LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The announcement of Donald Trump's running mate is just one more step toward the biggest political performances of the season. The GOP convention begins next week in Cleveland, followed by the Democrats, who'll be heading to Philadelphia the following week. The conventions come after an extraordinary political season that may have left you wondering what is going to happen. We would like to help, and we recommend homework.
We've invited Thomas Mallon here. He's a critic and essayist, not to mention the author of many historical novels, including a trilogy about Republican presidents. He's going to help you with some recommendations for your convention consumption. Tom, welcome.
THOMAS MALLON: Thanks for having me.
WERTHEIMER: How did you approach this assignment? I mean, what do you think is useful to think about going into conventions?
MALLON: I went back to some of the books that I've read over the years. I would say the top spots for convention writing really belong more to nonfiction than they do to fiction. There's been some tremendous reporting that's come out of conventions over the years. You know, I went back to one book that I had read several years ago about the time a badly divided Republican Party met to nominate an outsider businessman. And that would have been not 2016 but 1940, when the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie.
WERTHEIMER: Wendell Willkie, yeah.
MALLON: And there's a book called "Five Days In Philadelphia," an excellent book by the longtime journalist Charles Peters. And its subtitle is "Wendell Willkie, FDR And The 1940 Convention That Saved The Western World." Willkie was an internationalist, and he was battling the America First isolationist wing of the Republican Party. It took a lot to get him the nomination. His main opponents were Robert Taft and the very young 38-year-old Thomas E. Dewey. And he managed to beat both of them. And the convention was...
WERTHEIMER: Willkie did, that is.
MALLON: Willkie did. And there was tremendous drama. There were multiple ballots, and there were great speeches and great demonstrations on the floor and in the gallery and a couple of really notable pieces of oratory that Peters reproduces.
WERTHEIMER: Do you want to read something from that?
MALLON: This is after Taft has been put in nomination.
(Reading) After Taft seconders had their say, Charles Halleck stepped to the microphone to nominate Wendell Willkie. Halleck took on the main charge against Willkie, that he was not a lifelong Republican, by asking, is the Republican Party a closed corporation? Do you have to be born into it? One answer to this question had been given earlier by James E. Watson, a former Senate majority leader. Quote, "you know that back home in Indiana, we think it's all right for the town whore to join the church, but we don't let her lead the choir on the first night."
MALLON: (Reading) That was certainly the way Taft and Dewey delegates felt. They frequently interrupted Halleck's speech with boos that competed with applause from Willkie delegates and cheers from the gallery.
So it was dramatic and spirited, and Willkie was a fascinating candidate.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things I've been hearing people talk about is 1968, comparing the discomfort that people are feeling now with politics and with civil unrest and whatnot. I understand you can offer us a little bit of 1968, a view of 1968, maybe a little context.
MALLON: Well, it was a tormented year, somewhat like the current one. It had been a year of riots and assassinations. Martin Luther King had been killed. Robert Kennedy had been killed. Richard Nixon was looking like the candidate of stability. The Democrats were left with Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as their nominee.
And so the great drama in the Democratic convention was not in the hall, where it was pretty much known Humphrey would carry the day, but out on the streets where there was what was later officially deemed a police riot that took place. And the Chicago police savagely clubbed a lot of the demonstrators who were there. And Senator Ribicoff of Connecticut famously said, pointing at Mayor Daley, that we were seeing Gestapo tactics in the street of Chicago.
But one thing I think it did was it, in conjunction with Nixon's convention in Miami, which was a much more peaceable affair, it produced what I think is the greatest piece of convention writing ever, which is Norman Mailer's book "Miami And The Siege Of Chicago," which is about the two conventions in '68. The lion's share of the book is certainly about the Democrats.
And its high point is when Mailer, in the new budding traditions of the new journalism, becomes a participant as well as a chronicler and he addresses the demonstrators. And Mailer, I really think, was the indispensable man for those conventions, the same way he'd been for the demonstration against the Pentagon the year before and the only major American writer really to take on the moon landing the following year in a book called "Of A Fire On The Moon." All three of the books are Mailer at his absolute peak.
WERTHEIMER: Now, you're a historical novelist. You do have a play to recommend, right?
MALLON: I do. Gore Vidal's play "The Best Man" ran in 1960, and it was turned into a movie in 1964. The lead characters were played by Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. And it's very interesting in Vidal's usual way. When you read it now or you watch it now, it seems to point both backwards and forwards. There's a bit of a roman a clef aspect to it. The Russell character has a lot to do probably with Adlai Stevenson. But when you watch Henry Fonda playing candidate William Russell, your mind is likely to go forward from 1960 rather than backward. In Russell, you'll see the "Hamlet" candidates of the future - Gene McCarthy of 1968, Mario Cuomo of the early '80s; principled but not quite sure how to move ahead.
The antagonist is a fellow named Joe Cantwell who has more of Richard Nixon probably in him than anybody else, although it is a Democratic convention in Philadelphia that the play is about. There's a former president who seems closer to Harry Truman than just about anybody with a little bit of John Nance Garner, Roosevelt's Texas vice president, thrown in.
WERTHEIMER: Let's play a clip of Lee Tracy, who plays the former president. This is where he urges Henry Fonda to employ any means necessary to win the Democratic nomination.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BEST MAN")
LEE TRACY: (As President Art Hockstader) Power is not a toy that we give to good children. It's a weapon. And a strong man takes it and he uses it. And if you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the broil with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in this big league because if you don't fight, this job is not for you.
WERTHEIMER: So do you reckon anything like that is going to happen backstage at the conventions this year?
MALLON: I would suspect a lot worse than that will be happening backstage.
WERTHEIMER: We do have one more good idea to offer you. Thomas Mallon's most recent novel, "Finale: A Novel Of The Reagan Years," is coming out in paperback this summer, so look for that. Tom Mallon, thank you very much for coming in.
MALLON: Thanks for having me.
WERTHEIMER: On Weekend Edition Sunday, we'll have the latest on convention preparation from Rachel Martin. She's in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.