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July 21, 2004

Once There Was a New Journalism: Here's Norman Mailer Covering the 1960 Democratic Convention

Novelist, would-be hipster, and one of the most troublesome, quarrelsome, and brilliantly excessive literary characters of his time, Norman Mailer always said he hated journalism. It was 1960. The Democrats were gathered in L.A. John Kennedy was about to be nominated. And Mailer had reporter's credentials for Esquire....

So Mr. Kerry will be attempting at the convention in his hometown of Boston to reinforce his own credentials. But polls indicate that his main argument for support of the voters continues to be that he is not George W. Bush in an election that still promises to be a referendum on the incumbent. That circumstance makes it imperative that Mr. Kerry demonstrate he is a desirable and safe alternative to the beleaguered but still popular Texan.
Jules Witcover, Baltimore Sun, two days ago.

And suddenly I saw the convention, it came into focus for me, and I understood the mood of depression which had lain over the convention, because finally it was simple: the Democrats were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.
Norman Mailer, in Esquire Magazine, forty-four years ago.

On the eve of the 2004 conventions, when dead prose like Witcover’s is the sound of both journalism and politics-as-usual, it is worth recalling—perhaps for the benefit of Byron LaMasters, who may know nothing of this, if not Alex S. Jones, who probably knows it all— that there is another way of “covering” a political convention: Send a writer and let the writer find a language adequate to the event.

“For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue.” That’s the way Norman Mailer begin his portrait of the 1960 Democratic Natiional Convention in Los Angeles, the one that nominated John F. Kennedy for President.

The piece he wrote was called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” a title intending to say that the man of the hour, Kennedy, was about to send a powerful (and erotic) jolt into mainstream America— if he won the election. For this was the idea Mailer developed as he tried to make sense of what he saw, heard, and felt in Los Angeles.

“Superman…” appeared in Esquire Magazine well after the event was over. To read it today—and you can, because thanks to Esquire New Journalism (that’s what Tom Wolfe termed it.) Mailer—and the way he wrote—was a new sound in convention coverage. It didn’t sound like what other people were doing. Here are some bits I have chosen to show that.

Excerpts from “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” (Esquire Magazine, Nov. 1960 issue.)

Here he is beginning to describe John Kennedy, by viewing the candidate first through the eyes of the old fashioned political boss, like a country chairman or big city mayor:

In fact it is a mystery to the boss how Kennedy got to where he is, not a mystery in its structures; Kennedy is rolling in money, Kennedy got the votes in primaries, and, most of all, Kennedy has a jewel of a political machine. It is as good as a crack Notre Dame team, all discipline and savvy and go-go-go, sound, drilled, never dull, quick as a knife, full of the salt of hipper-dipper, a beautiful machine; the boss could adore it if only a sensible candidate were driving it, a Truman, even a Stevenson, please God a Northern Lyndon Johnson, but it is run by a man who looks young enough to be coach of the Freshman team, and that is not comfortable at all…

Mailer on Los Angeles, site of the 1960 Democratic convention: “one has the feeling it was built by television sets giving orders to men.” Attempting to characterize “the Democrats,” he finds this image:

After being with them a week, one thinks of this party as a crazy, half-rich family, loaded with poor cousins, traveling always in caravans with Cadillacs and Okie Fords, Lincolns and quarterhorse mules, putting up every night in tents to hear the chamber quartet of Great Cousin Eleanor invaded by the Texas-twanging steel-stringing geetarists of Bubber Lyndon, carrying its own mean high-school principal, Doc Symington, chided for its manners by good Uncle Adlai, told the route of march by Navigator Jack, cut out every six months from the rich will of Uncle Jim Farley, never listening to the mechanic of the caravan, Bald Sam Rayburn, who assures them they’ll all break down unless Cousin Bubber gets the concession on the garage; it’s the Snopes family married to Henry James, with the labor unions thrown in like a Yankee dollar, and yet it’s true, in tranquility one recollects them with affection, their instinct is good, crazy family good.

The convention took place at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. But its nerve center and War Room was the Biltmore Hotel, where everyone gathered and the big players stayed. Mailer: “The Biltmore is one of the ugliest hotels in the world.”

For three days before the convention and four days into it, everybody collected at the Biltmore, in the lobby, in the grill, in the Biltmore Bowl, in the elevators, along the corridors, three hundred deep always outside the Kennedy suite, milling everywhere, every dark-carpeted grey-brown hall of the hotel, but it was in the Gallery of the Biltmore where one first felt the mood which pervaded all proceedings until the convention was almost over, that heavy, thick, witless depression which was to dominate every move as the delegates wandered and gawked and paraded and set for a spell, there in the Gallery of the Biltmore….

Of course, he didn’t need any quotes from Democrats, or political analysts, or academic experts saying, “there’s a heavy, thick, witless depression hanging over this convention.” He got there by opening his eyes and ears, by keeping them open, and then running all impressions gained in L.A. through his writer’s mind, which had its own preoccupations— the most important of which was style. (The least important would have been polls.) This meant bringing to bear everything he knew—and several things Mailer thought he alone knew—about the United States and its politics, culture and “underground” life. It also meant writing sentences that filled up pages before coming to a close. Here’s Mailer introducing us to some key characters:

Symington, dogged at a press conference, declaring with no conviction that he knew he had a good chance to win, the disappointment eating at his good looks so that he came off hard-faced, mean, and yet slack—a desperate dullness came of the best of his intentions. There was Johnson who had compromised too many contradictions and now the contradictions were in his face… Stevenson had the patina. He came into the room and the room was different, not stronger perhaps (which is why ultimately he did not win), but warmer…. There was Eleanor Roosevelt, fine, precise, hand-worked like ivory. Her voice was almost attractive as she explained in the firm, sad tones of the first lady in this small town why she could not admit Mr. Kennedy, who was no doubt a gentleman, into her political house. One had the impression of a lady who was finally becoming a woman, which is to say that she was just a little bitchy about it all; nice bitchy, charming, it had a touch of art to it…

But this is my favorite character sketch:

Jim Farley. Huge. Cold as a bishop. The hell he would consign you to was cold as ice.

