In the 1970s, at the height of his distinctive journalistic career, Hunter Thompson blasted away at the pretension and pomposity of American politics. Too bad he’s not around today to witness the street fight-cum-reality show that passes for a presidential campaign. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say, and although the heart of this generous collection of most of Thompson’s writing for Rolling Stone deals with those long-ago political battles, it should be required reading for any student of our political wars.
Thompson’s Rolling Stone career began in 1970, with the story of his brief foray into electoral politics, an unsuccessful campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket. When he established the magazine’s “National Affairs Desk” in 1972 and tried to get a press pass from the Nixon White House, he was denied because the publication was a “music magazine.” Nixon and his team soon were disabused of that notion.
"While most of the players whose careers he chronicled have gone to their eternal reward or punishment, they will live forever in Thompson’s vivid prose."
Thompson rose to prominence on the strength of his unmatched coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, later collected in the book FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72. He was ecstatic as George McGovern improbably edged ahead of the 1968 Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey (“a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current.”), and his former running mate, Edmund Muskie (“He talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop.”). But that pleasure turned to anguish at the ineptitude of the McGovern campaign and the seemingly inevitable triumph of Richard Nixon and his “small gang of henchmen and hired gunsels.” For Thompson, the Watergate scandal, which he covered avidly, was nothing less than sweet justice. As early as September 1973, he predicted, “Even the most conservative betting in Washington these days has Nixon either resigning or being impeached by the autumn of ’74.”
These impassioned pieces, with their liberal references to superhuman consumption of drugs and alcohol, reveal Thompson's singular conception of journalism. He was the godfather of what he called “Gonzo Journalism,” associating himself with Muhammad Ali’s statement, “My way of joking is to tell the truth. That’s the funniest joke in the world.” He was coldly dismissive of “objective journalism,” as in this classic rant:
“Don’t bother to look for it here --- not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a gross contradiction in terms.”
There’s little question that Thompson’s productivity fell off dramatically in the 30 years that separated the end of the Watergate scandal and his suicide in 2005. In his own writing, he foreshadowed that decline when he conceded in October 1974 that his interest in national politics “withered drastically within hours after Nixon resigned.” But he remained a shrewd judge of political talent, asserting in his description of an extemporaneous speech an “angry agrarian populist” Jimmy Carter gave at an Atlanta Law Day luncheon in 1974 that he had “never heard a sustained piece of political oratory that impressed me any more.” Thompson came away from a lunch he and four Rolling Stone colleagues shared with Bill Clinton at a Little Rock café in July 1992 convinced, long before Clinton’s impeachment trial, that the man was a “high stakes gambler” who could “take a punch better than anybody since Muhammad Ali.”
The volume offers an assortment of mid-to-late career long form pieces, including one on Muhammad Ali’s attempted comeback after his shocking knockout of Leon Spinks in 1978; an account of the spectacular, sordid 1982 Pulitzer divorce trial in Palm Beach; and what can only be described as a bizarre fantasy about a night of drug- and alcohol-crazed violence outside Elko, Nevada, involving Thompson and Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. His “obituaries” of Oscar Zeta Acosta, better known as “Dr. Gonzo, his “three-hundred-pound Samoan attorney,” of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS fame (an excerpt of which appears in the book), and Richard Nixon are masterpieces of invective. The image of Nixon as an “evil man --- evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand” --- will cause a flood of memories to come coursing back into the hearts of Nixon haters everywhere.
Hunter Thompson probably can best be described as a cynical idealist. He was capable of giving his heart to a candidate while understanding it almost certainly would be broken. “I got into politics a long time ago,” he wrote in 1992, “and I still believe, on some days, that it can be an honorable trade. That is not an easy belief to hang on to after wallowing for thirty years in the belly of a Beast that has beaten and broken more good men and women than Crack and Junk Bonds combined.” While most of the players whose careers he chronicled have gone to their eternal reward or punishment, they will live forever in Thompson’s vivid prose.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 5, 2012