Norman, though, and you have no doubt what elements he was stirring up.

They're still stirred up. A friend of mine once said that you could either be successful or you could be right, and in the early 1960's the Democratic party decided to be right, finally, reluctantly right, on the issue of civil rights, and since then the Republican party has been successful largely on the back of that decision. But maybe things are finally changing. It's probably too much to ask to bookend this period, in which I've lived my entire life, so neatly with these two Arizona senators: one railing against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the other railing against the culmination of that Act. But it would be nice if, in another 44 years, no one had to read Norman's article and think about how shockingly contemporary it still was.