Unconventional Wisdom

Choice can be a dangerous thing.

Ants, or wise bees, or a gang of wolves,
Work together by instinct, but man needs lies…

–Robinson Jeffers, “Faith”

It seemed like a good time to again take up drinking again. Politics had driven me to drunkenness back when Reagan was first elected and a nasty, reoccurring hangover had made me quit when Bush won his second term. In 1980 we’d elected a buffoonish B actor to the nation’s highest office on the strength of his one-liners, fictional anecdotes of welfare queens and a war history he didn’t even have. It seemed excuse enough to make intoxication a morning-noon-and-night proposition. Never mind my personal problems. Bush’s re-election, stacked on incompetence and smears, made me too cynical to continue.

Now, in this political season, just ahead of the conventions, I was craving cheap scotch. Cynicism ruled. Hope, no matter how audacious, was under attack. For a while it seemed people had realized the last eight years had been a disaster in every way, that needless wars and necessary ones had been badly botched, that the Treasury had been looted by political cronies, that that national debt had been criminally inflated and sold to offshore thugs, that income was being ripped from the middle class and marched off to the holding cells of the super rich, that the gutting of Federal regulation had led to poisoned food, deadly pharmaceuticals and financiers who spent their time denying they were thieves and murderers. Our right to privacy and the very notion of America as a place of honesty and goodness had been trashed. People wised up. But then, during the primaries, the Democrats surprised everyone by voting in an elitist Muslim kid with an America-hating wife who subsisted on arugula and wants babies to be aborted after they’re safely delivered. Or that’s what I was hearing. His opponent was someone with ideal leadership credentials: he’d been a prisoner of war who, on release, left his wife to marry a beer heiress and, once in office, facilitated the savings and loan scandal. Now he wanted to drill and restart the Cold War. Choice can be a dangerous thing. Suddenly things didn’t look so hopeful.

So, here in the middle of another restless night’s dreaming I found myself in front of that bastion of American political discourse, the Great American Bar. And I thought, why not have a couple, it’s a dream, no one will ever know. It was one of those classic taverns that barely exist anymore, the kind that don’t have windows, the kind that daylight never enters even when it’s daylight outside; where time stands still. Inside, there were two guys on stout stools, one a thick, hunched old codger with a pair of walking canes at his side, the other a tall, skinny guy with aviator glasses and a cigarette holder who seemed to have part of his jaw blown away. I pulled in next to them and ordered a Scotch.

“Scotch?” demanded the tall one who looked younger with his jaw suddenly intact. He kept a hand on his cigarette holder and pushed his packet of Dunhills at me. I pushed them back. I wasn’t smoking, even if it was a dream. “That’s nothing to be drinking when the world’s going to hell. Give him a Wild Turkey, bubba.”

“We should have done more drinking together when we were alive,” the pudgy old guy lamented. “I might have taught you something.” He made a grab for his two canes as they tumbled to the peanut shells. As I slammed my first alcohol in years, I recognized these two, both men who, in the past, had been driven by politics to drink. Was it a curse –or a blessing—to have one’s dreams haunted by Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson?

“Why you guys?” I asked.

“Celebrating my new book,” Mailer said. “And the fact that somebody—you–read it.”

“It ain’t new,” said Hunter.

“Okay, a reissue. Just in time. “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” Mailer supplied. “You know, all about the most god-awful conventions of our lives. 1968. The year of revolution –turned out to be a kiss-ass revolution. Amazing what fear and a couple assassinations will do to a country.”

Thompson snickered. “This year could be worse. What if the agents of swine attack the pro-solar forces in Denver? What if another bridge collapses in the Twin Cities under the weight of Cheney’s motorcade? What if some god damn crazy puts some kind of screaming powder in the water supply, or bin Laden’s caught in a Minnesota titty bar or Nixon’s reincarnated or Christ himself comes down and give the Evangelicals the what for…”

“Doesn’t matter,” says Mailer. “I said in our lives and we’re dead.”

Thompson shakes out another Dunhill. “Let the living suffer. This is heaven.”

“We’ll celebrate your book, too,” Mailer proposes, lifting a shot glass in a swollen fist. “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72. Politics as addiction by a true addict. It never went out of print and it was never more relevant.” Thompson toasted his fellow political haymaker. I slurped another Turkey.

