Can it be that the apparent desire of this city to destroy itself can be found in the newspapers themselves? God, they do not even honor their own. They seem to assume that used-up politicians, implicated politicians, and politicians with tongues waxed in old dead liberal wax are going to know more about running this city than two writers who have spent their last twenty years separately brooding, working, and writing about the problems of man and society, and the streets and people of this city.
--Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin
Open letter to the New York Times
June 15, 1969
FORTY YEARS AGO, my father wagered that he and Jimmy Breslin, two non-professional politicians, were better suited to save New York City than any career pol on the scene. So with Mailer for mayor and Breslin for city council president, they squared off in the 1969 Democratic primary against four standard-issue liberals. (Pop quipped of one, "I can't get a grasp on a mind this small." His campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, called another "eternally starched" and dismissed a third as a "municipal Lazarus.") Echoing the student slogan raised during the Columbia University crisis of the previous year, "No more bulls--t," they ran to rescue a "spiritless" city turned into a "legislative pail of dismembered organs."
Something vital had been lost along the way--a sense of place, of verve and nerve and wit. They were out to get it back, niceties of the political game be damned.
Their vision was as bold as their odds were long--20-to-1 by my father's estimate. But if New Yorkers took the bet, the shock to the system would provide enough momentum to make New York City the 51st state. Freed from its "marriage of misery, incompatibility, and abominable old quarrels" with the remainder of New York state, the city would reap a windfall of money and liberty sufficient to save it.
Pop figured, "The startled legislators of Albany and Washington would be face to face with a mighty fact: the bitterest and most apathetic and disillusioned electorate in the United States had spoken in a thunderous affirmation--they wanted Statehood for themselves." He foresaw the city, its independence secured, splintering into townships and neighborhoods, with their own school systems, police departments, housing programs, and governing philosophies. In some areas, church attendance might be obligatory, in others free love mandatory. "People in New York would begin to discover neighborhoods of the left, the right, and the spectrum of the center which reflected some of their own passions and desires and programs for local government," he wrote. One way or another, the city would come apart.
Gloria Steinem, Jack Newfield, and Noel Parmentel pitched the idea to him, guaranteeing its cross-partisan pedigree from the start. Murray Rothbard called it "the most refreshing libertarian political campaign in decades." He believed that "smashing the urban government apparatus and fragmenting it into a myriad of constituent fragments" offered the only answer to the ills plaguing American cities and bestowed The Libertarian Forum's first political endorsement.
Partisans proved less enthusiastic, but then my father was no stranger to people thinking some of his ideas were crazy. He had long argued that plastic was poisonous and that television destroys the attention span. He considered abortion murder, but felt it should be legal until we evolve to the point of outlawing all war. What was more offensive, he wondered: the premature death of a 20-yearold soldier whom God had been cultivating for one purpose or another, or a life that He or She (he always used both when referring to God) had been nurturing for a mere three weeks?
His ideas enflamed, enriched, and deepened the public discourse for the second half of the 20th century and on into the Bush years. Because his point of view didn't attach to any political extreme, he wielded the double-edged sword of enlightening his audiences while forcing them to contemplate matters uncomfortable to their rigid ideologies. …