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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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I’m back at the Renaissance Hotel Bar, where the New York delegation is just now arriving—getting back into gear after their long and boisterous night.
I have an addendum to my account from the previous night: I had thought, at 2:32 AM, that the person who appeared at the aforementioned bar to give a strange, emotional speech was a US senator. I misheard. It was, in fact, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s de-facto chief of staff—a victorious field general descending to thank the candidate’s home-state delegation.
I’ve managed to decipher a few lines of his speech from a terrible video I took:
“Next President!… Hard Work!… When we take the floor!… A day to remember!… 1979!… You fought!”
They stayed out much longer than I did last night, the New York delegation, as well they should’ve, and now they’ve returned again, today, amid the same atmosphere of celebration.
“My friend!” someone at the table shouts to a young man—an operative, based on his badge and slim suit—who’s walking by. “I could really use a floor pass tonight. Come on. Come onnn!”
This young man shrugs. “Hiya, Jimbo,” he says. And then, grinning: “We both know I don’t even work here. And I bet you need a pass for your mother too, am I right?”
“Don’t forget her three sisters,” Jimbo says, “Wouldn’t wanna disappoint them. Oh!”
If you’re part of the New York Republican political machine, tonight is, as they say, a night of nights.
I’m sitting in this crowded bar with my dear, Dan Bejar-loving friend—the one who also happens to work for a prominent Republican governor. He is not an advocate of Donald Trump in any way, to say the least. Also: he’s one of the more rational people I’ve ever met.
Together we’re talking about Richard Nixon’s 1968 convention speech—the Law and Order dousy—by way of Norman Mailer’s Miami and The Siege of Chicago. I have my issue with Mailer, to say the least; he is, in my opinion, an unrelenting misogynist who’s lack of perspective makes most of his books unbearable. BUT. In this case, he really has provided some beautiful insight into Nixon’s speech on a Thursday night in Miami nearly half-a-century ago to the day.
Remember: when the 1968 convention started, it still wasn’t entirely clear that Nixon could would be the nominee, and by the time all that was wrapped up and he stepped forward to deliver his keynote, the pressure was enormous. He had to find a way to connect with Americans in a way he never really had before—to articulate himself emotionally. Mailer writes: “He could hardly be unaware that millions of Independents, some of them young, were also watching. Therefore, he shifted over to the electorate at large.”
Nixon stepped up to the podium and didn’t waste any time. “As we look at America we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home… Did we come all this way for this?”
The picture he pained was immediate and clear: that of a country breaking apart. He appealed to “unheard” voices: “The quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting… voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they’re not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are Black, they are white. They know this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it’s a good place for all of us to live in.”
In other words: a great silent majority—just large enough to get him what he’s always wanted: the presidency.
Mailer’s analysis: “And he went on to call for progress, and reminded everyone that progress depended on order. He was of course in these matters shameless, he had no final passion for the incorruptible integrity of an idea; no: ideas were rather like keys to him on which he might play a teletype to program the American mind. And yet the American mind was scandalously bad—the best education system in the world had produced the most pervasive conditioning of mind in the history of culture just as the greatest medical situation in history might yet produce the worst plagues.”
The coup-de-grace: “It opened the thought that if the Lord Himself wished to save America, who else could he possibly use for an instrument now but Richard Nixon?”
In the Renaissance Hotel Bar, my Republican friend offers his take on the passage you’ve just seen—on the differences between one Richard Milhous Nixon and a certain Donald Trump: “Trump would never be where he’s gotten without the media. You gotta understand that Nixon was the opposite: he became who he was in spite of the media.”
He goes on to explain that Nixon, for all his felonious conduct, had managed over many years to produce substance—a precise political message, however disagreeable, that he’d spent his entire adult life fashioning. The problem was his delivery—his personality. His style. People just didn’t like him. Even if they agreed with what he came to represent.
“On the other hand,” my friend says, “Trump has no substance. He doesn’t really say anything at all. It’s his style that’s carried him this far. From the start he knew exactly how to do what Nixon spent his whole lifetime learning.”
In this light, there’s a final line from Mailer to consider: “And the cheers and applause came, and the band, and Nixon and his family looked happy, and Agnew and his family looked bewildered and happy, and the cheers came down. Not large, not small, cheers for Richard Nixon’s greatest effort in oratory, and a better speech could not have been written by any computer in existence, not even Hal the super-computer in 2001.”
The Renaissance Hotel Bar is filling up with far more Jimbos than I can count. It’s time to head to Quicken arena; once again we’ve gotten passes.
