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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reading List: Miami and the Siege of Chicago

Mailer, Norman. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: New York Review Books, [1968] 2008. ISBN 978-1-59017-296-4.
In the midst of the societal, political, and cultural chaos which was 1968 in the United States, Harper's magazine sent Norman Mailer to report upon the presidential nominating conventions in August of that year: first the Republicans in Miami Beach and then the Democrats in Chicago. With the prospect, forty years later, of two U.S. political conventions in which protest and street theatre may play a role not seen since 1968 (although probably nowhere near as massive or violent, especially since the political establishments of both parties appear bent upon presenting the appearance of unity), and a watershed election which may change the direction of the United States, New York Review Books have reissued this long out-of-print classic of “new journalism” reportage of the 1968 conventions. As with the comparable, but edgier, account of the 1972 campaign by Hunter S. Thompson, a good deal of this book is not about the events but rather “the reporter”, who identifies himself as such in the narrative.

If you're looking for detailed documentation of what transpired at the conventions, this is not the book to read. Much of Mailer's reporting took place in bars, in the streets, in front of the television, and on two occasions, in custody. This is an impressionistic account of events which leaves you with the feeling of what it was like to be there (at least if you were there and Norman Mailer), not what actually happened. But, God, that man could write! As reportage (the work was completed shortly after the conventions and long before the 1968 election) and not history, there is no sense of perspective, just immersion in the events. If you're old enough to recall them, as I am, you'll probably agree that he got it right, and that this recounting both stands the test of time and summons memories of the passions of that epoch.

On the last page, there are two phrases which have a particular poignancy four decades hence. Mailer, encountering Eugene McCarthy's daughter just before leaving Chicago thinks of telling her “Dear Miss, we will be fighting for forty years.” And then he concludes the book by observing, “We yet may win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do.” Wise words for the partisans of hope and change in the 2008 campaign!

Posted at August 16, 2008 21:08