Buried in Norman Mailer's Nov. 11 New York Times obituary, below the 1955 launch of the Village Voice and the drunken stabbing of his wife, Adele Morales, is a blurb on Norman Mailer the political candidate.
It was 1969, and Mailer was running for mayor of New York, advocating statehood for the city and a car-free Manhattan. Charles McGrath writes:
... Jimmy Breslin, who was also on the ticket, thought the race was a lark until at a disastrous rally at the Village Gate nightclub, he discovered that Mr. Mailer was serious. Mr. Breslin later recalled, "I found out I was running with Ezra Pound."
The Northwest celebrates its political Norman Mailers the way the United Kingdom embraces its eccentrics – with tempered pride. Unconventional is fine. Morphing into Ezra Pound means death by a thousand, tiny cuts.
Enter Jack "The Magic Genie" Turk, November's Republican nominee for Snohomish County executive. (Snohomish is the boom county up the interstate from Seattle.)
Turk, a retired Microsoftie, entrepreneur, and magician, assumed the reins of sacrificial gadfly after Sheriff Rick Bart's 11th-hour retreat and acknowledgement that he couldn't raise enough money to challenge incumbent Aaron Reardon.
Here was a Hail Mary opening: A savvy insurgent, skilled at ego piercing, enhancing the democratic process by holding up a mirror to the hubris of politics. A confident Reardon (full disclosure: I co-sponsored a fundraiser for his re-election) would benefit from a little Mark Twain-ing. And who better than an illusionist to upend convention and monkey-wrench a county election?
Comedian Pat Paulsen, R.I.P., would have auctioned his first born to scribble for a candidate like Jack Turk. "I will now, ladies and gentlemen, cause my opponent to vanish ..."
I phoned Turk on election eve, thinking I'd begin with a jokey, "Has the recent David Copperfield controversy affected your chances?"
But I quickly sank the snark when Turk exposed his Achilles Heel: He was, well, a delightful guy.
"I look for the best in people," Turk said. "I respect Aaron. He's doing what he does for honorable reasons."
Why no zingers or showboating? "I didn't want to embarrass the people who nominated me," Turk said.
Republicans hoped for a political guerilla; they got Norman Vincent Peale.
Nevertheless, Turk's humor registered a respectable 35 percent of the vote. Pretty sweet for a candidate with zero money and a narrow campaign window.
Sadly, unconventional candidates don't always translate into conventional or even adequate lawmakers. Dixy Lee Ray was the ideal, enough-politics-as-usual candidate in 1976. She was, after all, a University of Washington professor and brainiac former chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As governor of Washington, Ray's painful lack of political judgment recast "brainiac" into "bonehead" and spiked the presumption that leadership aligns with IQ.
History underscores an unscientific rule for homegrown mavericks, a Northwest-underdog formula that sometimes works, at least in a throw-em-out climate: Run as an unconventional but competent candidate and lead as a competent (with strategic sparks of the unconventional) lawmaker.
Two inimitable politicos illustrate the underdog rule.
The muscularly bearded mayor of Portland, Bud Clark, who served from 1985 to 1992, resembled a sepia photograph of a nineteenth-century barkeep. Clark was, in fact, the bartender-owner of the Goose Hollow Inn in South Portland. He was most famous, as all college dormies from the 1980s remember, for aping a flasher in the popular "Expose Yourself to Art" poster.
But Clark wasn't a joke of a mayor. By the end of his second term, he left the city with $20 million in reserves, a humming transit system, and a new convention center. Like Cincinnatus, Clark didn't covet political power and returned to the proverbial plow of tavern-owner extraordinaire.
An equally eclectic politician was Victor Aloysius Myers, a former Seattle bandleader whose first tin-pan alley hits were "Shake It and Break It" and "Mean, Mean, Mama." Myers's middle name, Aloysius, imparted authority – the equivalent of a "Montgomery" or a "George" – at least until Bush 43 sullied the appeal of "George."
Baited by a Seattle Times reporter to punch up a snoozer mayoral race, Myers draped himself in a bed sheet and masqueraded as Mahatma Gandhi (a tactic that could just work today). He failed, although by 1932 Myers managed to get elected lieutenant governor in the FDR landslide.
Myers' command performance came 20 years later, when Joe McCarthy traveled to Seattle to campaign for Republican Sen. Harry P. Cain and address a debauched Puget Sound press corps.
Joe Miller, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer arts reporter, is one of the last surviving witnesses of what degenerated into a bacchanalian. Miller recalls a raucous, whiskey-ed up press corps. Punches were thrown, chairs overturned. Joe McCarthy was not happy. "Let me tell you," McCarthy said, waving his index finger, "I did not just come 3,000 miles to be funny."
As if on cue, a well-libated Myers pranced in and seized the microphone.
"Let me tell you," Myers said, also wagging his finger, "I did not just come from the saloon across the street to be serious." (Note to the Legislature: Please give us a Vic Myers Day.)
Here lie the roots of the underdog template: a spot of humor, a strategic vision, and humor in office.
Relevant or not, an e-invite has been sitting in my inbox for a Seattle fundraiser for former Saturday Night Live writer and performer Al Franken. Franken is seeking to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!