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.

 

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