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Norman Mailer: Why I Am Protesting the Presidency

StoryAugust 09, 2004
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The legendary writer and journalist talks with Amy Goodman about the November election, the state of protest today and the historic 1968 conventions which he chronicled in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” [includes rush transcript]

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, I had a chance to interview one of the country’s best-known literary figures, Norman Mailer, at a benefit for WOMR in Provincetown Massachusetts.

Over the past half century Mailer has written 39 books, won two Pulitzer Prizes and co-founded the Village Voice.

36 years ago Norman Mailer wrote one of the definitive accounts of the historic 1968 conventions. The book was called “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.”

He also wrote “Armies of the Night” on the 1967 march on the Pentagon by antiwar protesters.

I began by asking him about his thoughts on the November election

  • Norman Mailer

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I asked Norman Mailer about his thoughts on this lead-up to the November election.

NORMAN MAILER: The people who are — who hate Bush, like myself, are heating up one end of the stick. We’re getting it red hot, but we’re not reaching the middle at all.

Now, my feeling is that if I were a Republican, I would know how to handle that rage. I would encourage it and encourage it and encourage it. And I would have my little people in with all the activists to create some awful, awful scenes while the conventions are on, because you keep talking about how awful the media is in terms of its limitations. It cuts off both ends of every discussion. The media is that way for a reason, which is this country, the center of this country, the corporations, are determined to control the thing. And my argument is that unless Kerry is elected — and God knows Kerry is not Jesus Christ, nor is he Joan of Arc. He’s a man slightly to the left of the middle, who will play with the corporations and work with them, but nonetheless he will have to have more of an open ear to us than the Bushies.

And so, our first need at this point is not to keep heating one end of the stick; it’s to reach the middle. It’s to reach those conservatives who don’t know what we’re talking about. And the immediate need is to defeat Bush. But to do that, to do that, we have to reach the middle. And the only way we can reach the middle at this late date is if we’re extraordinarily peaceful in our demonstrations before the election, because the media are just waiting there like coiled springs, hoping that there will be a few maniacs who will cut loose. Maybe there will be a few people who will know what to do with the American flag, as far as the Republicans are concerned. And that is, the Republicans are hoping that we’ll make [bleep] of ourselves. They’re counting on that.

And I would like to see the word go out to all the activists that we are walking into a tremendous trap. Why did the — why ever did the Republicans choose New York? Keep asking yourself that question. Leon Trotsky once said there are certain questions that answer themselves by being asked, and that one — you ask yourself, you’ll have the answer. Why did the Republicans choose New York? Let’s not walk into their trap.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we continue in that vein, and you wrote an incredible work, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about what happened in 1968. Why don’t you talk about the siege of Chicago and relate it to what you’re talking about today?

NORMAN MAILER: Well, there you had — in a funny way, what you had was a reverse media, because the media covered the massacre on Michigan Boulevard. Most of you, I’m sure, know all about it. For those of you who you don’t, there was a huge march of demonstrators, an essentially peaceful march that went up Michigan Boulevard and at a given moment, given the order by Mayor Daley then, not the present Richard Daley, but his father, the police surged into the marchers and beat them up with canes. It was all on television. It was extraordinary television, one of the incredible moments of network television, and everyone was shocked down to the core. The Cronkites, the Rathers, whoever was there then — I don’t even remember — they all were profoundly shocked.

And it looked — at the moment, it looked like: how awful, how awful, the Republicans are going to pay for this. Quite the contrary, the Republicans won, because out there in the core of America, the thing we have to recognize is the injustices you’re talking about in the media, which have rankled me for so many years I can’t even talk about it, are not going to be overcome by our talking; they’re going to be overcome by our acquiring bits of power, more and more. I’d even argue with you that the New York Times, bad as it is today, is far better than it was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t even written well.

And the point is that to overcome, to overtake this incredible centrality of the corporation, we’ve got to learn guile, we’ve got to learn to understand the enemy, we’ve got to devote our lives to it — not all of our lives; none of us will do that, I hope. But we have to devote a good part of our lives to recognizing that we’re not going to win this war by being funnier than the Republicans. The Democrats and the left have been incredibly more funny than the Republicans for fifty years. I said this in Wellfleet last year. We’ve been laughing at them for fifty years, and we’re further back now than when we began. The way to do it is to acquire power.

And people in the middle of America are terrified of change. Very often they have bad conscience. The bad conscience comes because, to the degree that they’re good Christians, which must be half of the country, they feel that they’re a little too greedy to be a good Christian, and it bothers them, which is why we keep getting this brainwashing all the time, which is immensely more successful than the brainwashing that went on in the Soviet Union. That was crude. The kids saw through it. They hated it. Now the brainwashing is immensely sensitive, subtle, clever.

