Master of Conventions

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:

Book “I am a ‘left conservative.'” That was Norman Mailer’s jaunty but slightly defensive self-description when first I met him, at the beginning of the 1980s. At the time, I was inclined to attribute this glibness (as I thought of it) to the triumph of middle age and to the compromises perhaps necessary to negotiate the then-new ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. But, looking back over his extraordinary journal of a plague year, written 40 years ago, I suddenly appreciate that Mailer in 1968 had already been rehearsing for some kind of ideological synthesis, and discovering it in the most improbable of places.

Party conventions have been such dull spectacles of stage management for so long that this year it was considered nothing less than shocking that delegates might arrive in Denver with anything more than ceremonial or coronational duties ahead of them. The coverage of such events, now almost wholly annexed by the cameras and those who serve them, has undergone a similar declension into insipidity. Mailer could see this coming: having left the 1968 Republican gathering in Miami slightly too early,

he realized he had missed the most exciting night of the convention, at least on the floor, and was able to console himself only with the sad knowledge that he could cover it better on television than if he had been there.

This wasn’t quite true yet: what we have here is the last of the great political-convention essayists, and the close of a tradition that crested with H. L. Mencken and was caught so deftly in Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man. You will note the way in which Mailer decided to write about himself in the third person, using the name “the reporter.” This isn’t invariably a good idea, but it generally works in this instance, even when Mailer muses, of himself, that the

Democratic Convention in 1960 in Los Angeles which nominated John F. Kennedy, and the Republican in San Francisco in 1964 which installed Barry Goldwater, had encouraged some of his very best writing.

More here.