September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
Why Were We in Vietnam?
On September 10 Putnam released Norman Mailer’s savage hunting parable, Why Are We in Vietnam? The book follows the story of a man and his son from Dallas—"Tex” and “DJ."—who go after Alaskan grizzlies, bragging and killing and swearing their way across the wilderness. This twisted tale was Mailer’s answer to the question posed by his title, and his implied psychological portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s White House as an imperial hunting party provoked many of the same harsh feelings as the war his book was lampooning: some reviewers panned it for the grotesque the author had made of the American attitude; others agreed with Mailer’s sentiment but found the analogy between the hunters’ mission and the U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia strained and overlong. For his puzzled colleagues who claimed to see no relation between the book’s essayistic title and the swearing bear-shoot inside, Newsday ’s Mike McGrady explained, “It’s about violence and brutality, fear and power, thwarted and misdirected sexuality, the Texas way of thinking.”
After an initial splash the novel stalled at bookstores. “A number of my readers would think Why Are We in Vietnam? was my best book,” Mailer claimed years later. “I thought I had never written a funnier one.”
By summer an undeclared presidential candidate who had made his name in business was making the Texan President uneasy with his rising strength in the polls. George Romney, the former American Motors Corporation executive and governor of Michigan recently made famous by his strong-handed performance during Detroit’s riots, was the current favorite for the Republicans, ahead of Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and others.
But then, on September 4, he gave a fateful interview. Explaining his sudden change of heart about the war in Vietnam, Romney claimed that during his 1965 visit to Southeast Asia, military personnel had given him “the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get.” Despite the growing unpopularity of the war, Romney’s comments caused his standing in the polls to drop sharply, as one commentator after another asked how a man so easily taken in by military aides would survive as President. Romney’s best response was to make a tour of inner-city battle scenes for several weeks, exploring the aftermath of recent violence around the country. By the end of September, Romney’s popularity had edged back up. A world tour in December failed to secure his stature among Republican candidates, though, and by January 1968 he trailed Nixon, Rockefeller, and California’s governor, Ronald Reagan, and quit the race two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, not sure exactly what had beaten him.