But, three questions:
SAD INTERLUDE: Washington Post Party
We’ll go straight from the notes for this one—otherwise I might say something I regret…
-7:02 PM, bar on 4th St: Who are these people? Donors? Journalists? They look like the wealthy residents of D.C. who complain bitterly about how the new homeless shelter near their U Street walkup is going to depress homeowner values… and my goodness, the bar is packed with them.
-Overheard conversation: “I’d like to introduce you to the Irish Ambassador of the United States.”
-At main table, five campaign beat writers have camped out. One writes for Mother Jones. Another for what she describes, hastily, as “a major media outlet.” She is finishing her story for the day. She says that in her opinion the work is creative, not just journalistic. She says she’s always writing. She says she can write in bars or on private planes. She is very busy, she adds, which is true. She looks past all of us in way that means: “So…”
-Everyone agrees: she’s intolerable. But who isn’t? Go deeper: She represents the great sadness of our modernity—someone who makes herself blank and exhausted on account of the information she’s been tasked with processing…
-No: she actually represents a more important line of defense than any of us here tonight can imagine: if she does her job impeccably she will create a buffer to what’s to come. She can shine a light on what we fail to see! She can show the Republic the real version of itself! And in doing so allow us a chance to move forward.
-No: Seriously, she doesn’t give a fuck. About anything. Look closely: this is a person who has always been the smartest in the room and what has it got her? She wears weariness as a guise. What’s lacking is not intelligence; it’s a soul. And for that matter, who’s to say yours would still be intact, after ten months on the campaign she’s being paid to follow?
Me: “Do you think that the media has the ability to provide a buffer to the sort of candidate who could threaten the fabric of democracy itself?”
Her: “I’m way too tired to answer a question like that…”
Me: “Aren’t we all tired?”
-The Mother Jones reporter answers these questions more directly. He believes in agency. He thinks journalism can make a difference and (implied) stop someone like Trump. My implication?
-Note to self: I’m so very tired of talking about agency. And the ghost of Nixon, for that matter.
* * *
The lobby of the Hyatt Place in Cleveland, Ohio. Filled now with Republican operatives waiting for rides to their flights back to Springfield and Scottsdale and Atlanta and Houston and New York. They’re watching me as I sit at this small table in my big earphones and type loudly. With a few of I make what feels to me like very uncomfortable eye contact. But it doesn’t seem to deter them at all. They grab their bags and head happily to the street. As well they should.
We should probably cut to the chase. The hour, after all, is getting quite late.
To quote Donald Trump, during his speech this evening to accept the Republican Nomination for President of the United States, which I watched from a seat in section 215 of Quicken Loans Arena:
“I have a message for all of you: crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”
“The situation is worse than it has ever been before.”
“There can be no prosperity without law and order.”
“I AM YOUR VOICE!”
Afterward, as the balloons came down and the crowd swooned—genuinely swayed with emotion to the substance of the speech they just heard—I was genuinely astonished at the degree of happiness they all shared. It broke my heart. It still does. It’s been many hours and the feeling of that moment has not dissipated: a sensation of being lost forever in a crowd of people who feel what you never will and as a result will always remain beyond you, circling, while you’re left to deal on some inexplicable level with a sense of distance you never thought possible.
What’s left to say? That miserable beat reporter at the WaPo Party was right. Or not. Either way: Donald Trump stepped to the podium tonight and delivered the exact speech he needed to make. Perhaps it wasn’t of the HAL-9000-caliber. But that’s the point: the gap he desperately needed to address has already been lessened. He played it just right. Nixon-style. My take is he’s about +140: in a clear if slightly disadvantaged position to win the presidency of the United States. The whole convention went off without a hitch. Donald Trump and the Republican Party just held serve without so much as a fault. And now it’s the Democratic Party’s turn. Which means there’s a definite chance we all might be fucked.
At the end of the night, as my friend and I left the arena, the band started playing the Rolling Stones. Suddenly I recognized one of my very favorite songs, one that’s always been dear to me for reasons that have to do with my childhood and personality that we’re not about to get in to now… Regardless: I found myself singing along at the top of my lungs. I ad-libbed. Adding an democracy here, an Agnew in ’76 there. But it didn’t matter much. The Stones to inaugurate our brand new law-and-order candidate! That’s some straight Nixon shit. But I was way too tired to be surprised at being surprised. If I’d learned anything, it was to stop thinking and sing. As loud as I possibly could.
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
BUT IF YOU TRY SOMETIMES
YOU JUST MIGHT FIND
YOU GET WHAT YOU NEED
YEAAAAAAAAH. AMERICA! YOU GET WHAT YOU NEED!