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October 28, 1965, Vol. XI, No. 2
Norman Mailer on Lindsay & the City
I was talking to a woman at a party the other night, and she said Abe Beame was an old machine politician and so she was going to vote for him because he would know how to run the machine. And I said New York is not a machine but a malignancy.
Well, I repeat the story not only to take a bow for having the last word with a lady, but because I’ve brooded on the remark and think it has something to do with why John Lindsay may not be our next Mayor. He has been running day in, day out, about as hard as a man can run these last six months and yet there seems a quicksand beneath the effort — as votes are won, others slip away — I know whenever I say I am going to vote for him, I hear the same bad news: he has been a disappointment, say some, his personality has failed to come alive, so has his campaign. The campaign and the man are long and dull, I am told, and ill-tempered; there have been no real issues, or at least no ability to find and dramatize the real issues, Lindsay has somehow allowed a fine beginning to dissipate itself. And I think then of that campaign he has run and the extraordinary difficulty of it, for Lindsay has been running against the malignancy and how do you dramatize that? You cannot dramatize a condition which is concealed by the organism itself because it is too terrifying to contemplate: the separate organs accommodate one another no longer but must grow each of them at their own best speed. Cooperation impossible, only separate growth remains. That is malignancy.
New York is ill beyond belief.
There are forces in the city, Left, Right and Center, which are out of control. They cannot collaborate with other forces, they cannot, in fact, exist with other forces — their only logic is to grow by themselves. There is a Right Wing in New York whose only ultimate satisfaction will come from deporting every Negro to New Jersey unless he has been taught to say Yessir all over again; there is a militant black Left who swear Whitey must eat the turd before peace is here, and there is the Mob and the machine in the center, all the highways and housing projects gutting the city of its last purchase on beauty in order to manufacture new money for themselves. The action in the center is the worst of all for it is mined into the vaults of all the banks in town and all the concrete blocks and the cement mixers, into the cops, (Bill Buckley’s noble hard-working much-abused cops) and it is the secret sweat in the pores of every bureaucrat in this thicket-ridden legalistically-swindled city, this jungle of ordinances and metastatic deals which has polluted the air, leaked away the water, defaced the architecture, and made our subways as famous in Asia as the Georgia chain gangs.
There is something else to make it worse. For each malignancy begins with an intolerable and just need which cannot be satisfied and cannot be forgotten. The paranoia of the Right develops because they want — or believe they want — quiet houses on quiet streets, and healthy food, and decent air, and a life lived by principle; since everything in the scheme of things works to deny them, so everything in the scheme of things seems to point to a conspiracy which springs violence loose at random, and puts poisons in food, and looks to rebuild and so destroy old neighborhoods and shatters every principle into chaos, and active contradiction. Whereas the need of the Center is for power, but its power came originally out of loyalties. Every mob guy and machine politician was gutting the city with one hand and feeding a lot of particular families with the other. So there are still memories of favors and good nights of drinking in bars and the old days in the old neighborhood and legends of men who were real men. The machine is a method which used to be able to work, for it was the closest thing to a culture for the poor, and the poor still need it, they need a personal touch in the big anonymous void of the city, a sense of myth and connection, a league of the hot guys and the hard guys, a hope to satisfy some greed. Many of the poor need the machine with a passion for if they lose it, they are lost in the city, they are adrift in the void; so they have to keep coming out for the machine. But the machine can’t take care of them properly any more for the machine knows it has nothing to offer to the Left and to the Right but placation, and that is equal to just letting the malignancies grow — so the machine sees the city isnot going to go on forever. It starts to grow too, it accelerates the rate at which it devours, it starts to bulldoze wholesale and to squeeze money from the juice of concrete, and from union jurisdictions and courts and clubs and covenants and realtors on the fix until the entire city gives promise it soon will look like a convention of prisons.
And on the Left, in that Harlem where the blood of eight generations has come to a boil, there are men who live their life for a cause — they were trying to save their people from going mad, and they have a sense at times that the pursuit of their life is in itself mad, for eight generations boil in the blood, and the blood goes over, it is kept on the boil by events which take place eight hundred miles and a thousand south of here, and so more and more of the kids in Harlem want not justice but revenge and threaten to become implacable and grow not on liberty but power and so must demand more and more and more before they have yet anything at all.
That is another aspect of the horror — violence, sickness, greed and rage. Right, Center and Left, and all of it with origins in passion and loyalty, in idealism, principle, all the ingredients for building the new world and the great city.
