Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer, political blogger emeritus

I had not somehow divined that literary lion Norman Mailer was near death when, several weeks ago, I bought a 50th-anniversary edition of his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead. I had only intended to reacquaint myself with a book that I had devoured as a college student, and to read the new introduction, penned by the elderly Mailer, offering a wry assessment of his auspicious debut. Now that he’s gone, of course, his words seem to carry extra weight. “Life,” he writes in the introduction, “is like a gladiator’s arena for the soul” - a line that evokes his trademark pugilism and feels true besides.

Yesterday, every obituary and sidebar "appraisal" invoked The Naked and the Dead, deservedly so. But few mentioned that Mailer had written a seminal piece of political journalism for Esquire magazine, way back in November 1960 - an article stuffed with edgy and prophetic commentary about politics and the postwar celebrity culture. It was entitled “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” and, for many aspiring scribes, reading the piece (in the words of the late New York journalist Jack Newfield) “was like the first time I heard Bob Dylan and Charlie Parker.”

Mailer’s piece has resonated down the decades. He bypassed the he-said/she-said “objectivity” paradigm and basically signaled that it was OK for a reporter to exercise the intellect rather than simply collect quotes, that it was OK to have a point of view (albeit well argued) at the expense of artificial balance. And at a time when much political reporting was two-dimensional, he offered sight and sound. His piece was as long as a novella, but I prefer to think of it as an extended post on the world’s first blog.

From “Superman,” here’s his description of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, arriving at his hotel in Los Angeles, for the 1960 Democratic convention:

“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….All the while the band kept playing the campaign tunes, sashaying circus music, and one had a moment of clarity, intense as a déjà vu, for the scene which had taken place had been glimpsed before in a dozen musical comedies; it was the scene where the hero, the matinee idol, the movie star comes to the palace to claim the princess, or what is the same, and more to our soil, the football hero, the campus king, arrives at the dean's home surrounded by a court of open-singing students to plead with the dean for his daughter's kiss and permission to put on the big musical that night. And suddenly I saw the convention, it came into focus for me…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.”

“The prince and the beggars of glamour”…Mailer was virtually the first to write about the influence of celebrity marketing in American postwar politics, and about how the Kennedy candidacy was built not on its policy stances (what Mailer dismissively called “housing projects of fact and issue”), but on its mastery of image. As Mailer saw it, Kennedy was being marketed as a dream hero for a citizenry that dreams of heroes. He explained this with a pop history riff:

“America was also the country in which the dynamic myth of the Renaissance—that every man was potentially extraordinary—knew its most passionate persistence. Simply, America was the land where people still believed in heroes: George Washington; Billy the Kid; Lincoln, Jefferson; Mark Twain, Jack London, Hemingway; Joe Louis, Dempsey, Gentleman Jim; America believed in athletes, rum-runners, aviators; even lovers, by the time Valentino died. It was a country which had grown by the leap of one hero past another…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, but it was almost as if there were no peace unless one could fight well, kill well (if always with honor), love well and love many, be cool, be daring, be dashing, be wild, be wily, be resourceful, be a brave gun.

“And this myth, that each of us was born to be free, to wander, to have adventure and to grow on the waves of the violent, the perfumed, and the unexpected, had a force which could not be tamed…The myth would not die.”

Mailer was ambivalent about Kennedy, whom he also described as “handsome as a prince in the unstated aristocracy of the American dream.” After watching Kennedy duel with the press and press the flesh, he decided that “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did…you were aware all the time that the role was one thing and the man another…the actor seemed a touch too aloof…one had little sense of whether to value this elusiveness, to be beware of it.”

More importantly, Mailer pondered whether the hunger for a celebrity president, for a leader invested with the glamorous trappings of heroism, might eventually hamper those who held the office. As he put it, “One could pause: it might be more difficult to be a President than it ever had before. Nothing less than greatness would do.”

I’ll willingly stipulate that hefty chunks of “Superman” are overwritten and pretentious, that Mailer sometimes strays into the thickets of his own verbiage and emerges with cuts and bruises, that he himself was a celebrity thirsting for attention and probably authored this piece with the expectation of gaining more. But he would have produced far less of value if he had merely followed conventional journalistic practices. Instead, he employed all his active senses and gave us indelible impressions (of Los Angeles itself, “one has the feeling it was built by television sets giving orders to men”), along with sharp character sketches, vivid visuals, and prescient analysis. He challenged journalists to think outside the box, long before Tom Wolfe got the credit.

His style and approach are tough to replicate. They are also easy to abuse. And I also acknowledge that political news consumers will always need the wire services, and similar outlets where the facts are served up straight. But Mailer, still early in his career, set a new standard for observation, for the strenuous exercise of the intellect, and something he said in 1974 still rings true today: “Journalism is bondage, unless you can see yourself as a private eye inquiring into the mysteries of a new phenomenon.”

Spoken like our first honorary blogger. Rest in peace.