Why Mailer Matters

Appreciating the rascal writer who started it all

It was his unequivocal "Bring the troops home now" demand that won our hearts. Not that the mayor of New York had much clout in that area, but it was better than the waffling John Lindsay, who then held City Hall. On local matters, Mailer's campaign had some singular ideas as well. Its chief battle cry was that the city should become the 51st state, a goal Mailer and his running mate, the then equally hard-living columnist Jimmy Breslin, acknowledged was politically unfeasible. The other was "All power to the neighborhoods," a something-for-everyone scheme aimed at fueling minority hopes, while defusing the fears of whites in the outer boroughs.

"Vote the rascals in" was their delightful slogan, mounted on a lone billboard hung above their rickety headquarters in a walk-up across from the old Coliseum on Columbus Circle. They were guided by campaign manager Joe Flaherty, an ex-longshoreman turned Village Voice writer who later wrote the magnificent political book Managing Mailer. Starting in late April 1969, they took their show on the road. Speaking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to police students about their anti-crime ideas, they encountered, as Flaherty recalled, a few skeptics. "If you and Breslin go ape on the same evening," one cop asked, "who will run the city?"

They got even less respect on a chaotic night in the auditorium of P.S. 41 on West 11th Street in the Village. A small, boldfaced notice in the May 8, 1969, Voice announced that Mailer would speak there on the subject of "Dr. Strangelove in the Seats of Power: City, State, and Nation"—not exactly your standard political stump speech. But that night, all we knew was that the great Mailer and Breslin were speaking nearby, and those of us eager to see and hear the charismatic duo squeezed into the hall and squatted on the floor near the stage.

photo: Fred W. McDarrah

The back of the room, however, and soon the stage itself were commandeered by members of a radical group known appropriately as "the Crazies." Deciding that this was a prime opportunity to confront the ruling class and its liberal puppets, they hooted, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh," and "Free the Panthers," blew whistles, bounced a ball back and forth, and refused to let the candidates be heard.

Mailer, his feet planted squarely apart in boxing mode, was for once outmatched. He tried to shout past his hecklers, denouncing them as CIA agents, but it was hopeless. Breslin bellowed that these loudmouths wouldn't "have the balls to try the same crap" at a rally for Mario Procaccino, the law-and-order Democrat from the Bronx who later won the primary. Eventually, the candidates fled as mutual epithets flew back and forth.

That spring, we wore buttons that read "Mailer-Breslin 51," and another keeper—"No More Bullshit"—that unfortunately has long since disappeared. But few of us believed this was the ticket to political power. It was the thrill of the thing. Norman Mailer, America's greatest writer, had said, "March." We'd followed.

On sober reflection, it's clear now that without Mailer in the race, the Democratic nomination might well have gone to Herman Badillo, the Puerto Rico–born borough president of the Bronx, who finished third and who ran on a platform of political empowerment and helping the poor. Mailer even said so himself to The New York Times in his own sober moment after he finished next to last with 41,000 votes in the June primary. "If I had known Badillo would do so well," he admitted, "I might have hesitated about running."

But there were other perks. In the midst of the campaign, it was announced that The Armies of the Night had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Then publishers agreed to hand Mailer an unheard-of $1 million to write another nonfiction novel, as he called those works, this for the book that would become Of a Fire on the Moon.

Mailer and Voice Editor Dan Wolf in March of 1960
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Despite that enormous success, no slight—real or imagined—rolled off his back. When Mailer decided that his campaign wasn't getting the attention it deserved, he called a press conference—to denounce the press. "If you continue to treat us this way, you're going to be a disgrace to your profession," he scolded.

Included on his list of shame was the Voice, which had only featured large photos of Mailer and Breslin on its front page, run two lengthy stories announcing his campaign, and carried a detailed account of his appearance at a Brooklyn Democratic clubhouse. Not enough, Mailer insisted. He deserved day-long coverage, not just individual events.

By that time, his history with the weekly he'd helped to found was already fairly complicated. For a few short months after its 1955 launch, Mailer authored a regular Voice column in which he scoped out his views on "The Hip and the Square," and other themes that caught his fancy. It was an early example of his head-butting approach to the world.

"The only way I see myself becoming one of the cherished traditions of the Village," he wrote in his maiden effort, "is to be actively disliked each week."

« Previous Page
Next Page »