The Mailer Review/Volume 13, 2019/Mailer and Thompson on the Campaign Trail, 1972

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 13 Number 1 • 2019 »
Written by
Jason Mosser
Abstract: In his 1973 manifesto on New Journalism, Tom Wolfe wrote that for the literary journalists of his era, “the basic reporting unit was no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene,” the zeitgeist of an event. As early as 1960 when Mailer covered the Democratic convention, he invited readers to think about a presidential convention without getting bogged down in “housing projects of fact and issue.” Mailer was nevertheless scrupulous in the reporting of facts, inviting comparisons between his reporting of political campaigns with the reporting of Hunter Thompson.

Both Norman Mailer’s St. George and the Godfather (1972) and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, ’72 (1973) deal with the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential race. As a way of situating St. George and Campaign Trail in their aesthetic, cultural, and historical contexts, I want to appropriate Kenneth Burke’s history-as-drama metaphor. To Burke, the terms dramatic and dialectic are closely related, for history, as he explains in The Philosophy of Literary Form, “is a ‘dramatic’ process, involving dialectical oppositions.”[1] In 1972, rival political interests, Democrats and Republicans, as well as their presidential nominees, Richard Nixon and George McGovern, assumed that the roles of antagonists and protagonists engaged in an ideological conflict between the dominant, pro-war establishment culture and an emergent, anti-war counterculture. Burke argues that, “human affairs being dramatic, the discussion of human affairs [as in campaign journalism] becomes dramatic criticism,” a rhetorical act.[2] Sometimes, however, what promises at first to be a dramatically charged event, like a political campaign, can fail to live up to the participants’ expectations, and such was the case with the major parties’ conventions in 1972. As literary journalists, then, each the central character and shaping consciousness of his own narrative, Mailer and Thompson adopted their own characteristic strategies to meet the challenge of creating compelling narratives in the relative absence of real-life drama.

Especially compared to 1968 Democratic convention, which both Mailer and Thompson attended, the 1972 conventions were uneventful. Mailer had begun covering presidential campaigns with the Democratic convention in 1960, which resulted in his groundbreaking journalistic essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” (originally titled “Superman Comes to the Supermart”). Four years later, during the Republican campaign in 1964, he followed with “In the Red Light” about the Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater. In the following years the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement further divided the country while millions of white, middle class kids were tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. Mailer biographer J. Michael Lennon records that, in the summer of 1968, Mailer believed that “the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon”;[3] thus, the campaigns gave promise of drama on an historic scale. While the Republicans were all but certain to support a Nixon candidacy, the Democrats were divided over the pro- and anti-war forces within the party and were reeling from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. while Mayor Daley’s police and National Guard brutalized protestors in the streets. As a witness to the scene, Mailer described the Democratic convention as “martial, dramatic, bloody, vainglorious, riotous, noble, tragic, corrupt, vicious, vomitous, appalling, [and] cataclysmic.”[4] In the aftermath of both conventions that year, Mailer, writing at characteristically breakneck speed, responded with a ground-breaking book-length report, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968).

. . .


  1. Burke 1969, p. 109.
  2. Burke 1969, p. 116.
  3. Lennon 2013, p. 405.
  4. Mailer 1968, p. 3.

Works Cited

  • Burke, Kenneth (1969). A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press.
  • Lennon, J. Michael (2013). Norman Mailer: A Double Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Mailer, Norman (1968). Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the American Political Conventions of 1968. New American Library.