It is continually amazing to me to see the wide breadth of artists, writers, actors, musicians, etc., who end up sitting across from Charlie Rose. Charlie can be downright thick at times, and from time to time churlish and obnoxious. The obnoxious Charlie Rose interrupts his guests to launch off into a comment or a tale about his own thoughts and experiences, and the thick Charlie Rose will stare uncomprehendingly, literally slack-jawed, at the interviewee, who has just made a profound or penetrating comment. The effect usually is that Charlie looks like he's struggling to figure out what the hell is going on on his own show.
An example of Charlie Rose in action:
Now, clearly, Mailer is thinking critically and analytically, rather than in manichian oppositions such as 'noble America' vs. 'ignoble America'. He signals just how complex his analysis is when he deftly sidesteps Charlie's schoolboy cliche by asserting that is it not America that is 'noble' but democracy, thereby putting his wrinkled finger squarely on the point he is trying to make: in our arrogance Americans have lost track of what is was originally that was distinctive, important, and, yes, inobling about America--that our founders envisioned a revivification of and a new world version of ancient Athenian democracy (infused with English common law and judicial oversight, and with separation of powers, of course).
In any event, Mailer is trying to retain some complexity in the discussion; he is trying, patiently, to push back against a cartoon understanding of our society being enunciated by Charlie and so prevalent at this historical moment. He is arguing in favor of a thinking assessment of America's worth and value beyond mindless rooting for her no matter her failings, as if for a beloved if tawdry and failed sports team ('Love Her or leave Her!")?? Like so many of Charlie's guests of a certain age have before, Mailer speaks not as a media monkey but from the rarified perspective of the left's 'greatest generation' (the sixties) when Americans were neither stupid nor afraid; or certainly at least American artists were neither of those things. What we have here is the obnoxious, self absorbed Charlie Rose who has spent years interrupting his guests, being impenatrably thick.
Hilariously, he hasn't the slightest idea how out of his depth he is here. It's a hoot. Norman fucking Mailer, for God's sake! An old lion of literary and political history (does anybody remember, does Charlie remember, that Mailer ran for mayor of New York once? Like Gore Vidal, a fellow American novelist giant of the mid century who himself ran for congress, Mailer used his political campaign to raise social issues that would never have been discussed otherwise). Norman Mailer. An ACTUAL intellectual who was a contemporary of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Judy Chicago, Pauline Kael, Malcolm X. Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Adam Clayton Powell, David Halberstam, Herbert Marcuse (Angela Davis' mentor), and by the way, friends with Jimmy Baldwin and Truman Capote! Even at his age at the time of this interview he runs mental circles around Charlie, not even exerting himself. I shouted at my TV, "Stop swimming, Charlie, just be still, you've fallen off the ship, you're in the freakin' ocean Charlie, the deep blue, you're dead. Stop struggling, you'll only prolong it!"
Furthermore, this interview portion embedded above (part of a series on youtube) was amazing in as much as it underscores the very truth of what Mailer is saying here (he said it, and this interview was done, just before the launching of the invasion of Iraq): America is now an ignoble, "loutish" nation in which people cling to childish rhetoric, cliches, and hypocritical sentimentalities rather than trying to muster up enough mental energy to do critical analysis. Norman comes from a time in our history when it was commonplace for Americans, and particularly artists and writers, to do critical analysis. Language to a man like Norman Mailer was not merely a means of rhetorical invective but a thoughtfully employed tool.
Mailer is like his contemporaries--to name some of the writers closest to his own significance to American letters, Phillip Roth, or Gore Vidal, or Jesus bless her, Susan Sontag. To these people language was not an ephemeral mish-mash of leftover advertising jingles patched together in a blustering and nonsensical yawp of tendentious claims (such as Charlie's moment of blankness before hastily repeating Dick Cheney's dumb-ass boast, "they'll cheer us in the streets". Charlie's childlike discomfiture over Norman's very reasonable criticisms proves what a nitwit Rose is. And by extension what a nitwit society we live in post Malcolm and post Sontag-- the Reagan era (don't fool yourself: it's still the Reagan era because all of the most destructive forces and social disarray Reagan put ito motion are still rolling over us).
What an intellectual flyweight Charlie is could only have been exposed, not hidden in a conversation about America not as slogan but as a civilization--as Norman approaches any discussion of America! Rose has for years has been punting and bunting his Long Island lock-brain way through interview after thoughtless interview with people who tower over his middlebrow self. Most of these esteemed guests let him off the hook by either being humorous with him or ignoring his non sequitars altogether, waiting for him to shut up so they can get a word in edgewise.
NORMAN FUCKING MAILER, after all is of a mostly deceased generation that regularly took pikes at one another in the streets, and saw debate--hell, saw regular conversation--as boxing. Norman was the Ali of mental and verbal boxing. In fact, he actually would get into boxing rings when he was young and BOX!! How many Americans now engage in coversation as a BLOOD SPORT (how many of us even CAN now, failed public school dolts that we are)? Mailer doesn't even notice how he bloodies Charlie here.
Bravo. Charlie is exposed as the inveterate child he really is--a fellow who from the look of him I have always speculated must have fallen off some ivy league cabbage cart--possibly Harvard or Princeton from the waxy face he often displays, I speak from some knowledge too, because I've Ivy League degrees--Cornell. Charlie is walking through his interviews with the diffident, blind and dumb arrogance of a man who has never been punched in the face by life.
Well, Norman sure punches him here.