Today, voters in New York City can cast ballots in a mayoral primary that, for the most part, features rather lackluster candidates. Forty-four years ago, they could have voted for novelist Norman Mailer, "perhaps the greatest writer since Winston Churchill to seek elective office," as The New York Times described his 1969 quixotic quest for City Hall.
The issues of our day include bike lanes and taxes. Mailer — who had become famous for The Naked and the Dead, the closest he would come to writing the Great American Novel — wanted nothing less than for New York to become its own state, and by doing so, "to thrive again," as Mailer intoned as he announced his run at the Overseas Press Club in Manhattan. "We want New York to be a city famous around the world again for the charm, ferocity, elegance, strength, calm and racy character of our separate neighborhoods."
The "we" refers to Mailer's running partner, hard-boiled tabloid columnist Jimmy Breslin, who was seeking the City Council presidency. (Breslin was already a well-known city figure then, but he would become much more so eight years later, when he would famously correspond with the so-called Son of Sam serial killer in the pages of the New York Daily News.)
Their campaign slogan was simple and succinct: "No More Bullshit." Their vision was romantic, hopeful, and somewhat bizarre. As he would say at the Village Gate, "I’m running on a platform of ‘Free Huey Newton and floridation.' We’ll have compulsory free love in those neighborhoods that vote for it, and compulsory attendance in church on Sunday in those that vote for that.” It's not exactly clear how Mailer planned to achieve that vision.
Today, the demons in candidates' closets are relatively tame: Anthony Weiner's lewd messages, Christine Quinn's support of a third term for Mayor Bloomberg. Mailer, on the other hand, had stabbed his wife in the breast during a drunken brawl. She, for her part, had allegedly taunted him with "Come on, you little faggot, where’s your cojones.”
And criticism of fellow candidates in 2013 is relatively gentle. No so in Mailer's time: his running-mate Breslin taunted Mayor John Lindsay by saying, "If you give the Honorable John two more years, there be only two things left standing in New York — a photographer and the Honorable John, posing for pictures with his hair blowing in the wind."
Mailer finished fourth out of five in the Democratic field, while Breslin was near the bottom of his City Council race, too. As Mailer would later tell New York magazine, "For me, it was a religious venture. I thought God had chosen me because I had been a bad man, and I was going to pay for my sins by winning and never having an easy moment ever again."
Lindsay would indeed win the mayoralty again, and New York City was rocked by arson, crime and blight in the ensuing decades. It is a descent that Mailer watched from his Brooklyn Heights townhouse, never to enter electoral politics again.
(Photo of Mailer campaigning: Associated Press)