Interview: Norman Mailer, American writer

Every culture has its critics - insiders who lay bear idiosyncrasies and its flaws at will and with a sharp tongue. For decades, writer Norman Mailer has provided his countrymen and the world with a tough-minded critique of the American way. Uncharacteristically, he remained silent throughout the extraordinary election of George W. Bush, until now.

JANA WENDT: Norman Mailer, welcome to Dateline. A new President, a new era dawns - I suspect you`re not happy, but just how unhappy are you?


NORMAN MAILER, AUTHOR: I`m not terribly unhappy, because I really gave up being passionate about politics 10, 15, 20 years ago, because I think finally that there were forces in the country that are larger than politics itself. And so I find it a fascinating game, this wonderful stuff goes on in terms of watching the game. But If you get to down it, look, I`m going to root for someone, I`ll root at a football game, not for politicians.


Let me preface that by saying I did vote for Nader. I voted in a state where there was no way that Gore was not going to carry the state, so it was a free vote, in a certain sense. If I had been in a state where everything was close, I might have voted for Gore, even though my basic attitude was similar to Nader`s, which is there wasn`t all that great difference between the two parties. But I think there`s a basic overlay, there`s a force loose in American life now, that`s much larger than either party.


JANA WENDT: What is that force?


NORMAN MAILER: Let me try to put it together in a way. The basic tendency right now, the great power in America right now, is the corporations - we`re a corporate country. Ken Galbraith said we`re a corporate democracy. We`re run by a CEO and the stockholders have very little to say on how the corporation is run. Fine, the board of directors run it and the stockholders can just be disgruntled, but who gives a damn?


So in that sense, from the point of view of the corporations, they didn`t really care that much whether Gore or Bush won, because so long as the country stayed in the center, they were happy. The corporations do not want a country that has real power on the right or the left.


If the left gets real power in America then it`s going to hurt their income because there`s huge disproportions between rich and poor in this country. To be a member of the left and not move to reduce that difference, means that you`re not on the left.


On the other hand, the right wing is probably even more disturbing secretly to the corporation, because although they`re close to them politically, in that most people in a corporation are somewhat conservative. But these ultraconservatives terrify them because they portend huge social disruption. For example, if Roe vs Wade, which permits legal abortions, were ever overturned by the Supreme Court, you`ll see the largest march on Washington that you`ll ever encounter. You probably would have more than a million people descending on Washington to protest, and not all of them would be women.


So in that sense, the right wing speaks to the centre in ways that are also uneasy. They don`t like the left wing because it involves their money, they don`t like the right wing because it involves something worse, which is social disruption - the worst thing for corporations.


JANA WENDT: Obviously you don`t care too much for obviously either of the parties because they`re so close together, in your view. Nonetheless, what do you make of Bush, this new president?


NORMAN MAILER: I think he`s wise and canny at a mid-level. In other words, he`s smart enough to know his own limitations, so he`s surrounded himself with people who know a lot. And if these people that he surrounded himself with, the Cheneys and the Powells, have developed over these eight years since they were in the Bush Administration, then we`ll have a well-run country, more or less. Full of hypocrisy, but the notion that there will be more civility, for instance, is absurd.


One small example of that is those terribly offensive white sombreros - not sombreros, but they`re cowboy hats that Bush wears. There`s nothing civil about a big, tall Texan wearing a black coat and a white hat. He comes in like a vigilante at any place he goes, so that half of America is immediately horrified to look at those white hats and the other half says, "Good, let`s go to war with those weaklings up north." You know, that`s not civility. Civility is you dress like a banker and look like everyone else.


JANA WENDT: But you are saying that even though he may not be the most brilliant man on Earth, it almost doesn`t matter, provided that his advisors are people of some quality, or competence.


NORMAN MAILER: It doesn`t matter profoundly if the state of prosperity continues in America. We`re OK, doesn`t matter - in certain ways it will be an easier administration, believe it or not, than if Gore had gotten in. Because willy-nilly, Gore would have inherited all that intense Republican hatred for Bill Clinton. Why they hate Bill Clinton? Because he probably was a little more human than they were. And that`s the one thing one can never forgiver - we never can forgive anyone who is more alive, more human than we are. This is not to say that I love Bill Clinton. But on the hoof, he was a more interesting and alive human being than they are.


JANA WENDT: But presumably to replace that, there is this wellspring of resentment on the Democrats` side that they had victory snatched from them, isn`t there?


NORMAN MAILER: They do, they do, they do, but they`re all very soft now. The Democrat Party is terribly soft now. That`s one of Clinton`s faults. Clinton took the old, battered ship of the Democratic Party, which had been stoved in ever since `68, where there was the massacre on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and he moved it into the centre of the whole thing. Right there in between the Republicans and the Democrats, there was a new berth for the Democratic Party. And for all his fine talk and all his love of the people, Clinton never delivered anything that was really substantial. He went on for what I call "boutique politics" - a little fine thing here, a little fine thing there, but nothing basic. Nothing basic.