Booze never tastes like much in dreams and seldom delivers a high. But, as in real life, it was making me obnoxious. Before 1968, Mailer had written one great novel, The Naked and the Dead and a couple of good ones, including the macho Why Are We In Vietnam? His book on the 1967 Pentagon march Armies of the Night had won him the Pulitzer Prize. He was no stranger to covering political conventions. “So why should we care about your god damn books?” I sputtered. “That’s all done and over with. Nixon, all the players are long since dead. What in hell…”

Mailer looked ready to throw a punch. “McGovern’s still alive. He’s your Obama. A shrewd innocent. Read Hunter’s book.”

“I did. Obama’s smarter than McGovern,” I countered before slamming down another shot that appeared, as thing in dreams do, out of no where.

“Hey, its your dream, bucko,” says Thompson, puffing like a madman. “You’re the one putting words in our mouths.” And that’s when it hit me. Mailer and Thompson’s books were more relevant than ever, not so much as history but for what they said about American politics. You can see the great smoke-filled room political conventions morphing into stage shows in Mailer’s account of the Republicans in Miami back in ’68. You can see the Democrats with all the finesse of professional wrestlers succeed in tossing Gene McCarthy from the ring in ’68 and take a three-count for George McGovern back in ’72. You can see the mainstream media—was there any other kind back then?—latching on to the wrong interpretation of events again and again, sticking with it long after it was proven folly. Reading Thompson’s demented account of the ’72 primaries made it was easy to see Hillary first as Edmund Muskie, the shoe-in, and later as Hubert Humphrey, the old school Dem who never really got behind the party’s candidate. You could see why McGovern won the battle but lost –big time—the war.

Most frightening in those decades-old accounts are why a country, mired in a pointless war and seemingly ready for change, surrendered to the status quo. What parallels can be drawn between 2008 and 1968 (few) and 1972 (many) don’t bode well for our political future. That McCain owns more than a half-dozen houses trumps extending tax breaks to the rich. That Obama went to see his grandmother in his birth state of Hawaii (elitist!) overshadows health care solutions. That the Republicans can still pull it off after screwing things up so badly the last eight years reflects the nation’s shallow interests, the dumb-and-dumer state of political discourse and (consider the McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to be his heart beat away) the ultimate in cynicism. Dream or no dream, I don’t want to believe it.

Forty years ago, the country was torn by an unpopular war, by racial and cultural struggles, by creeping economic crisis, burgeoning poverty (despite a so-called war on it) structural and environmental neglect. There were angry political recriminations and threats of violence and a little something called the draft that could jerk a guy out of his comfortable life and land him in a rice paddy firefight. It’s all so familiar even as it’s all so different, then escalated by street action and angry protest and the fact that tens of thousands, not a few thousand, of our young service people had been killed in Vietnam. In 1968, a sitting president, not nearly as unpopular as the current one, chose not to seek re-election. The country’s most important civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the ruling party’s great hope, Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down just as it seemed the election was his. There were riots in the streets and talk of revolution. Political repression against those expressing opposition, was a fact of life.

But the social and economic problems as well as political process were largely as we know them today. Mailer draws distinction in his book between the Republican and Democratic conventions; how the Republican gathering was carefully managed for television, while the chaotic Democrats were foolish enough to run their convention as if it were still part of the process. The Republicans greeted their delegates with attractive young women in mini-skirts, blonde “Nixonettes” and brunette “Nixonaires”. They drank expensively. One of the convention’s biggest moments was the arrival of an elephant, the party mascot, on a plane from California. Mailer reports that the pachyderm walked off the plane, sized things up and dropped a huge terd on the runway.

Mailer, on assignment for Harpers magazine, was sober enough to see the party’s future taking shape He tells how the so-called conservative wing cut the throat of Nelson Rockefeller, maybe the last pragmatic Republican. Ronald Reagan lurks in the shadows, his minions calling out Nixon’s softness on any issue that wasn’t treated with a John Wayne-style of ferocity. He introduces Spiro Agnew, the attack-dog vice-presidential pick who did more to define politics as organized crime than any politician in the last 50 years, precluding a long line of Republican hoodlums skilled at shaking down taxpayers and spreading around kick backs. Back in the ‘60s, political extortion was thought a Democratic skill.