You pointed it out all over the place, what they do. I was agreeing with you every step of the way, but at the same time I kept saying it can never be enough, because we’re talking to ourselves. We’ve got to reach into that middle. And I would just say the first step is to get Kerry elected, whatever faults he has. Once he’s elected, we will have more of a voice. We’re not going to have the voice. The corporation will still have the voice. But it can be the beginning of a very long march back toward at least the center of the power we need. And I’m slightly ahead, and I’m going to quit.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the role of protest? I mean, you have extensively written about it. You won the Pulitzer Prize for your book —

NORMAN MAILER: I’m all for protest when there’s not — I’ll give you an answer in one sentence: I’m all for protest when an election is not coming up, because protest can have a huge effect slowly, steadily, not immediately. Almost immediately, the media, particularly in America, does its best to, generally speaking, to put protest down.

But over a long haul, the march on the Pentagon ended up being a success. I’ve said this many times, but what Lyndon Johnson saw was that 50,000 middle-class people, middle-aged and young and a few old, came to Washington, paid their way to get to Washington with the prospect of being hit over the head with a club. Lyndon Johnson was a very canny man. He knew if there’s one thing about middle-class people, they didn’t like getting hit over the head with a club. And if they, if they are going to spend their money to come to Washington to protest, he was sick, because he knew if he paid the way of all of the people who would come to support his war in Vietnam, he would be lucky to get 5,000 people. So if 50,000 had come this way, in all fear and all determination, then there probably were somewhere between five million and fifty million behind them, and he didn’t want to find out. It took something away from him.

He brought in Clark Clifford at one point to ask him for an honest appraisal of the war in Vietnam, and Clifford said, “It’s a loser.” Clifford was respected by Johnson, because he was objective. He said, “You’re not going to win this war. You can’t.” And I think that led to — well, now we get into all the complications of history. It’s never clean. So, Johnson stepped down, Nixon came in. Nixon knew his advantage was to keep the war going for four years to get re-elected, etc., etc. Here we get into all of the tangles. I’m saying, we have to enter the land of the tangles.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, at the Republican Convention, there are plans for a massive march of something like a quarter of a million —- perhaps there will be more. Do you -—

NORMAN MAILER: I hope it’s a half-million. I mean, if — yeah, 500,000. At my age, it gets harder to count. But the problem may well be whether they can get permission, with Bloomberg and Pataki there.

AMY GOODMAN: They have now gotten permission, but it’s to march on the West Side Highway, which is quite far from where the convention is taking place.

NORMAN MAILER: It’s a long walk from the Lower East Side, where it all started.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you approve of this protest?

NORMAN MAILER: Well, I approve of protests of all sorts, depending on their position, their timing. I never approve of a protest that I think is a folly. My point is this protest, yes, I approve, if it’s peaceful, if the marchers, if the leaders of the activists get across the notion that it will be a disaster if there’s too much rioting, and indeed suspect the people who are rioting. They may not be — they might be on another payroll altogether.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have always called yourself a third party man. What do you think about Ralph Nader?

NORMAN MAILER: I met him in Chicago the other day, about a month ago. He’s the nicest, most decent politician I have ever met, but I do think he’s doing what I’m afraid the left and the left-of-center is going to do in this one, is they’re going to end up handing it to Bush before it’s all over. And my feeling is this, that if Bush gets it, everything we do is restricted to Provincetown and San Francisco and places like that, that, in other words, if we want to really have a say in what’s going on in our country and in the world, we absolutely, absolutely have to get Kerry elected.

Amy, let me finish one thought, which is, we’ve got to curb our rage for the next four months, not put it away forever — far from it, far from it. This rage is legitimate. But I think it’s going to be much more powerful after Kerry’s in. And the reverse is true, if he isn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about curbing the rage, do you see a difference between now and 1968, in terms of how many people across the political spectrum are angry? I mean, you have now military families who are rising up, a thousand dead US servicemen and women.

NORMAN MAILER: I know what you want to say. Let me interrupt, because I really got to leave. I really got to leave. There’s more rage across the spectrum now, but I keep repeating this, a profound conservatism in American life. There’s a terror of excess in the average Middle American. And if there are — right now, the election is so close that if the rage erupts and does silly and stupid things before the election, it’s going to lose the election. Now I could be dead wrong. I’m wrong half the time.

AMY GOODMAN: But I mean the conservatives that are mad. I’m asking if you see a difference between now and 1968 in terms of the number of conservatives who are mad?

NORMAN MAILER: Absolutely. Yes.


NORMAN MAILER: Those are the ones that I want to reach.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you suggest reaching them?

NORMAN MAILER: Moderation. That’s what they live for. People are conservative because they’re moderate.

AMY GOODMAN: But — [ applause ] if the media covers nothing but a protest that becomes violent, if they ice out so much dissent, how do you reach?

NORMAN MAILER: My point is they can ice it out for a period. They can’t keep icing it out. We are a force of outrage. I’m just saying that this force — I’m just hoping that this force waits four months to express itself and then has its jubilee.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Mailer, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, speaking two weeks ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at Provincetown Town Hall.

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