Kennedy arrives at the Biltmore. Mailer studies the scene:

One saw him immediately. He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor, and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards. For one moment he saluted Pershing Square, and Pershing Square saluted him back, the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street, one of those very special moments in the underground history of the world, and then with a quick move he was out of his car and by choice headed into the crowd instead of the lane cleared for him into the hotel by the police, so that he made his way inside surrounded by a mob, and one expected at any moment to see him lifted to its shoulders like a matador being carried back to the city after a triumph in the plaza.

On finding what is not on the surface of the convention, but runs “in parallel” to its events:

Since mystery is an emotion which is repugnant to a political animal (why else lead a life of bad banquet dinners, cigar smoke, camp chairs, foul breath, and excruciatingly dull jargon if not to avoid the echoes of what is not known), the psychic separation between what was happening on the floor, in the caucus rooms, in the headquarters, and what was happening in parallel to the history of the nation was mystery enough to drown the proceedings in gloom.

Introducing a literary conceit through which he will attempt to interpret events in Los Angeles: the Two Rivers.

Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.

Elsewhere he calls it “the myth.” Later he will claim: “The life of politics and the life of myth had diverged too far.” (That leads to boring conventions.) But Kennedy, he thought, might yoke them together, and that could be dangerous. Here he takes the long view of American history and how it “ended” in Los Angeles.

It was a country which had grown by the leap of one hero past another—is there a county in all of our ground which does not have its legendary figure? And when the West was filled, the expansion turned inward, became part of an agitated, overexcited, superheated dream life. The film studios threw up their searchlights as the frontier was finally sealed, and the romantic possibilities of the old conquest of land turned into a vertical myth, trapped within the skull, of a new kind of heroic life, each choosing his own archetype of a neo-renaissance man, be it Barrymore, Cagney, Flynn, Bogart, Brando or Sinatra…

On what nominating someone as glamorous as Jack Kennedy might mean:

No one had too much doubt that Kennedy would be nominated, but if elected he would be not only the youngest President ever to be chosen by voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife—some would claim it—might be the most beautiful First Lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s best-seller…

On Kennedy’s genuine heroism in World War II:

A war hero, and the heroism is bona-fide, even exceptional, a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or twelve years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old. This is no routine candidate calling every shot by safety’s routine book.

This one (a glimpse from the Republican convention) speaks for itself:

“Yes,” Nixon said, naturally but terribly tired an hour after his nomination, the TV cameras and lights and microphones bringing out a sweat of fatigue on his face, the words coming very slowly from the tired brain, somber, modest, sober, slow, slow enough so that one could touch emphatically the cautions behind each word, “Yes, I want to say,” said Nixon, “that whatever abilities I have, I got from my mother.” A tired pause … dull moment of warning, “… and my father.” The connection now made, the rest comes easy, “… and my school and my church.” Such men are capable of anything….

I have saved the disclaimers for the end.

Superman Comes to the Supermarket is not really a “model” for reporters who will be covering the convention next week. For one thing, Mailer took his time. The piece—almost a novella in length—did not appear until months after the event, in the November, 1960 issue of Esquire. Nor am I saying that Mailer was “right” about Kennedy and the years to come, that he was the greatest convention reporter ever, that one should try to imitate his style (don’t, please) that the 60’s were so much more exciting and the journalism was too— or anything like that.

I’m also aware that many people today think of Mailer (now in his 80s) as a pretentious blowhard, marginal and irrelevant, or as a celebrity sexist. And of course there are equally many who have never heard of him and don’t care. As you’ll see, parts of “Superman” are bloated and all but unreadable, and some of it was ridiculous even then. And I am further aware that history has moved on. Reporting on John Kerry is, shall we say, less exciting than writing about Jack Kennedy, although the parallels are there. Also, the conventions today are nothing like what Mailer described in 1960. So let me state it before someone else does: you couldn’t do what he did today. My point lies elsewhere.

Last week, in writing about this editorial in the New York Times (finding “reason to hope” that “this year’s one potentially risky innovation — accepting dozens of free-form online bloggers as accredited convention journalists — may lace the proceedings with fresh insight”) I had occasion to add:

Fresh insight. Americans who pay attention to the news would welcome it. But how does something like that—a new source of insight—actually come into political reporting?

But it doesn’t have to be a new source. It can be an old source. You don’t have to do things the same old way. There are other, perhaps even older ways; and they may contain hidden instructions for journalists who feel boxed in by the Conventions and their own conventions for reporting on them. (There are more of these peoples than you think.)

“Journalism is chores,” wrote Mailer in 1974. “Journalism is bondage unless you can see yourself as a private eye inquiring into the mysteries of a new phenomenon.” As Tom Wolfe might say: a new phenomenon! This is what there won’t be in 2004, the press tells us: no real news, definitely no mystery (and hardly any television coverage.) That leaves chores, and 15,000 media people to complete them. There’s gotta be something better than that.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Short bio of Norman Mailer.

For context: Notes on the New Journalism by Michael J. Arlen (The Atlantic, May 1972).

Blogging: the new journalism? (from dot journalism, UK, March 25, 2003.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 21, 2004 8:57 AM