Norman knew almost as much about boxing as he did about writing, and for some reason, both got intertwined in his thoughts. Famously he saw himself getting into the ring with Hemingway. At stake would be the literary championship of America. Were it a fistfight, I would take Norman. Hemingway was bigger, but Norman had more heart -- and he really could put together a combination of lefts and rights, as he demonstrated to me at lunch during the 1996 Republican National Convention. Boxing was on his mind that afternoon. He knew the legendary manager Cus D'Amato, who had worked with two great handball players to train his fighters.
Handball is my sport, and Norman told me D'Amato believed the only athletes he could transform into fighters were handball players. Norman's explanation of D'Amato's reasoning was typical Norman. It soared into the metaphysical and the nonsensical, to wit, the lone warrior goes toe-to-toe against his adversary drawing on spiritual and primal values and … Well, by then he had lost me. Actually D'Amato probably had in mind the fighters' and the handball players' need to coordinate their footwork with their hands. This weakness for complicated and slightly fla-fla explanations of life was a weakness of Norman's (along with another that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. mentions in his recently published "Journals": Norman's inability to "resist risks").
When he pronounced on politics, I was never sure Norman really knew what he was talking about. One night, after he had finished his huge book on the CIA, I introduced him to a beautiful Asian-American lady then serving in the first Bush administration, telling him she was deputy director of central intelligence or some such title. I could not resist, but Norman took me seriously and spent the evening with her discussing the CIA. As I recall, she was a banker working in the Commerce Department. Somehow she filled Norman's image of an American intelligence operative. I never revealed my joke to him, but if I had, I am sure he would have laughed and somehow recouped with an elaborate explanation.
As he demonstrated in "The Armies of the Night," his journalistic account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Norman was a superb journalist. He had a stupendous sense for detail and could describe any scene vividly. His problem was his hyperactive imagination. It caused him to invest chimerical portents into scenes that were better off without them. Metaphors would take on the gorgeous trappings of absurdity. This hyperactive imagination was the ruin of his novels, only one or two of which I could ever finish. It damaged his journalism, too, but not often. There it settled down, assuming the dimensions of mere poetry.
I am told he could be a furious controversialist, but I only knew the charming, somewhat boyish gent. The night of our editorial dinner, the conservative columnist Suzanne Fields gently crossed swords with him. They had known each other since the 1960s. Norman stood his ground and concluded with a twinkle in his eye, "You remind me of one of my ex-wives." I liked Norman.