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 naïve. 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.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. He frequently reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and Slate.