erik lundegaard

Norman Mailer and the 1964 Republican Convention

The excerpts of Norman Mailer’s letters in The New Yorker led me back to his piece, “In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964,” from Cannibals and Christians, which I first read over a decade ago. I remember I didn’t particularly like it. Norman went off on too many tangents, he reduced too many groups — “Goldwater girls ran to two varieties,” etc. Sometimes this stuff felt close to truth and sometimes it just felt hollow and mean. Parts of it still feel hollow and mean but most of the article feels shockingly contemporary. It makes the 1964 election feel like the first half of a bookend whose second half we may be fashioning.

So an Arizona senator is running for president by appealing to the worst elements of his party. The Midwestern and western elements of that party viciously attack the eastern establishment, the media, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Indeed there was a general agreement that the basic war was between Main Street and Wall Street,” Norman writes. There’s a down-home folksiness in the candidate’s voice: “I think we’re going to give the Democrats a heck of a surprise,” he says. There’s a callback to Christianity: “The thing to remember is that America is a spiritual country, we’re founded on belief in God, we may wander a little as a country but we never get too far away,” he says.

At the convention, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco of all places, a senator from Colorado, Dominick, gives a speech in which he quotes a New York Times editorial from 1765 which rebuked Patrick Henry for his extreme ideas. Norman writes:

Delegates and gallery whooped it up. Next day Dominick confessed. He was only “spoofing.” He had known: there was no New York Times in 1765. Nor was there any editorial. An old debater’s trick. If there are no good facts, make them up. Be quick to write your own statistics. There was some umbilical tie between the Right Wing and the psychopathic liar.

Even so, for a time Norman considers voting for Goldwater. There are elements of LBJ and the Democratic party he can’t abide — its modern, clinical quality — and he thinks it may be worse to die a slow, suffocating death than to go out with Goldwater in a blaze of glory. But then:

One could not vote for a man who made a career by crying Communist—that was too easy: half the pigs, bullies and cowards of the twentieth century had made their fortune on that fear. I had a moment of rage at the swindle.

Cuba comes up, and Norman writes:

One could live with a country which was mad, one could even come to love her (for there was agony beneath the madness), but you could not share your life with a nation which was powerful, a coward, and righteously pleased because a foe one-hundredth our size had been destroyed.

Again and again, from a distance of 44 years, Norman hits you upside the head with the truth. 

Goldwater lost that election, he lost big, but in later years even the much-hated media would see that convention, and that loss, as the birth of the modern Republican party; they’d bend to Goldwater and see him through orange-colored glasses. Read this, though, and there’s no doubt about the elements he was stirring up.

So it feels like a bookend. Two Arizona senators. The first attacking the Civil Rights Act, the second attacking what may be the culmination of that Act. A friend of mine once said, “When I was a teenager I realized that you could either be successful or you could be right,” and in the early 1960s the Democratic party decided to be right, finally right, on the issue of civil rights and on the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and since then the Republican party has been successful largely on the back of that decision. But maybe not now. Maybe this period, in which I’ve lived my entire life, can finally be bookended. Ended. Maybe.

Posted at 12:44 PM on Sun. Oct 12, 2008 in category Politics, Books  
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