Speaking Volumes: The Presidential Papers

August 18, 1995

Peter Stead on Norman Mailer's The Presidential Papers.

In 1965 I laid out six shillings for a Corgi paperback that was to determine the chief fascination of my professional life. It was a volume of essays, described on the cover as "The Presidential Papers of Norman Mailer".

To my delight I was beginning to find during my sixth-form years that all those qualities of wit, vitality, style and danger that I loved in the movies were also to be found in the prose of American novelists, crime writers and sports journalists. But even as I was seduced by their writing I was troubled by my failure to comprehend that mix of energy and anxiety, of opportunity and denial, that characterised the culture and which so obviously gave my favourite films and books their edge.

Mailer was wholly convincing on the two Americas, the beautiful and the ugly, the positive and the negative, and immediately I shared his conviction that it was his duty to remind not only politicians but also actors, sporting heroes and other writers of precisely which cultural energies they were releasing. President Kennedy was already dead but Mailer now told us that he had written his essays between 1960 and 1962 in the hope of explaining to the young president the opportunity he had been given to lead his country out of the paralysing gridlock of the Cold War.

In postwar Paris Mailer had seen French intellectuals arming themselves philosophically for a new age of unprecedented freedom and yet back in America he found almost half the nation recoiling from that same opportunity. For the young novelist "the excessive hysteria of the Red Wave was no preparation to face an enemy but rather a terror of the national self" and in the Eisenhower era it was "the needs of the timid, the petrified, the sanctimonious and the sluggish" that had ensured "a totalitarianisation of the psyche".

From the start Mailer had doubts about Kennedy but nevertheless he was intrigued by the way in which the 1960 election appeared to allow the nation to "engage the fate of its myth"' by opting for a candidate "as handsome as a prince in the unstated aristocracy of the American dream". His writing of Kennedy embellishes the myth extravagantly but it is also clinically precise and Mailer brilliantly captures the intelligence, economy and style that was the true essence of the man's appeal. He noted his "cool grace", "his manner which was somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing" and his young professor's demeanour which sometimes suggested that his "mind was off in the intricacy of the PhD thesis he was writing". He resembled an actor, "a good actor but not a great one", for like Gregory Peck he seemed "a touch too aloof for the part".

Mailer was writing about a specific election, but what survives in his reporting is a magnificent exploration of the way in which politicians can both give expression to and lay claim to whole constituencies within the culture. Mailer's argument is that it is up to politicians to claim what space they will. It struck him that in Europe politics was too crowded so "trench warfare" resulted, whereas in America "no man's land predominates" and wide spaces were there to be claimed. I suspect that in the Britain of the 1990s there is a little more space than hitherto. I heartily recommend The Presidential Papers to Tony Blair.

Peter Stead is senior lecturer in history at the University of Wales Swansea.

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