News & Politics

Norman Mailer’s Primary Beneficiary: The Democratic Hack

by

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
June 26, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 37

Impossible Choices: Why Mailer Ran
by Richard J. Walton

Norman Mailer cost Herman Badillo the Democratic nomination and, quite possibly, election as mayor. I write this not in condemnation, for I sent Mailer a small check and would have campaigned and voted for him had I still been a New York resident. Nonetheless, it is an irony of no inconsiderable magnitude that Mailer gave the nomination to Mario Procaccino. This is as certain as any election post-mortem can be, for Mailer’s total added to Badillo’s would have been 4000 more than Procaccino’s. No one can know how all of those who voted for Mailer would have voted if he had not been in the race, but it is almost self-evident that most of them would have gone to Badillo.

It is true, of course, that Wagner’s entry also deprived Badillo of victory, but that doesn’t seem as significant, for Wagner was just another politician trying to win, whereas Mailer entered not out of political ambition but in an attempt, largely successful, to bring a new dimension to New York politics. But in so doing he torpedoed a fine candidate who appealed to many of the same voters.

This raises what may be the crucial question in contemporary American politics: the dichotomy between liberal and radical, between reformer and revolutionary, between the lesser and the greater evil. Obviously Badillo cannot be likened to Procaccino, and indeed, even Wagner was clearly superior to Procaccino — perhaps one might even say because neither of them is as representative of the ordinary voter as is Procaccino. The triumph of democracy is when ordinary men, acting freely, choose extraordinary men to be their leaders. Badillo is clearly a superior man.

Mailer, of course, knew this and evidently, at least at the beginning, had a genuine respect and admiration for Badillo. But he ran anyway. To the traditional liberal this didn’t make any sense at all. It’s hard enough, in this view, to contend with the forces of reaction and petty passion without dividing the good guys. “Look,” the liberal will say with genuine outrage, “Mailer knocked off Badillo. He ought to be pretty damn proud of himself, turning the party, and maybe the city, over to a bush-league party hack with a passion for the billy club.” But this is the dilemma, one far beyond my ability and, I suspect, ours to solve. It is a disaster, of course, that Procaccino is the candidate. On the other hand, we have had nearly four decades of experience that liberalism has failed. We have had essentially liberal government nationally and locally ever since Roosevelt was first elected in 1932 — and look at our society. Domestically the nation is tottering on the brink of chaos, and in foreign affairs liberals brought s Korea, Lebanon, the Bay of Pigs, the Dominican Republic, and, as the piece de resistance, Vietnam. Liberals have often been ineffective, doctrinaire, intellectually flabby, corrupted by power and their still unassailable belief in their own superiority, and all too often cowardly. Although Badillo is a superior man, he is still a mainstream liberal.

This is why Mailer ran. Although there is no reason to doubt the grandness of his ego, Mailer is imaginative, intellectually tough, wary of power, and brave. He, like many of us, recognized the bankruptcy of liberalism and, unlike most of us, was in a position to undertake a significant campaign against it. It was a good campaign, intelligent, tireless, and bold. But again we come to that dilemma. “Swell,” says the liberal. “Sure, it was a swell campaign, and Mailer’s triumph was crowned with the nomination of Mario Procaccino.”

So what do we do? On the one hand we have the failure of liberalism. But now it seems clear that any attempt to go beyond liberalism — and only something well beyond has a chance to deal with our root problems — and we end up throwing government into the hands of the reactionaries and the cops. Is the only choice that between creeping, ineffectual, often cowardly liberalism and police statism? Is this our American dream?

You New Yorkers are going to face this dilemma again next November as we all faced it last November. Marchi, Procaccino, or Lindsay? The choice would seem simple, but then if you stayed up late that Tuesday night, you saw a less than attractive Lindsay. he was almost hysterical. For one thing, he refused to face the fact that the Republican Party is the Republican Party, that whenever it thinks it can get away with it, or whenever its passions are aroused, it prefers a Goldwater, a Nixon, a Marchi. And he refused to face the fact that he had been repudiated by his own party fair and square. Even less attractive, it was a demonstration of the Ivy League liberal unfrocked. Lindsay believes, as did John Kennedy an all those others, that he rules by divine right, that the only function of the masses is to offer him the crown at stated intervals. But when the crowd snatched the crown away, he made it pretty clear what he really thinks of the people.

So even if another choice pops up, an independent campaign, say, you New Yorkers have another impossible decision, for neither liberal nor conservative can cope with that magnificent, impossible city. Most political writers believe that if you’ll only listen to them, everything will be all right. But I write in almost total despair. All I seem to be able to offer is the frying pan and the fire, the devil and the deep blue sea. But maybe dispelling illusions is useful, although I’m inclined to think with Eugene O’Neill that we can’t face reality. So maybe I’ll go back to a comfortable belief in liberalism. Yet if Mailer runs again, maybe for Congress next year, I’ll send him another check. Hopefully a bigger one. Maybe if he and you and I get together and persevere for another couple of decades, we’ll be able to convince our countrymen that we must go beyond liberalism. I doubt it though. If we learn, it will most likely be because the whole edifice came crashing down around our ears. Listen. Do you hear that distant rumbling? Isn’t it getting closer…?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

More: