The Writer and The Candidate

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Almost two years have passed since I became eligible to assume citizenship of the United States, and I remain tempted to renounce my oh-so-glamorous position as an obscure English expatriate writer surrounded by the Martian wilderness of New Mexico to become an obscure American writer in roughly the same spot. Naturally, I want to gain and use my vote in the country where I live, but there is more to do, as some of my favorite writers remind me: some future evening, after a drink too many, I might resolve to do a Mailer, a Thompson, or a Vidal and run for some kind of office, Mayor, Sheriff, or Congress. Therefore, I find myself examining the strategic and counter-strategic plots of my betters in American literature to discover where I might inveigle myself. thompson-for-sheriff

There are numerous examples of writers seeking office in American life, most of them object lessons in failure, and it may be that there is a direct correlation between the quality of one’s work as a writer and the chances of success. The greatest reputations in prose regularly fall short in politics. Thus far, without any reputation to speak of, I chalk up an early advantage. Studying the form, there is also an inverse phenomenon: even the most mediocre politicians move easily from office to prose. This was noticeable in England where Tory monsters like Jeffrey Archer and Edwina Currie fed their potboilers to a greedy conservative readership. While I am relatively new to the American equivalent, I must confess that nothing in Ralph Reed’s oeuvre really appeals to me. Still, perhaps it is better than the notorious work of one-term North Carolinian assemblyman Thomas The Clansman Dixon Jr. Imagine that, short-term politicians and failed candidates turning to writing today, the very thought!

It strikes me that writers seek office, and politicians seek the airport bestseller list, for the same reason: each sees in the other an inferior demimonde to be conquered. Each envies what he perceives as a frisson of sex and risk in the other realm. The writer aspires to office to stick it to the anti-intellectuals. The politician aspires to fiction to stick it to the intellectuals. It’s an old-fashioned hate-fuck. Had he succeeded in his mayoral campaign and managed to have New York City secede from New York State in 1969, no one could pretend, surely, that Norman Mailer would not have outdone Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton combined. Mailer’s response was an astounding performance in his own 1970 gonzo feature film Maidstone. It was, in condescending to everything worth condescending to in political showbiz, Mailer’s attempt to redress the failure of his intellect and the blow to his ego, by saying: well, naturally, I understand the nature of power too well to be electable.

The campaigns of Hunter S. Thompson and say, Kinky Friedman, also, were similarly lifted and dogged by the limits of freak-power, although Thompson came close. I remember being in Austin, Texas, and watching Friedman’s 2006 “Why The Hell Not?” campaign unraveling, caught between pure novelty and moments of hope when it was momentarily possible to superimpose the anti-Rick Perry contingent of Austin over the rest of the state, a great delusion if ever there was one, but pleasurable while it lasted. It’s too easy to label these as quixotic. Where Hunter S. Thompson might have looked to an ether binge in a crisis, Rick Perry has binged once too often on the ethereal, and neither ever did well on television.

GV_JFK_t700For a time, Gore Vidal represented the patrician wing of writers seeking office. Vidal possessed glamorous genes through the clans of Kennedy, Carter, and distantly, Al Gore. Vidal smudged the line between raconteur and traitor, and America hates nothing so much as a raconteur (But, what of Oscar Wilde, and his triumph over the coal miners of Leadville? Well, coal mining ain’t what it used to be). One of my earliest recollections of seeing Vidal on television, after reading some of his books, was his lecture on the BBC’s The Late Show where he presented the corporate-political conspiracy to maintain perpetual war, the “Enemy of the Month Club”, as he referred to it. He also described the United States army as being “the fattest in the world.” It must have been 1991. Vidal’s political disappointments, like his feud-partner Mailer, found a kind of moral redress in Tim Robbins’ 1992 electoral satire Bob Roberts. Ironically, Vidal’s character, Senator Brickley Paiste, is cheated out of the presidency. I wonder if Vidal ever discussed this with cousin Gore?

Mailer said that novelists take more punishment than prizefighters. Okay, but I suspect that it was Ali’s stinging right hand that hurt more than his floating bee similes. In fairness to his intent, Mailer meant that the novelist will endure greater, more personal insults for as long as the literary critic, gossip columnist or cultural commentator occupies a more revered position in American life than the boxing commentator. The difference between the writer and the candidate is that when the novelist examines his bruises, he possesses some sense of where they came from, even what he might have done to deserve them, or avoid them; whereas the candidate – increasingly dependent upon an atrophied conscience – usually tries not to acknowledge the blow has even been struck.

Admittedly, the difference has narrowed. Increasing self-consciousness among candidates and their agents of the performance aspects of politics has changed the relationship between the politician and the media to the point that it closely resembles the alternately antagonistic and flattering relationship between performer and critic. Aesthetics have replaced ethics.  The televised mea culpa is part of this. Yet, the difference remains sufficient that when a politician starts writing novels, you know that the bruises have disturbed their vanity at last, and they have one eye on their exit. Writers still possess more conscience than candidates, generally too much to admit them. While conscience holds, I may become a citizen, but never a candidate.

 

- James Reich is the author of Bombshell: A Novel (Soft Skull Press, 2013) and I, Judas: A Novel (Soft Skull Press, 2011). He is a contributing faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.