JANA WENDT: I want to get back to talking about Clinton in a moment, but returning to Bush, do you believe that his victory was legitimate?


NORMAN MAILER: No, it was absolutely illegitimate. That`s why I can`t get excited about politics, but I love it as a game. Because what you saw there... what I love in politics - this is very selfish of me, but who cares - what I do love in politics is this ability it has to make you think in new ways.


So what I realized - I had a thought I hadn`t had before; when you`re my age you`re lumbered in thought - the thought I had is, "Of course they won in Florida, of course the Republicans won, because they`ve had 100 years of practice at corporate law." And corporations know how to win cases, using every clean means and every dirty means available, and having the better lawyers and they develop more skills. People who go up against corporations who do it once or twice in their life, whereas the corporation has been doing it every day of their lives, professionally. So the Republicans went in with that basic notion that is totally Republican. That is, "What`s fair is that WE win." And they used every means they could.


JANA WENDT: But despite what you`re describing as this corporate mentality, the Supreme Court was also involved in this victory. How do you judge those judges who determined what happened here?


NORMAN MAILER: Why do we have to assume that a judge, put into the vice of a truly tough, evil, ugly situation, when his nose is being smashed against the wall by the pressure of it, why do you assume a judge is going to be any better than anyone else? Anyone who rises to the top, and this includes fine novelists too, has obviously devoted a whole part of their life to being successful, very successful. In certain occupations, that means you cut a few corners, and before you become an august judge, you may have been just a touch of a shyster as a lawyer.


In other words, I wasn`t appalled that the Supreme Court was venal and that it voted in ways that were obviously highly unfair. I`m surprised they were willing to sacrifice their reputation for that little.


JANA WENDT: Forgive me for sounding idealistic, but traditionally, the Supreme Court should have something to do with truth and justice.


NORMAN MAILER: Should - "should" is the key word, should. And will, in most cases where it doesn`t involve them profoundly, but in this case it did.


JANA WENDT: So you are really of the view that this Supreme Court judgement was a political judgment?


NORMAN MAILER: If we`re going to take it seriously from their point of view, I think the only argument they could give was that if the thing went on, it could extend beyond the date of the change, the presidency. If that happened, there would be chaos. Their feeling was "As responsible jurors, we have to avoid chaos."


But they could have done a few things. They could have tried to open it earlier in such a way that possibly a decision could have been found. It would have taken just two weeks to make a quick, powerful count of the votes. That could have been done. It was as clumsy, legally speaking, to do what they did and cut it off, as to find some way to open it up for a little while.


JANA WENDT: Do you think that the reputation of supposedly the world`s greatest democracy has been damaged by the conduct of this election?


NORMAN MAILER: Well, since I never felt we were the world`s greatest democracy, I would say yes. It`s probably been damaged in the eyes of those who say we are the world`s greatest democracy.


JANA WENDT: Nonetheless, you are the only remaining superpower, and a superpower that has a lot to say about democratic values in the world. And to an outsider, what appeared to be the abject incompetence of the conduct of this election was surprising. Was it surprising to you?


NORMAN MAILER: I was surprised they let it get that naked. If someone had asked me, I would have assumed they would have been a little more formal and they wouldn`t have been quite so ugly. They would have toned the Secretary of State, that lovely lady, down a little.


But they weren`t about to lose it - that`s the whole point. The point is they were furious at the thought of losing. "What`s fair is that WE win." That was the attitude, prevailing attitude. James Baker, who used to be an extraordinarily adept and sophisticated and elegant gentleman was practically foaming at the mouth, he was so angry, which was a sign of how furious they were. Also, it was a sign of the threats he was issuing. Because finally, the Republicans had much more damage that they could do to Democrats in Florida who would oppose them than vice versa.


JANA WENDT: Do you think the Republicans are going to make a culture difference in Washington, the political culture will change?


NORMAN MAILER: Oh, we go through spells. The country`s been exceptionally hedonistic for the last eight years. It was a real... what do you call it when two things work together?


JANA WENDT: A symbiosis.


NORMAN MAILER: Yeah, there was a marvellous symbiosis between Clinton and hedonism, and that`s why he`s so beloved. We always follow the president. There`s a tendency for Americans, particularly the simpler you are, the more you believe in the president as the kind of person to be.


When Eisenhower was president, then you had to be upright and a general and a good man. When Kennedy was president, it was extraordinary, it was an extraordinary shift in the presidencies, because now you had a young man with a beautiful wife. That meant it was alright to find a beautiful wife and try rise that way. You know, Americans really are key off the president. So, now there will be a tendency to have good family life again.


JANA WENDT: Let`s talk about the former president, Clinton. He capped his presidency by an admission on his last day in office that he had lied about Monica Lewinsky during the Paula Jones case...


NORMAN MAILER: Forgive me for interrupting, but as if no-one knew!


JANA WENDT: But I guess what I`m saying is what kind of an end of a presidency is that, an admission of having lied - what kind of a legacy is it?