Mailer’s genius was in defining the Republicans, seeing what they had jettisoned and what they embraced. He saw on the convention floor “The corporate and social power” of the country that had somehow melded with small town America even as the party’s covenant with business betrayed those clueless hicks. All of us not endowed with wealth or power were hicks in the party’s eyes, useful stooges kept in line with appeals to morals and greatness. America, the Republicans believed, “was the world’s ultimate reserve of rectitude, final garden of the Lord….” Indeed, as Mailer states, the Republicans believe that the defeat of America, in any form, would be the end of God himself. But this is “never articulated by any of them except in the most absurd and taste-curdling jargons of patriotism mixed with religion…” That’s why even today wearing a flag as a lapel pin and regular church attendance can be a candidate’s most important qualifications.

Mailer “scorned” liberals, as he writes, didn’t think much of Democrat Gene McCarthy but was whole-heartedly behind RFK who was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles even as he won the California primary. The anarchy of the Chicago Democratic convention seemed to suit Mailer and, something of a brawler himself, he developed a stubborn admiration for the protestors in the streets. “If they had been gassed and beaten, their leaders arrested on fake charges…they were going to demonstrate that they would not give up, that they were the stuff out of which the very best soldiers were made,” he wrote. He himself managed to get beaten and hauled in on the final night long after police had pushed demonstrators through the plate glass windows of the Conrad Hilton Hotel and bloodied protestors, delegates the press and casual observers, even diners in the restaurant just to show that they could. Then he went off to the Playboy mansion to have a drink with Hugh Hefner.

Unlike Mailer, Thompson played favorites, following the entirety of the ’72 campaign for Rolling Stone in what amounts to a chronicle of McGovern’s shrewdness in unseating Muskie, Humphrey and the others. Thompson also puzzles over McGovern’s complete destruction during the general campaign, beginning with the nomination of Missouri senator and psychiatric patient Thomas Eagleton to be his vice president. Scorned by the big wheels of his own party (Mailer compared them to the Mafia back in ’68), McGovern earned Thompson’s respect—the candidate wasn’t above taking a drink now and then—and his vote, even though he knew it was futile.

Thompson’s books shines in its steely-eyed scrutiny of political advisors and pundits. The press settled on accepted wisdom and then stuck with it, even if it wasn’t so smart anymore, just as they did with Hillary and McCain (“straight-shooter”, “maverick”) in the current election. “In mid-February of 1972, there were no visible signs in New Hampshire, that the citizenry was about to rise up and drive the swine out of the temple,” he writes. “…it was absolutely clear –according to the Wizards, Gurus and Gentlemen Journalists in Washington—that Big Ed Muskie, the Man from Maine, had the Democratic nomination so deep in the bag that it was hardly worth arguing about.” Thompson immediately began placing bets with his fellow journalists and winning nearly all of them. No doubt were he alive, Thompson would have put money on Obama early and ridden him to the finish.

There are other books you could read to learn the history of those long ago elections. Theodore H. White The Making of the President–1968 and1972 (and the compendium volume America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-1980) but you will learn only facts and conventional thinking—the most accepted of accepted thinking– with little challenge to the system or its crooked denizens. Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President, an obvious play on White’s titles, made the then-shocking disclosure that politicians, even in 1968, were being sold to the public like cigarettes. Now we know the political operatives—think swiftboating and the arrogance of Al Gore—spend their dollars blowing smoke.

My dream, like a good drunk, came to an end somewhere I can’t quite pin down, around the time Thompson said I was putting words in their mouths. Guilty. But their words, pulled from the convention accounts are now in mine. “…when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand,” Thompson says in ’72. Thank god Thompson and Mailer were there. Writing just ahead of the Democratic convention, I see the light they shed and what can go terribly wrong.

Even as they line up behind Obama backers of that other Democrat cast doubts on the candidate’s experience, his fortitude. The opposition runs ads suggesting Hillary’s people were wronged. Purveyors of accepted thinking are publishing stories about divided Democrats and Republican minions keep whispering, whispering that the candidate’s middle name is Hussein. Remember how Humphrey destroyed McCarthy? Remember how the party powers couldn’t get behind that upstart McGovern? Remember how Nixon hijacked the issues and promised peace with honor? Never surrender, as Thompson would say. If they put one of yours in the hospital, send one of theirs to the morgue. I am not one to think that history actually repeats itself. But I know that ignorance makes the world go round. And round again. I want to believe things will be different this time. Please, please make it so.

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