When Mailer Almost Profiled Obama

Norman Mailer's profile would have been extraordinary not only because Obama is a unique force but also because Norman would have embraced the point that Obama is an exceptional writer.
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In the early part of the summer of 2007 Esquire magazine called to ask if Norman would consider going on the road for a short period to profile Barack Obama. At the time Norman was in the middle of his 84th year, dogged by arthritic knees, lungs that were cursed with what the doctors kept saying was asthma and he was half deaf -- mostly so without his hearing aides, or "plugs" as he called them.

That morning after the call came we sat at the dining room table, as we'd done every day for a thousand days, and he tossed the idea around with me. Up to that point he was leaning toward Hillary Clinton, believing, like most, that she would be the probable nominee. Even so, Norman was intrigued by Obama's run, citing the flourish of excitement about the young senator sprouting like Kudzu across the country. Norman knew Obama had something singular, knew he was going to be a force but was unsure that Obama's spark and the corresponding blaze could ultimately overcome America's racial cancer.

He mentioned the 1960 piece he wrote for Esquire about Kennedy titled "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" wherein he describes Kennedy as the country's best chance for progress. I said to Norman that I thought Obama might have the same juice and enough of it to at least make it farther than the lackluster others who also were running. Norman agreed but said we don't live in a smart world, so he was skeptical about America electing a Black president just yet. The inclination toward racial dread was symptomatic of America's core disfigurement he said. The offer from Esquire lurked around for a day before Norman at last decided he couldn't do it. He had too many health issues to consider. I called the magazine and told them Norman, unfortunately, had to decline.

Now, a few days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, the Superman piece on Kennedy is popping up again, just as it did when he won the nomination. Today, The New York Times online has a long essay for the Sunday magazine, by Matt Bai, wherein hunks of it are referenced and brought forward to now, 48 years later. Norman's voice is there for me again, those brain quaking passages he was famous for flashing brighter than any other political writer's and it makes me long for that morning when we sat and discussed the offer. Although Norman rarely sounded like he does on paper during breakfast, he still made your head swirl when his unedited self got on topic.

I'm sorry his knees were so screwed up, his breathing so disquieted and his stamina so run down that he couldn't agree to the job. I would have loved to have spent the days afterward typing his notes, cleaning up his snaking, arrow-riddled edits and coaxing the essay to life from his scrawls (Norman didn't own a typewriter). Norman's observations would have been extraordinary not only because Obama is a unique force but also because Norman would have embraced the point that Obama is an exceptional writer. In Norman's mind, a fine man who is also a good writer made for a man of high value. Doubtless, readers would have been awed by Norman's measure of him and how he rattled ranks and thrashed Norman's own diagnosis of what plagues the country. Then, it too might be resurrected in another 48 years when a vital political beacon begins to glow and we need to look again at what once was.

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