"I’d have to work at learning the job every hour of the day,” he said. “It would not be easy for me to learn, because I hacve a head that is bombed out by marijuana. I cannot remember names. I cannot remember numbers. I don’t have a particularly good reputation in this city. I don’t have a political machine. So if I get elected it seems people want my ideas. And if I get elected, this town will be more alive thanit has been in fifty years.”
This was Norman Mailer in 1969, running for mayor, and explaining himself to a bunch of no doubt puzzled high schoolers.
Mailer’s big idea in that campaign was to make NYC the fifty first state. It is still an ace idea. It would bring a little more democracy to the Senate, and shake up the House. It would make politics on the national level – which leans to the Dems – mirror politics on the off year, state level – when a lesser percent of the voters lean strongly GOP.
In the sixties, there were a number of outsider candidates. Most of them were on the left – although Mailer called himself a left conservative. Some were on the right – Buckley, in the election cycle of 1965, had also run for mayor.
In 1969, the traditional political machines had broken down, and the new media based political technologies were in their infancy. Joe McGuinness wrote a book about how Richard Nixon was packaged and sold like cigarettes or pop, and this was considered some kind of indictment. Today, this is what the elites expect and want. The odd tone of melancholy around the failure of Jeb Bush’s campaign, for instance, has to do, primarily, with how beautifully machined it all was. The money! The advertisements! The meaningless endorsements! It is the rocket that gets the awe – the astronaut inside, in this case Bush, is a sort of afterthought.
Mailer’s idea were fruity, and yet rather nice. For instance, Sweet Sunday – once a month all vehicular traffic, including planes, would be banned, and New Yorkers would experience the city’s birdlife. On crime, Mailer leaned to a solution grounded in Renaissance Florence – the creation of autonomous neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, urban anonymity – which Mailer thought was at the root of crime – would be dispelled. Of course, he presented it more floridly than that, claiming that some neighborhoods might allow fucking on car hoods and some might keep fucking private.
The outsider candidate is now in a sad state. From Mailer to Trump is not the arc that leads to greater enlightenment. This is what I truly find depressing about Trump, for in terms of form – dispensing with the pr technology, getting on the news constantly, becoming an issue of conversation – is what I would like to see. I wanted it to be Bernie Sander’s gig. I think, in a way, Sanders will last longer, but Trump has put a very ugly cast into this election, and into a national mood that is characterized by the self-evidence of the slogan, Black Lives Matter, in a society where the powers that be show – that old Jim Crow state - this isn’t true every day.
There’s a long, submerged connnection between the two vocational types: artist and politician. Both began to take shape in the 14th and 15th century, within a system of patronage generated by the court and Church. Both have followed a historical logic in which the struggle for autonomy has defined the language and inner experience of both types. And both are exhausted. Just as the Party has drained out its differentiating substance at the same time that it is the defining reference for the politician, so, too, the various schools and trends that define the artist seem, at the moment, both pointless and indispensable – we can’t talk about the artist except by way of that grid. We, or at least I, long for the outsider, the disrupter, the amateur, as a way of kicking to the curb this dead form. But the dead form seems to be overwhelming, it seems to be everywhere, and the outside that, at least, I long for, has no footing, no note it can seize and join the chorus.