On Coming Of Political Age In The Age Of The Generation Of ‘68 - Norman Mailer’s The Presidential Papers
Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for th elate American author Norman Mailer.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PAPERS, NORMAN MAILER, VIKING, 1963
At one time, as with Ernest Hemingway, I tried to get my hands on everything that Norman Mailer wrote. In his prime he held out promise to match Ernest as the preeminent male American prose writer. Mailer certainly has the ambition, ego and skill to do so. Although he wrote several good novels in his time I believe that his journalistic work, as he himself might have partially admitted, especially his political, social and philosophical musings are what will insure his place in the literary pantheon. With that in mind I was recently re-reading his work on the 1960 political campaign-the one that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon- that is the center of the book under review. There are other essays in this work, some of merely passing topical value and interest, but what remains of interest today is a very perceptive analysis of the forces at work in that pivotal election. Theodore White won his spurs breaking down the mechanics of the campaign and made a niche for himself with The Making of a President, 1960. Mailer in a few pithy articles gave the overview of the personalities and the stakes involved for the America of that time.
Needless to say the Kennedy victory of that year has interest today mainly for the forces that it unleashed in the base of society, especially but not exclusively among the youth. His rather conventional bourgeois Cold War foreign and domestic politics never transcended those of the New Deal but his style, his youth and his élan seemingly gave the go ahead to all sorts of projects to order in order to ‘‘seek a newer world”. And we took him up on this. This writer counted himself among those youth who saw the potential to change the world. We also knew that if the main villain of the age , one Richard Milhous Nixon, had been successful in 1960 as he graphically demonstrated when he later became president we would not be seeing any new world but the same old, same old.
I had been haphazardly interested in politics from an early age. Names like the Rosenbergs, Joseph McCarthy, Khrushchev and the like were familiar if not fully understood. It was the 1960 presidential campaign that brought me to political age. Mailer addresses the malaise of American political life during the stodgy Eisenhower years that created the opening for change-and Kennedy and his superb organization rushed in. These chances, as a cursory perusal of the last 40 odd years of bourgeois presidential politics makes painfully clear, do not come often. The funny thing is that during all of 1960 I was actually “Madly for Adlai,” that is I preferred Adlai Stevenson, the twice defeated previous Democratic candidate, but when the deal went down at the advanced age of 14 I walked door to door talking up Kennedy. Of course, in Massachusetts that was not a big deal but I still recall today that I had a very strong sense I did not want to be left out of the new age aborning. That, my friends, in a small way is the start of that slippery road to the lesser evilism that dominates American politics and that took me a fairly long time to break with.
Mailer has some very cutting, but true, remarks about the kind of people who populate the political milieu down at the base of bourgeois politics, those who make it to the political conventions. Except that today they are better dressed and more media savvy nothing has changed. Why? Bourgeois politics, not being based on any fidelity to program except as a throwaway, is all about winning (and keeping on winning). This does not bring out the better angels of our nature. For those old enough to remember that little spark of youth that urged us on to seek that newer world and for those too young to have acquired knowledge of anything but the myth Mailer’s little book makes for interesting and well-written reading.