From The Archives-The Streets Are Not For Dreaming Now- Chicago 1968-The Late Norman Mailer's View
Commentary/Book Review (2008)
This year, also a presidential election year, marks the 40th anniversary of the bloodbath in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention. I have reposted Norman Mailer’s work Miami and the Siege of Chicago originally posted on this site in September 2007 that recounts many of the incidents that occurred during that week. Mailer’s work is as good example as any that I have read from a journalist’s perspective so can stand here, as well.
Parts of the review also detail my own political positions during that period. Readers can get the gist of those positions below. I would only add that during this particular week I was in Boston manning the phones while others in the Humphrey campaign had gone to Chicago. In retrospect, the most painful detail of that week was the necessity of answering many irate calls from Gene McCarthy supporters and others about the police riot in Chicago. Even stranger was being denounced as a “hawk” for supporting Humphrey’s Vietnam position. Oddly, my own position at the time- for immediate withdrawal- was actually far to the left of what the irate callers were arguing for. Such is the price of my youthful opportunism though.
The Streets Are Not For Dreaming Now
MIAMI AND THE SIEGE OF CHICAGO, NORMAN MAILER, THE NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY, NEW YORK, 1968
As I recently noted in this space while reviewing the late Norman Mailer’s The Presidential Papers at one time, as with Ernest Hemingway, I tried to get my hands on everything that he wrote. In his prime he held out promise to match Hemingway as the preeminent male American prose writer of the 20th century. Mailer certainly has the ambition, ego and skill to do so. Although he wrote several good novels in his time like The Deer Park I believe that his journalistic work, as he himself might partially admit, especially his political, social and philosophical musings are what will insure his place in the literary pantheon.
With that in mind I recently re-read his work on the 1968 political campaign Miami and the Siege of Chicago -the one that pitted Lyndon Johnson, oops, Hubert Humphrey against Richard M. Nixon. This work is exponentially better than his scatter shot approach in the Presidential Papers and only confirms what I mentioned above as his proper place in the literary scheme of things. Theodore White may have won his spurs breaking down the mechanics of the campaign and made a niche for himself with The Making of a President, 1960 and his later incarnations on that same theme but Mailer in his pithy manner gives an overview of the personalities and the stakes involved for the America in that hell-bent election. I would note that for Mailer as for many of us, not always correctly as in my own case, this 1968 presidential campaign season and those conventions evolved in a year that saw a breakdown of the bourgeois electoral political process that had not been seen in this country since the 1850’s just prior to the Civil War.
The pure number of unsettling events of that year was a portent that this would be a watershed year for good or evil. Out of the heat, killing and destruction in Vietnam came the North Vietnamese/National Liberation Front Tet offensive that broke the back of the lying reports that American/South Vietnamese success was just around the corner. Today’s Iraq War supporters might well take note. In the aftermath of that decisive event insurgent anti-war Democratic presidential hopeful Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy’s seemingly quixotic campaign against a sitting president jumped off the ground. In the end that Tet offensive also forced Lyndon Johnson from office. And drove Robert Kennedy to enter the fray. The seemingly forgotten LBJ spear carrier Hubert Humphrey also got a new lease on life. I will have more to say about this below. Then, seemingly on a dime, in a tick we started to lose ground. The assassination of Martin Luther King and the burning down of the ghettos of major cities in its aftermath and later in the spring of Robert Kennedy at a moment of victory placed everything on hold.
That spring also witnessed turmoil on the campuses of the United States exemplified by the Columbia University shut down and internationally by the student –ignited French General Strike. These and other events held both promise and defeat that year but when I reflect on 1968 almost forty years later I am struck by the fact that in the end one political retread, Richard Milhous Nixon, was on top and the front of an almost forty year bourgeois political counter revolution had began. Not a pretty picture but certainly a cautionary tale of sorts. The ‘of sorts’ of the tale is that if you are going to try to make fundamental changes in this society you better not play around with it and better not let the enemy off the hook when you have him cornered. That now seems like the beginning of wisdom.
I have written elsewhere (see archives, Confessions of An Old Militant- A Cautionary Tale, October 2006) that while all hell was breaking loose in American society in 1968 my essentially left liberal parliamentary cretinist response was to play ‘lesser evil’ bourgeois electoral politics. My main concern, a not unworthy but nevertheless far from adequate one, was the defeat of one Richard Nixon who was making some very depressing gains toward both the Republican nomination and the presidency. As noted in the above-mentioned commentary I was willing to go half the way with LBJ in 1968 and ultimately all the way with HHH in order to cut Nixon off at the knees.
I have spent a good part of the last forty years etching the lessons of that mistake in my brain and that of others. But as I also pointed out in that commentary I was much more equivocal at the time, as Mailer was, about the effect of Robert Kennedy the candidate of my heart and my real candidate in 1968. I have mentioned before and will do so again here that if one bourgeois candidate could have held me in democratic parliamentary politics it would have been Robert Kennedy. Not John, although as pointed out in my review of The Presidential Papers, in my early youth I was fired up by his rhetoric but there was something about Robert that was different. Maybe it was our common deep Irish sense of fatalism, maybe our shared sense of the tragic in life or maybe in the end it was our ability to rub shoulders with the ‘wicked’ of this world to get a little bit of human progress. But enough of nostalgia. If you want to look seriously inside the political conventions of 1968 and what they meant in the scheme of American politics from a reasonably objective progressive partisan then Mailer is your guide here. This is the model, not Theodore White’s more mechanical model of coverage, that Hunter Thompson tapped into in his ‘gonzo’ journalistic approach in latter conventions- an insightful witness to the hypocrisy and balderdash of those processes.