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Norman Mailer: He Went Down Swinging | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Norman Mailer: He Went Down Swinging

There is much, much to be said of Norman Mailer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and world-class rabble-rouser who died Saturday at age 84.

But the pugilistic pensman would perhaps be most pleased to have it known that he went down swinging. The chronicler of our politics and protests in the 1960s with two of the era's definitional books--1968's Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, did not rest on the laurels--and they were legion--earned for exposing the dark undersides of the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

He went after George Bush with a fury, and a precision, that was born of his faith that all politicians--including 1969 New York City mayoral candidate Norman Mailer - had to be viewed skeptically. And, when found to be lacking, had to be dealt with using all tools available to a writer who had pocketed two Pulitzers, a National Book Award, a George Polk Award, a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation and a global prominence rarely accorded the pushers of pens.

Mailer did not hesitate to suggest that Bush and his compatriots were setting up "a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America" and he saw the war in Iraq as an imperialistic endeavor destined--as all such attempts are--to diminish democracy at home.

"Iraq is the excuse for moving in an imperial direction," Mailer wrote on the eve of the conflict. "War with Iraq, as they originally conceived it, would be a quick, dramatic step that would enable them to control the Near East as a powerful base -- not least because of the oil there, as well as the water supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers--to build a world empire."

Mailer recognized in the president's schoolboy militarism the most dangerous of instincts. So it was that, when Bush made his 2003 appearance in flight-suit drag before a sign declaring "Mission Accomplished" as part of the first--though certainly not the last--celebration of the fantasy of "victory" in Iraq, Mailer responded with a critique that remains the most damning assessment of a president who has known more than his share of damnation.

"Democracy, more than any other political system, depends on a modicum of honesty. Ultimately, it is much at the mercy of a leader who has never been embarrassed by himself," Mailer, who as a young Harvard graduate had served in the South Pacific during World War II, wrote of Bush at the close of a brilliant piece for The New York Review of Books. "What is to be said of a man who spent two years in the Air Force of the National Guard (as a way of not having to go to Vietnam) and proceeded--like many another spoiled and wealthy father's son--not to bother to show up for duty in his second year of service? Most of us have episodes in our youth that can cause us shame on reflection. It is a mark of maturation that we do not try to profit from our early lacks and vices but do our best to learn from them. Bush proceeded, however, to turn his declaration of the Iraqi campaign's end into a mighty fashion show. He chose--this overnight clone of Honest Abe--to arrive on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on an S-3B Viking jet that came in with a dramatic tail-hook landing. The carrier was easily within helicopter range of San Diego but G.W. would not have been able to show himself in flight regalia, and so would not have been able to demonstrate how well he wore the uniform he had not honored. Jack Kennedy, a war hero, was always in civvies while he was commander in chief. So was General Eisenhower. George W. Bush, who might, if he had been entirely on his own, have made a world-class male model (since he never takes an awkward photograph), proceeded to tote the flight helmet and sport the flight suit. There he was for the photo-op looking like one more great guy among the great guys. Let us hope that our democracy will survive these nonstop foulings of the nest."

Mailer would continue protesting the foulings of the nest, on the streets of New York during the 2004 Republican National Coronation and with a pugilistic pen that pummeled the empire builders and their lesser stooges--asking pointedly in final years that paralleled Bush's "Patriot Acts" and an endless "war on terror": "What does it profit us if we gain extreme security and lose our democracy?"--until it was finally laid to rest on Saturday.

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