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November 16, 2007

Norman Mailer, Don't Rest in Peace – Part 2

Roy Meachum

No news was happening that Saturday, October 22, 1967. So I wandered away from the camera crew, looking for anything to add to the March on the Pentagon story. That's how I happened to be inside the building when the well-publicized face appeared between a pair of buttoned up suit jackets.

From a short distance Norman Mailer appeared confused by what was going on around him. But he was almost obsequiously polite to the U.S. Marshals in their suits, as they placed him aboard a waiting vehicle that whisked him off to federal jail.

At the instant, the car drove away, on what could have been taken as a signal, the noise from the River Front's lawn erupted. How many I don't know, but apparently the whole marching gang made banshee noises with their throats.

I broke and ran to rejoin my crew, ensconced on a truck bed in front of the raging mob. I didn't quite get through. A thoroughly rattled young man, his jaw hard-set beneath his helmet commanded: "Halt!" I stopped instantly.

While the soldier apparently tried to think what he should do next and I froze, 82nd Airborne paratroopers filed, at the double, out of the building and confronted the crusaders.

The moment passed with minor injuries. Volunteer ambulance crews with the protestors took their own away. The Army, particularly my captor, let up on their tension. I hurried to find my crew in good shape.

The Washington Post television station broadcast film that night, which I narrated, from notes and other people's stories. I was under temporary custody by the soldier when the charge happened.

The next morning when the crew and I returned, the Pentagon lawn looked like the morning after a great blowout. Among the litter, here and there, lingered pockets of protesters.

As the afternoon wore on the people vanished in dribs and drabs. We had a story for the early evening news. Then it was over.

I saw the newly deceased author that single time. As you know, he went on to win a Pulitzer for his book the following year stemming from that day's events. New York Times' critic Alfred Kazin obliged with a powerful endorsement. It also won the National Book Award.

Literary friends told me of Mr. Mailer's great reach, encompassing into that single volume all the anguish and uncertainty, the arrogance and blindness that accompanies any war.

But that war was chiefly different because of the scope of the protests. Mr. Lincoln threw dissidents in jail. Not Woodrow Wilson, but after World War I, Attorney General Alexander Palmer launched "witch hunts" that imprisoned suspects that could not be deported. Franklin Roosevelt permitted Japanese Americans to be thrown into "concentration camps."

While subjected to cruel and unusual insults, Lyndon Baines Johnson allowed FBI Director Herbert Hoover only to monitor groups and individuals hostile to the events in Southeast Asia. There were no wholesale arrests to match Mr. Lincoln's, Mr. Wilson's nor Mr. Roosevelt's.

The recently departed was a great writer, others have convinced me. But truth was the essential fact missing from Mr. Mailer's prize-wining tome. I was there and he was not, but away in an alcoholic stupor, which I witnessed.

For a journalist to pretend presence at an event he reports on is both dishonest and unethical. A novelist pretending to be a journalist is even more dishonest.

But perusing the author's personal history reveals a glaring lack of ethics, which some might say was justified by his considerable talents. I am not among them.

Norman Kingsley Mailer continuously sought to disrupt the lives of other human beings, not excluding his wives' and children’s. He deserves no wishes for his personal peace in the afterlife.

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