Waiting for Super-Wallace
Earlier this summer, I ordered Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago from the library, since people were anticipating the kind of violence that defined the 1968 Democratic convention.
History did not repeat itself — or does it? Last week, I read the Miami half (more like a quarter) and it has has plenty of lessons for 2016. For instance, Mailer describes waiting for Ralph Abernathy, friend and ally of the (then) recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., to appear a press conference at the Fontainebleau:
as the minutes went by and annoyance mounted, the reporter became aware after a while of a curious emotion in himself, for he had not ever felt it consciously before — it was a simple emotion and very unpleasant to him — he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights. It was a miserable recognition, and on many a count, for if he felt even a hint this way, then what unmeasurable tides of rage must be loose in America itself?
Back in 2008, when New York Review Books reissued Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman cited part of the above passage to indict the recently deceased Mailer for his intolerance. Maybe so, but both critics trimmed the quote in ways that avoid Mailer’s larger point about the vast and loose tides of rage in “America itself.”
It’s harder to gloss over those in 2016. I’m not going to retype the entire passage, but Mailer goes on:
What an obsession was the Negro to the average white American by now. Every time that American turned in his thoughts to the sweetest object of contemplation in his mind’s small town bower, nothing less than America the Beautiful herself…the obsession was hung on the hook of how to divide the guilt, how much to the white man, how much to the dark?… Since obsessions dragoon our energy by endless repetitive contemplations of guilt we can neither measure nor forget, political power of the most frightening sort was obviously waiting for the first demagogue who would smash the obsession and free the white man of his guilt. Torrents of energy would be loosed, yes, those same torrents which Hitler had freed in the Germans when he exploded their ten-year obsession with whether they had lost the war through betrayal or through material weakness. Through betrayal, Hitler had told them: Germans were actually strong and good. The consequences would never be counted.
Unmeasurable tides of rage, uncountable consequences.
And the next paragraph begins:
Now if suburban America was not waiting for George Wallace, it might still be waiting for Super-Wallace.
Later that day, Mailer went to another Miami Beach hotel for another press conference with Nancy Reagan, but the future (but not for another 12 years) First Lady never appears:
the Press was disassembled with apologies by an attractive corn-fed blonde young lady possessing a piggie of a turned-up nose and the delicate beginnings of a double chin. Her slimness of figure suggested all disciplines of diet. The young lady had been sufficiently attractive for the Press to forgive much, but a few of the more European journalists…