When McGovern met Mailer

Revisiting an unjustly forgotten account of the 1972 political conventions

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.

With the religious right and Nixonian cynicism ascendant, Mailer also noticed that liberal Republicanism was on the decline. Moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller had “his right-wing dueling scars,” acquired after being thrice passed over for the Republican presidential nomination in favor of more conservative candidates. The New York governor had, as a result, moved closer to the positions of Ronald Reagan, then governor of California and a rising conservative star. Rockefeller’s refusal to visit Attica prison as a mediator during the 1971 riots there was judged by observers to be deeply symbolic of the GOP’s shift to the right. According to Geoffrey Kabaservice’s recent book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, after the 1972 election, “Republican moderates were becoming increasingly divided, not only over the Nixon administration but also emerging social and cultural issues.” By 1980, they had all but disappeared.

Similarly prophetic was Mailer’s observation that unions had lost their clout in the Democratic Party: “[T]he labor union, veteran himself of a hundred negotiations in which he had worn out the softer executives who confronted him across a table, had now in his turn been ground out by the boredom of facing implacable students and hippies and clerks.” Some thought that after McGovern’s appeals to youth and alienation of labor proved to be electorally suicidial, unions would again become the dominant segment of the party. Mailer was not so na├»ve. As he predicted, unions would indeed return to the Democratic Party fold, but never would wield as much electoral power as they once did.

Just as entertaining, if sometimes less accurate, are Mailer’s character sketches. Henry Kissinger had “a Hapsburg mouth; it was not hard to see his resemblance to many a portrait of many an Austrian archduke and prince.” Kissinger would have been flattered. Barry Goldwater “had political screw-tight as the corner of his mouth (a manly tension which comes from the civilized inability to grind on the bones of one’s dead foes and bite the hams of the living), still it did not disfigure him as a it would a woman, perhaps it even added to his particular charisma, for if at his worst he was a prejudice-panderer and bias-monger, the sour emotional butt of the great American heart, he had at least an air of primeval ferocity (which arose from the low-slung profile of his brain long dislocated into his jaw).”

Particularly resonant now is Mailer’s portrayal of Nixon as transparently soulless. “He walks like a puppet more curious than most human beings, for all the strings are pulled by a hand within his own head, an inquiring hand which never pulls the same string in quite the same way as the previous time—it is always trying something out—and so the movements of his arms and legs while superficially conventional, even highly restrained, are all impregnated with attempts, still timid—after all these years!—to express attitudes and emotions with his body,” Mailer writes. “But he handles his body like an adolescent suffering excruciations of self-consciousness with every move.” Mitt Romney, meet your match in awkwardness.

Ronald Reagan’s depiction, however, is off-base. Reagan “would never beef up to political heavyweight but he was one of the better lightweights around and gave every evidence of being managed by Bob Hope who might just as well have written Reagan’s speech tonight,” Mailer observes. That speech benefitted from “his good lines and his good timing, and his easy voice, full of the chuckles of good corporate living…a moral fathead…he never wandered out of the arena of his own imagination.” Mailer saw that Reagan’s affable persona was as central to his political success as his ideas. Even so, his prediction that Reagan would never amount to much politically was wildly erroneous.

But that is part of what makes St. George such a great read. It is a real-time snapshot of American politics in 1972 that can be contrasted with what we know with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, many of the events and personalities Mailer described are seen now in an entirely different light. Most ironic in terms of subsequent developments is the issue of Watergate. It is often forgotten that the media had picked up on the break-in before the 1972 election. All the press wanted to discuss at the GOP convention was Watergate, Mailer reports. Elliot Richardson, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, smiled at the questions about the issue: “He couldn’t resist suggesting (with the grin of a man who is contemplating the principals all caught in the act) that if the Committee to Reelect the President had actually pulled off Watergate, Richardson, for one, couldn’t believe that they would be so inept.” Nixon echoed this revealing line of thinking to David Frost: “Let me say, if I intended to cover-up, believe me, I’d have done it.” Another GOP spokesman says that he is “absolutely satisfied that the so-called Watergate caper will have absolutely no effect on the election of Richard Nixon.” He was right.

St. George and the Godfather is bound with such fascinating details. It works as both an important social document of its time and stands as a piece of nonfiction literature. Mailer was one of the first and best “nonfiction novelists,” and the technique is exemplified here. The book deserves better than what it received from history—perhaps not unlike St. George McGovern himself.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. Tags: , , , , ,