NORMAN MAILER: It won`t affect his total legacy. Everyone knew he had been lying - he admitted as much himself months ago, a year or two ago, whenever his lies were first admitted. He was avoiding lawsuits and entanglements - he wants to go ahead with his life.


His legacy is so besmirched and argued over, that he can`t... He was for a legacy by bringing peace to the Palestinians and the Israelis - failed in that. He was looking at the last legal legacy. He is a very practical man, and he decided, "Let me clean up the legal stuff because I want to move on." And I will make you a prediction. Before it`s all over, he will run for governor of New York State. That`s my prediction. Why else would he move to New York, other than have a wonderful time?


JANA WENDT: He does have a wife who`s a senator there now.


NORMAN MAILER: Well, she`s not going to necessarily contribute to the good time.


JANA WENDT: You think it`s payback time, do you?


NORMAN MAILER: No, I think he`s going to New York because he will be immensely popular in New York. As a New Yorker, I can just say he`s the kind of outsider that New Yorkers will absolutely love.


JANA WENDT: But I think in most people`s minds, that kind of exit from the presidency, and having to too pay the fines and all of that and losing his law license for five years, that sounds like a utter humiliation. You don`t see it that way?


NORMAN MAILER: Obviously, it was not his favourite act in the presidency. But I think he felt that he had to do that because the alternative was worse, which is he would get tied up in small details. Don`t forget, what wrecked his presidency from the beginning was getting into situations where small details just accumulated and tied him up.


It started with his very first action, which was to get the gays into the military. To this day, I don`t understand why he did that. He was such a canny politician. He cut his teeth in Arkansas politics, where the idea of a man as a man is as strong as anywhere on Earth. Now, and then he goes in and his first act is to get the gays in - he ought to have known better. It`s true, he was never in the army. If he had been in the army for five days, he would have known better. But he should have known better anyway.


I always felt - this is just sheer speculation on my part - I always thought that was Hillary`s fault. She said to him, "You son of a bitch! That Gennifer Flowers, you`re going to pay for her now - you`re going to get the gays into the military." He said, "But honey, do you realise what you`re asking?" She said, "I don`t care. This is the price you`re going to pay for me being loyal to you when I didn`t have to be and shouldn`t have been. This is the novelist talking.


So he got in that business with the gays in the military. And that got caught up in all the details and was terrible for the beginning of his presidency and fortified the right to fight him after he lost the congress in 1994. After that, it was just a series of small moves to go with the Republicans, go against them, go with them, go against them. And all the while, he was presenting himself as this great liberal, this man who absolutely adored the poor and the sick. But what did he do? He ended welfare and never ended corporate welfare.


JANA WENDT: There is a view that he and his wife, certainly, will continue to haunt Bush and his administration. What do you think are the chances of that?


NORMAN MAILER: It`s tricky - they`re very skilful at that. They will do some, but you see, he can`t get into the position in America of being a sorehead. That`s never forgiven by the great American washed - the great American unwashed loves the idea of being a sorehead, but not the great American washed, which is probably two-thirds of the country. They have to be very careful. They have to wait until Bush makes mistakes. If they just attack him on general principles, they`re going to hurt themselves and they know it. They`re very sophisticated about that.


The interesting thing in the political game in the next few months is going to be the ways in which the Democrats go along with the Republicans and the ways in which they don`t. Games are immensely serious for people who believe in games. People die for games.


JANA WENDT: It`s a large-scale game, this one.


NORMAN MAILER: It`s the largest scale game there is in the world right now. But it is a game - by that, I mean that by the rules of the game, you hate your opponent so long as he`s your your opponent. You love him so long as you can work together with him. There`s not an authenticity of psyche in the heart, in the people who are politicians.


JANA WENDT: You`ve painted this picture of a corporate politics, I suppose. Where does this corporate politics place the US in a world context? What kind of global citizen as a nation will the US be under this new president?


NORMAN MAILER: Stuffy, self-righteous, reasonable in the hard sense, the way a Democratic administration would be reasonable in the hard sense. Which is, they`re not going to let people starve for too little. It won`t be a nightmare unless we have a depression. It will be OK in a sort of dull... the little things will all be disagreeable.


If there`s anything I hate worse than the kind of blatant, I would say even cheap, hedonism that you see in things like the `People` magazine annual, or if there`s anything I dislike more than that it`s family values that are exaggerated. I have nine children and I have a family that I really, secretly am not at all, I`m not without pride in my family. I know what a family is - a family is a wonderful, complex structure with all sorts of marvelous things in it and all sorts of things that are not marvelous. A family is like a life. You don`t say some life is a true value. You say it`s a fascinating subject.


I hate the piety that goes along with family values, even more that I hate the idea that you don`t have to have a mind anymore - all you`ve got to have are good sexual organs. Maybe I would have thought the opposite 30, 40 years ago. Nonetheless, what I`m getting at is I think we were going too far in one direction and now we`re probably going to go too far in another direction.

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