When former U.S. Senator George McGovern died in late October, he was valorized as the rare decent man working in a business of crooks, liars, and frauds. But this wasn’t just the usual whitewashing process that accompanies eulogies of a once-hated figure. Even while he was alive, indeed at the height of his prominence in American politics as Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, McGovern was viewed as a good man—perhaps a man too good for politics. The writer Norman Mailer went so far, in his 1972 nonfiction book St. George and the Godfather, to call McGovern a secular saint, the only politician he had ever known “who had a heart which could conceivably be full of love and that was an extraordinary gift for a politician to give.”
In 1972, novelist-cum-journalist Mailer attended the Democratic and Republican National Conventions: observing the proceedings, talking to high-level politicians and fellow reporters, and attempting to uncover the hidden emotions and resentments that powered the era’s politics. St. George and the Godfather was the result—an impressionistic, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most curious presidential contests in recent American history. The book’s title refers to Mailer’s assessments of McGovern and Nixon, respectively: one an honest man too honest for politics, the other a brilliant politician who was brutally empty. Though Mailer supported McGovern, he never deluded himself that his candidate had a chance at winning; indeed, Nixon went on to win 49 of 50 states.
Perhaps the public’s disinterest in McGovern in part explains St. George’s brutal reception upon publication. Critics found it uninspired, a mere rehash of Mailer’s earlier books about politics. The book “illustrates the sorry distance Mailer has traveled in recent years and demonstrates how rigid and reductive, how hostile to nuance, he has become,” read a review by Commentary magazine. The book sold poorly, and Mailer never wrote another campaign book again. Today St. George has been almost wholly forgotten.
Such neglect is unjust, because St. George and the Godfather is as astute an analysis of the 1972 election as you’ll find. Like the two other great books about the 1972 campaign—Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and The Boys on the Bus—Mailer’s book is as important for what it says about contemporary politics as what it says about politics in 1972. Rereading the book 40 years after its initial publication reveals much about America in one of the century’s most turbulent eras—and about America in 2012.
St. George and the Godfather wasn’t Mailer’s first book about presidential politics. Four years earlier, in 1968, he had published Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, an opinionated, blow-by-blow account of the politicians and conventions that made the year so tumultuous. Mailer’s scene-setting was singled out for praise by critics, as was his thrilling recollection of the riots in Chicago at the Democratic convention. When the book was reissued in 2008, The Washington Post gushed that “For historians who wish for the presence of a world-class literary witness at crucial moments in history, Mailer in Miami and Chicago was heaven-sent.”
St. George follows much the same template as its predecessor. Written in the third person—Mailer calls himself “Aquarius” in an (unsuccessful) attempt to remain “modest and half-invisible”—the book is a breezy, literary travelogue through the two party conventions, told in chronological order. Though Mailer is bored with much of what he finds—often, he seems annoyed that the world isn’t as brilliant and interesting as he is—the book also contains perceptive observations of subjects from the budding religious right to Watergate to the collapse of the New Deal coalition.
And not only is Mailer’s prose characteristically dazzling, his assessments are often prescient. Consider his look at the nascent religious right. “They often did not vote,” Mailer wrote about right-wing religious folks. “It took no ordinary issue to fire their seat. But the right to condemn homosexuality (and abortion! and welfare!) was a piece of their cherished rights: woe to the politicians who would deprive them of their cherished rights. Homosexuality had to go.” Indeed, for decades the religious right had been dormant; but countercultural excesses, followed by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the IRS could revoke the tax exempt status of organizations that, among other transgressions, opposed public policy on interracial dating, spurred it into an activist coalition that would eventually take over the Republican Party. Mailer might not have been the first to foresee this, but he did so in an especially memorable manner.