I’m no policy wonk on Russia and neither was Norman Mailer. But the crisis in the Ukraine and an article in today’s New York Times about the impact of thinning ranks of Russia experts on U.S. policy reminded me of remarks Mailer once made about the former Soviet Union, as though he were an expert. It was back in 1984 and Mailer had come to Chicago. He looked at 61 not unlike a retired seadog, although there was nothing retiring about him. What hadn’t changed with age was his provocative charm. Although he was there to promote a new novel, he preferred chatting informally to engaging in a literary interview. And so, over a light lunch in his suite at the Whitehall Hotel, he unburdened himself of some striking opinions about little things like war and peace; the U.S. presidential election, which was just eight weeks away; the Soviet Union, which still existed at the time; communism vs. capitalism; and whatever else came to mind.
As we spoke I told him I detected a bit of the South in his Brooklyn accent. He explained that he had been “in a Texas outfit” during World War II and that he had been married to two women from the South. “I’m a chameleon,” he told me. “I sometimes think that if I hadn’t been so shy when I was a kid, I would have been an actor because I’ve always been an unconscious mimic. I take on the color of the person I’m with.”
Which prompted me to ask whether that reflected a problem he had with his identity. Naturally, he enlarged the question in his reply: “Identity is such a 20th century demand. In the 19th century, and certainly before then, most people lived at so submerged a level that the question of identity never existed. They didn’t think of themselves as having a personality or even a face. They were farm people. They worked like animals, not to mock them. Now you’re your own definition of yourself.”
I said popularity rather than childhood shyness could make someone want to change skin: When rock stars become rich and famous, they often complain of going through an identity crisis. People treat them differently, and they become different. Mailer riposted by citing a famous line of Engels’ that “quantity changes quality,” adding, “Here’s a kid who’s playing a guitar and now you add $1 million to the kid and the guitar. You do not have the same kid.”
The subject interested him: “Take a beautiful woman and add a beautiful dress. We say, ‘You sure look beautiful in that dress.’ The blacks have the idea that the dress also has a soul because it’s so beautiful. And the soul of the dress is added to the soul of the woman. When a woman dresses up, she’s no longer the same woman. When I’m dressed up, I no longer feel like the same man. I feel like I have a different personality.”
I changed the subject to politics. Since it was an election year, and Ronald Reagan was running for a second term, Mailer had been going around saying he believed that Clint Eastwood could be president. When I asked him why, he jumped into the question as though I’d asked him to do a swan dive from a three-meter platform. He was more than eager to perform.
“I have a dream that four years from now, in 1988, I want to see Warren Beatty run against Clint Eastwood. I want to cut out the crap. We’re going for image in the presidency, so let’s have real image. Let’s have a real election. That’s a real election in my mind. You want to elect a woman? Let’s have Meryl Streep against Jessica Lange. Let’s have real shootouts. That’s a hard choice. Either one could win, and I’d be a lot happier than I am right now.”
I wondered whether he was saying that for effect. He wasn’t: “I would argue that the jump in going from a standard politician to president is a greater jump psychologically and spiritually for this country than from Ronald Reagan to Clint Eastwood. Reagan, who had political experience, is still seen in everyone’s mind as an actor. You don’t have to become governor any more. If you put in the work, you can skip that. You can sound as intelligent as the next guy in a debate. And any actor can do that because it’s a matter of learning lines, learning set speeches with small variations. Anybody who has been an actor for 20 years can learn a speech in a hurry.”
The question of substance snuck into our conversation. The U.S. was in a standoff with the Soviet Union at the time. Mailer didn’t believe it would come to anything. “Neither country has the ability to defeat the other country in a nuclear war without destroying the world,” he said. I remarked that that was the conventional wisdom. So Mailer got down to specifics.
“The Russians have about twice as many tanks as we do. The reason is that they have a real third-world army. When one of their tanks breaks down, they just leave it by the side of the road. They cannibalize their tanks. They can’t get enough spare parts. They can’t get a system going in any comprehensive fashion. If you go to the Soviet Union, you’ll believe this. I mean, when you can’t get decent toilet paper, when you can’t get decent ice cream, when you can’t get decent towels and sheets, when the food has a certain awfulness –” I broke in for the sake of argument to say he was telling me that when you can’t make good ice cream it means you can’t make good tanks?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Because there’s a culture to production. And if you can’t do simple things, why assume you can do complex things well? Each set of generals on both sides talks about how marvelous the other side’s army is, and what a threat the other army is.” The implication, of course, was that having a solid threat helps to raise military budgets. I pointed out that expensive American high-tech weapons systems may not perform in the field as well as claimed. Perhaps simplicity was advantageous.
