Jimmy Breslin on Norman Mailer for Mayor: 'That bum is serious!'
The Mailer-Breslin Ticket: Vote the Rascals In
by Joe Flaherty
I approached the making of the Mailer, 1969, with dubious thoughts. Like many others I was invited to Mailer's home about three weeks ago to discuss his candidacy. My first reservation was that I believed that John Lindsay was a good mayor in a beleaguered time and he deserved my support. Second, the idea of being close to the Mailer campaign was too tempting to me as a writer. The second doubt was magnified when I arrived at Mailer's house and found a number of other writers, including myself, taking notes, all having purple wet dreams about next year's National Book Award for Arts and Letters.
And the evening itself -- besides the guest list -- wasn't very impressive. Like all such evenings attended by polemicists, it resembled the building of the Tower of Babel. Right winger Noel Parmenter wanted Mailer to run alone on the ticket; others wanted him to run with Jimmy Breslin in an attempt to appeal to the working class. Another group was pushing or a Black Panther for comptroller, and still another wanted a woman on the ticket to run on the platform of female rights. Along about now I was wishing that Carmine DeSapio would enter the room and restore some decent totalitarian clubhouse order.
Besides all this, the evening was taking on a carnival atmosphere. Ice cubes were tinkling in glasses like the Bells of St. Mary's and the ideas being put forth were getting more bizarre with every chime. Mailer finally took the floor, presenting a surrealistic platform with his baroque pointing and jabbing, Jimmy Cagney style. His running mate, Jimmy Breslin, sat in a chair, growling his ideas on the issues: "When we get on tv with them, we'll just tell them they're full of shit" and "fuck them and their Mickey Mouse issues -- the city is lost" and "I wouldn't even let Norman debate those fuckin' bandits; he'd get arrested for consorting." By now my notes resembled passages from "Finnigans Wake."
When the meeting began to break up, Mailer realized it hadn't gone well. He gathered a handful of us at the door and said he wanted to met again in a week when he returned from Provincetown to discuss the race seriously. He said he was well aware of the tragic problems of the city and said any idea of a "campy or college boy prank" of a campaign was personally disgusting to him. We would meet again in a small group and discuss the campaign in depth. For the first time that evening I was moved. I left with Breslin, Pete Hamill, and John Scanlon. Breslin, walking toward the St. George Hotel to hail a cab to Queens, turned to us and shouted into the Brooklyn night: "You know something? That bum is serious!"
About 10 days later we were called to a meeting at Gloria Steinem's house at 11 a.m. on a Sunday. Finding 11 a.m. a difficult time to get any part of me up, never mind my whole body, I arrived a half hour late. Mailer, sitting in a chair looking rested and slimmer, looked at me and said: "You're a half hour late. In the future, let's see if we all can make meetings on time." Breslin's parting remark echoed in my mind.
We began to relegate duties. Jack Newfield and Paul Gorman were to search out interest among the kids who worked for Kennedy and McCarthy. Alice Krakauer was to handle press, a duty she performed for McCarthy. Gloria Steinem would entice talent into the campaign. Joe Ferris, a bright young urbanist, became our one-man "think-tank." Peter Maas would present political papers and, since I had some organizational experience during the Lindsay campaign, I was designated campaign manager. After years of handling such losers as the Civilian Review Board and local reform insurgents who usually garnered 11 votes, I was impressed. Never before did I have a chance to manage such a property, but I wasn't convinced yet.
Then came Robert F. Wagner and I sensed a great gamble in the air of New York. Staid liberals started to develop an aura of fuck-youism. But the convincer was Mailer himself. He began to study the problems of the city in earnest. We held sessions on housing, unemployment, air pollution, and finance with experts in these fields. As impressive as they were with their figures, their solutions were nowhere as imaginative as those of the candidate himself.
The common ground we all agreed upon was community control. I always thought the city's best neighborhoods were the ones that controlled their own lives through block associations, strong local school boards, and planning boards. We now began to take the idea further. Mailer stressed the idea that if we believed in such controls it would have to apply to all neighborhoods -- both left and right. Harlem and Staten Island, under Mailer's mayoralty, would have the right to their own life styles. We could now have communities that honored Malcolm X and John Birch on their birthdays.
Mailer and Breslin formulated an initial three-point platform. New York City was to become a city-state ("because the federal government and the farmers in Albany have no right dictating our life styles.") Harlem and Bed-Stuy would be given the right to vote on referenda declaring themselves separate townships, and complete community control would be instituted throughout the boroughs. As radical as the program sounded, it made complete sense to me, and I also realized there wasn't a politician in New York who would dare run on such ideas. Mailer was now my man.
After two years of working for a city agency (HRA) I firmly believed super-agencies were a flop. Besides the fact that a great deal of poverty money went to exorbitant salaries, the programs they fostered were disasters. The people themselves never had a chance at curing their own plight. The liberal establishment became caterers to the poor. They knew what was best. As Mailer said: "If I were black I would find it my duty to steal from the federal government." But he added: "A man is more apt to steal from an abstraction than from neighbors." Breslin, with his usual economy, said: "All we managed to do was make a mess out of their lives. Let them handle it themselves."
Besides this, I felt the old style New Deal programs gave the blacks and Puerto Ricans a built-in excuse not to excel. It's too easy to blame the federal government, City Hall, the establishment, for lack of progress. With control of their own lives they would either bring a renaissance in America life, or end up like the rest of us -- mediocrities with a great deal of shit in our blood. The choice would be theirs and the liberals for once could stop going through life breast-beating mea culpas.
But the thing that intrigued me about Mailer was that he carried the idea of community control to its smallest unit -- man itself. When someone suggested the idea of replacing the water in toilets with chemicals to remove the waste, Mailer refused, noting that mans is losing contact with himself and "should be able to smell his own shit." Programs for the poor were repugnant to him because they place man in slots negating his chance: "to forge the destiny of his soul." In short, he is still naive enough to think our soul possesses the grace to manage our own lives.
And any candidate who believes that the act of love still can produce a noble result should be given high preference over those who collectively view us as: the middle class, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the establishment. So individually every New Yorker has a chance at a magnificent gamble.
Let's throw out the dull caterers and vote the rascals in.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]