“No other faith is light enough for this place.”
— The National, “The System Sleeps in Total Darkness.”
If we say that the hypothesis of this piece is to ask whether or not a writer can run for Mayor, then the test case of Norman Mailer circa 1969 — as recounted by Joe Flaherty in Managing Mailer — is bound to serve as something instructive and bound to disappoint.
What potential was Mailer squandering in his failed run? Consider all the other ways in which the question could otherwise be framed: could Patrick Modiano run for Mayor of Paris on a campaign platform of shadows and silence? What if Alasdair Gray attempted an amusing (and amused) takeover of Glasgow City Council? Could Aleksander Hemon run for Mayor of Chicago, given how he once imagined how the city responded to the anarchists of 100 years ago? Could George Orwell come back to life as a zombie and run for Mayor of London on the premise and promise of stripping politics away from language? Or — more appropriately — could Dickens have run on an anti-poverty platform? Could Pynchon run and leave his platform as nothing more than a question mark scribbled over a man wearing a paper bag over his head and the caption reading, “Guess?” Could Orhan Pamuk run for Mayor of Istanbul, even if he still maintained in the official campaign literature that a second Orhan was out wandering the streets of the city somewhere? Could James Baldwin come back and run for Mayor from Harlem today?
But forget the others for just a moment: why couldn’t Mailer pull a “Superman Comes To The Supermarket” out of himself for himself? Why did his campaign manager only realize at the end of the campaign that “the things I cherished in Mailer as a writer — his daring, his unpredictability, his gambling, and his bluffing — were the very things that made me want to strangle him as a politician?”
Mailer framed his run by saying to Time Magazine, “I am paying my debt to society.” It echoes what James Baldwin wrote in Remember This House to explain why he returned from Paris to Harlem — namely, “Everyone else was paying their dues, and it was time I paid mine.”
But if you are a writer who has an interest in politics, it’s hard to avoid seeing the innumerable ways everyone involved in the campaign fails to live up to ‘paying their dues,’ even if we allow a certain gap to ‘let 1969 be 1969.’ We have a campaign manager who struggles to get ballot signatures for his candidate who does not know a political thing about the Bronx and Queens. We have a candidate who does not have an answer to the softest softball a mayoral candidate can get — namely, how someone would go about cleaning up snow. (“I’d piss on it,” is Mailer’s response.) We have Mailer announcing to second-wave feminists in their prime and Black Panther devotees that “a good cop is a work of art.” Positions are grasped at — banning cars every Sunday, turning New York City into the 51st state as a way to avoid the bankruptcy that awaited the city a few years down the road — but they aren’t the teeth of what the memoir conveys.
How do others of a vaguely similar background compare? In Fire And Ashes, Michael Ignatieff, author and academic — who was leader of the opposition in Canada from 2008 to 2011 — writes that the candidates were “in a reality show. I thought content mattered. I thought the numbers in a platform should add up. Ours did and theirs didn’t. None of it mattered. It was a case of parallel universes.” It’s a comment that jibes with how Senator Al Franken found himself apologizing for jokes during his first campaign, who wrote that he “learned that campaigns have their own rules, their own laws of physics, and that if I wasn’t willing to accept that, I would never get to be a senator.”
And what happens if we flip the question ever so slightly? For instance: is the Australian Lynton Crosby nothing more than a failed novelist? (Where the Turks are forever invading England? Where everyone is an enemy and distraction is the only morally centering object permitted or allowed? Where the existence of Muslims in London is reported with breathless surprise in the same way that a young child expresses shock when they learn where babies come from? Where a single woman is found in Canada wearing a veil?) Does David Plouffe have a Game Of Thrones-styled fantasy series buried deep within his cropped hair?
If creative muzzling is the necessary behavioral sacrifice we have to pursue in order to seek elected office, then what is the reward? What is the wellspring of inspiration that keeps those seeking to make that sacrifice going? For Mailer, per Flaherty, it was this —
… brownstones set on tree-lined streets gently sloping down from Prospect Park; not a sign of a high-rise project; and whites, Blacks, and Puerto Ricans mingling freely on the cordoned-off street, all enjoying franks and beers while their children played a variety of games or raptly watched a pageant being presented on the street. Neighbors of various ethnic persuasions had cooked their own specialties and were selling them from the stoops and front yards. Colorful homemade banners were stretched across the street, attached to houses on opposite sides. Raffles and wheels of chance were in high gear with all the proceeds, as well as the sales of food and drinks, marked for the block association program to plant trees and make general improvements.
But how can this ideal be achieved by advocating a policy where New York City becomes the 51st state? How can it be achieved by advocating a policy of returning power to ‘left-leaning’ and ‘right-leaning’ neighborhoods? What’s the difference between running for Mayor and creating a neighborhood organizing committee, and then seeing where that can take you, if you wanted to take it somewhere?
“This was a campaign composed of gifted amateurs who were full of ideas,” Jamie Malanowski wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2009, “many of them half-baked, about how to win. David Garth and Pat Caddell and Roger Ailes were just inaugurating the era of pollsters, consultants, and media masters; this was one of the last homemade efforts.”
In the face of such an overwhelming tidal wave of data points that have come about as a result — not just because of Garth, Caddell, and Ailes, but the internet, too — how would a homespun, stitch-it-together campaign make do today? Would it look like Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook-heavy campaign? Tom Perrellio’s wonkishness? Should the writer promise a personalized novel to every potential voter?
An argument could be made that a writer in a position to instruct others would be able to help bridge the gap between the implicit, assumed knowledge generated by the implicit, assumed parts of our national narrative and the applicable, learned knowledge of the lived-in social experience, but just as Lynton Crosby’s half-baked race-baiting fantasies would make for a terrible novel, so, too, were Mailer’s more intellectual vagaries not worth an inch of political support.
To split the difference, then, points towards a philosophy of deep exactitude, as well as an effort to help others understand what sort of place exactitude has in the job.
A writer may be full of spirit, may feel like the city they want to represent is also full of spirit and characters-in-waiting for novels yet to come — may even hear the country singing as plainly as Whitman once did — but for any writer to run for office, they’ll have to pursue a certain kind of exactitude as well. When Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow that “if [elected officials] can get you [to ask] the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers,” it seems to follow that this is the spot where a writer — with pages free to them to frame the scene, the character, and each particular reason why each character is where they are at that moment — can then encourage someone in the direction of the right question, the answer set to come.