Mailer didn’t quite agree: “Our systems may be half-gone, but theirs never existed. They do have simple systems. Force majeure. We still have the vanity that we can handle complex systems. They know they can’t. But their simple systems are as inefficient as our complex systems. What a marvelous symbiotic relationship!
“I really think the argument with the right wingers is the ‘horseshit’ argument. I say, ‘Why did we have to go to Grenada?’ They say, ‘To defend the Caribbean against communism.’ I say, ‘Why defend it against communism?’ They say, ‘What? Mexico will go communist.’ So I say, ‘What are they going to do, invade us?’ So they say, ‘No. But there will be an awful lot of wetbacks.’ That’s the argument they’re reduced to. We’ll have this infusion of wetbacks because all of Central America will go communist. Why should we care if they go communist? The more countries that go communist, the more trouble the Soviet Union is in. It can’t handle complexity.”
Did that mean he wished communism on them? “They wouldn’t be living any worse under communism in those countries than they’re living under capitalism,” he said. “It’s monstrous there. Even Mexico is a horrible place. They’ll be miserable under communism. They’re miserable under capitalism. Why should capitalism bear the onus?”
Mailer’s reply was peculiar. I said it made him sound like he was defending capitalism. In reply, he began singing, “I serve the Lord and the Lord serves me.” So he was for saving the capitalist system? “That’s a switch,” I said. Mailer did not want to be put in a corner. “I find capitalism a very interesting system,” he said. “I can’t pretend that I love it. On the other hand, I don’t really have a feeling in any way that government control from the top is going to work any better.”
That answer didn’t seem to satisfy him. Capitalism was hardly an antidote to government control from the top. After a pause, he said, “Capitalism is a very ‘iffy’ kind of system because, when it deteriorates, it always deteriorates into fascism. After all, capitalism is the government of the greedy. But if you have enough freedoms built into it and maintained and fought for, the greedy, like anyone else, can improve and can discover a civic purpose. One of the beliefs that I have is that the people in any system can get better. Khrushchev, for example, was a phenomenon after Stalin. Everyone believed that after Stalinism the Soviet Union was going to be a land of terror. And Khrushchev, who’d been the butcher of the Ukraine, became a better man. Even monsters can become human.”
I told him he sounded “a little dreamy.” Did he mean to say that the world would work if everybody gets a bit better? More than dreamy, he sounded optimistic, even utopian. “Yeah,” he agreed, “I guess when you get older you get less pessimistic. I have so many children” – Mailer was the father of nine – “there’s no joy in being pessimistic. It lays a gloom on my kids and a gloom back on me and all of that. But optimism-pessimism? That has more to do with one’s liver than with anything else. I don’t take optimism or pessimism seriously. I’m always embarrassed when a questioner asks me, ‘Are you more optimistic today?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I had a very good meal last night.’ Or, ‘I didn’t drink too much.’
“But,’ he added, “that’s not the point. The point is that we’ve been running a neat little religious war for a lot of profiteers in this country. And that war has been anti-communist. Our system goes through a lot of fluctuations, and there are a lot of ways it works in an appalling fashion. Nonetheless, we certainly are in healthier economic shape than communist countries. And they’re not going to take us over. They simply are not.
“The entire world can be communist, and they would have to do business with us. All the communist countries would be vying with each other to have a special relationship with us. The threat that they will take us over is used to Mickey Mouse us. It enables the Right to keep control they don’t deserve.”
So much has changed since that interview — not only in the new Russia where Putin’s iron-fisted nostalgia for the former Soviet Union has scared the shit out of everyone, but also in the new China, where a top-down communist system controls an economy predicted to surpass the U.S. by 2030, and in the new U.S., where a so-called leftwing president is joined at the gun-toting hip with his rightwing predecessor — that Mailer’s take on specific political matters, if not his more general views, is now outdated. Can’t be helped, but what the hell . . . substitute “the war on terrorism” for the war on communism and he’s back in the picture.