But of course there is no great city. Just the malignancy and Lindsay in a situation where he must get his money from the Republican machine and his votes from the Right and the Left. On the Right is Bill Buckley, all bless, and on the Left is Adam Clayton Powell, an undisputed genius. Any man who can still run Harlem in any way at all is an undisputed genius, but it is part of Powell’s peculiarly private luck to tie himself up always with the worst candidate in town, now known lately as Honest Abe D. (D. for Dog — I’m no Dog) Beame.
That’s a pretty combination for any candidate. And Buckley accuses Lindsay of being in league with Adam Clayton Powell, in a debate, nowhere else, and Lindsay answers. Why, no, Mr. Powell has given his support to Mr. Beame, and Buckley is silent on that. Bill is not one of the major debaters in America for nothing — a week later he is making the same accusation and they are cheering his words in Queens. Debating, you see, is a highly difficult but very low art since it depends upon being scrupulously dishonest. You fix facts with fancy and throw the suspicion of fancy on the other man’s facts. Nobody in America is better at this than William B, just as no one I suspect is more majestically unsuited for here becoming Mayor since it is possible Old Bill has never been in a subway in his life. To be fair it must also be said that no one could have been more majestically suited for spoiling Lindsay’s campaign. Buckley’s personality is the highest Camp we are ever going to find in a Mayoralty. No other actor on earth can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robet Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep-school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear. If he didn’t talk about politics — if he was just the most Camp gun ever to walk into Gunsmoke I’d give up Saturday nights to watch him. But he does talk about politics time to time, and his program for New York is to drop an atom bomb of the Chinese.
A man like that cannot be kept from getting an enormous minority vote. The aged put rouge on their cheeks, and in a dying city, theatre is life, Camp is all. Camp is going to defeat John Lindsay, for Camp is the iridescence of the malignant and cancer cells are bizarre but beautiful under a microscope — they look like a shopping center in the night. Of course Buckley’s votes will not come from people who even know the word Camp, no, his sort of votes come from the kind of girls who want to work at Bell Telephone; but if Lindsay loses, Camp will still have defeated him — a secret admiration for Buckley’s high Camp has been cutting into the righteous wrath of all us Wagner-aged citizens — we are finally apathetic about the great dump in which we live, we laugh at Buckley, we laugh with him, we say let the city burn, let it burn, and Lindsay goes wrong, a little solemn, a little empty, too earnest much.
Well, fellow-voters, call on the Lord, Jack Kennedy was that way in ’60, swear it. Tall, slightly blank, slightly dull as a speaker, full of facts, no fire, and a bemused slightly out of it look. Which comes I think from the schizophrenic recognition that one is a man trying to contend with the relations between miracles (for how else can politics appear at the top?) and that the means of acquiring the power to go out and save the world (for that is the secret glory and ambition of a major politician) can be obtained only by talking about all the things which have nothing to do with miracles, or society, or even with people, but are instead statistics and programs and situation papers and debater’s tricks and well-timed name-calling and allegations, and shaking hands so slimy a clam would throw up, and worst of all saying the same thing day in, day out, week, week, month after month until your soul begins to die, because repetition, kids, kills the soul, and even as it is dying and the manner gets empty and the rhetoric more flat, one is grappling out there in those great celestial regions at the empty back of the brain, wrestling with the wonder of how do you create a miracle, how do you give Harlem what it begins to need, and keep your own Republicans from going mad, and get the money to do it, and clean the slime and the concrete, and get the water back and get the fire out of the air and the fumes and clear out the sense of the city dying in its own corruption like a monster eating himself to death in a dungeon, and with it all, being out every day, out to capture the same votes and having to make the same speeches.
The last time I saw Lindsay was in June. He was in great form, his color was great, vitality came off him – huge enthusiasm. He looked like a man of twenty-eight. He won every vote in the house. That was in June. Now he’s empty, people say. He looks much older in photographs. I do not wonder. The wonder is that he is not half dead.
But just as he was leaving that afternoon in June, he said with a big grin like a sailor in a boxing ring, “Mailer, you know you have to be a little insane to run for Mayor of this town.” Yes, you do, I think, and yes, John Lindsay may be a little insane to have tried, but by God I write this to say I hope he wins, John Lindsay, because I think he’s okay, in fact I think he’s a great guy, and it would be a miracle of this town had a man for mayor who was okay. Ill-tempered the campaign may have been, empty and dull to some, and with no real issue but malignancy, but cheers to you, John Lindsay, and honors to your run.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 2009