p o l i t i c a l s c i e n c e
"WHATCHOO READIN?" WALLACE says to me.
Wallace, he works with me. Or, he works security in the place I work. Anyway, we coincide on a regular basis, me in my little heated parking-lot booth with my books and notebooks and writing utensils, him making rounds out in the sub-zeros of this Minneapolis February.
"That for school?" he says as I show him my cheap little paperback copy of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72.
"School?" I say. "What school?"
"I always see you readin. . . ."
"No school," I say, "I'm just trying to be a famous writer."
"Oh," he says. Then: "Well, why are you reading that then?"
And that, boys and girls, that was a very good question. It's 2003, which means 1972 was over three decades ago, and the half-life on campaign books is, for the most part, something like a year—two, maybe—unless you're a poli. sci. student or a warped masochist of some sort. What do I care about the beating that Richard Nixon handed George McGovern thirty years age in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in U.S. history?
"This is Hunter S. Thompson," I say. "One of probably the top five American writers of my lifetime. You don't really read Hunter Thompson to read about what he's talking about. It's like with a singer, sometimes they're so good the lyrics don't really matter."
That wasn't exactly right though: it wasn't really what I meant to say. It was a quick analogy, and it got the job done (which was to get him to go away, so I could continue reading), but it was a little thin . . . because with Thompson, it's not that what he's writing about is secondary, it's that no matter what he's specifically writing about, underneath he's really writing about us, about this country, about Americans, about people. I don't have any real interest in, say, the Hell's Angels, but that hasn't stopped me from reading his first book a couple times already.
And politics does very little besides making me more angry and more cynical—I would have given up on this book about fifty pages in if it was just your standard political autopsy, an explanation of what happened and why. But what this book is about is a cleft in the American character, maybe even the human character; it's about the divide between opportunism and uncompromising honesty; it's about the difference between the radical libertarianism of this country's founding and the watered-down pragmatism of its implementation.
There is almost a Yin/Yang clarity in the difference between [McGovern and Nixon], a contrast so stark that it would be hard to find any two better models in the national politics arena for the legendary duality--the congenital Split Personality and polarized instincts--that almost everybody except Americans has long since taken for granted as the key to our National Character. This was not what Richard Nixon had in mind when he said, last August, that the 1972 presidential election would offer voters "the clearest choice of this century," but on a level he will never understand he was probably right . . . and it is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise. Our Barbie doll President, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America's answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close . . .
p u r e g o n z o
THOMPSON SPENT THE year 1972 following presidential candidates on airplane, buses, trains, living out of hotels or, rarely, in a rented home in Washington, D.C.—the "Rape Capital of the World" at the time, and, more disturbingly, home to countless legislators, bureaucrats, lobbyists, political journalists, and other Very Bad People. He spent the year writing bi-weekly articles for Rolling Stone magazine, almost exclusively right up to each deadline ("Hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga," he says, "wasn't produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy"). This book is a compilation of these articles, lashed together finally in an all-night editing session while the book presses waited.
Ask nearly any HST fan what the epitome of his "Gonzo Journalism" was and they will answer Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson's signature work. But that book wasn't really a Gonzo work, not even, really, a piece of journalism. It was polished, completed, it was written rather than simply recorded. This book, the Campaign book, written roughly a year later—this was Thompson's first real foray into the writer-as-camera, the first draft unleashed on the reader that he refers to as "Gonzo." At points the book devolves into Thompson's notes, into transcripts of recorded conversation, into, toward the book's end, a question-and-answer period between Thompson and his editor. The excerpt below shows fairly representatively the feverish tone of the book:
This is about the thirteenth lead I've written for this goddamn mess, and they are getting progressively worse . . . which hardly matters now, because we are down to the deadline again and it will not be long before the Mojo Wire starts beeping and the phones start ringing and those thugs out in San Francisco will be screaming for Copy. Words! Wisdom! Gibberish!
Anything! The presses roll at noon--three hours from now, and the paper is ready to go except for five blank pages in the middle. The "center-spread," a massive feature story. The cover is already printed, and according to the Story List that is lying out there on the floor about ten feet away from this typewriter, the center-spread feature for this issue will be A Definitive Profile of George McGovern and Everything He Stands For--written by me.
Looking at it fills me with guilt. This room reeks of failure, once again. Every two weeks they send me a story list that says I am lashing together some kind of definitive work on a major project . . . which is true, but these projects are not developing quite as fast as we thought they would. There are still signs of life in a few of them, but not many.
This book is an experiment in mixed-media journalism and hyper-subjectivity, a high-powered work of what Tom Wolfe called the "New Journalism." It is also the basic model for the majority of Thompson's later work, a balance between fiction and stark reality that allows Thompson to express his story most effectively.
v e n o m a n d a w e
SOMETHING HAPPENED TO this country, with the War in Vietnam and the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the reactionary power-grab in 1968, something that broke the spine of a generation. Thompson recalls and laments in this book the situation in the Democratic Party that allowed a "shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack" like Hubert Humphrey to run as the only Presidential alternative to Richard Nixon in the Fall of 1968.
Thompson follows George McGovern around the country, not because he really believes the man can win the Presidency, but because McGovern may be able to shake the Democrats enough to tear the party apart, to cut out the status quo party heads (Thompson, in particular, despises Chicago's Mayor Daley, whom he blames for the police brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention—"I went to Chicago as a journalist," he says, "and returned a raving beast") and create some lasting political opposition to politicians like Humphrey and Nixon.
Thompson himself ran for office two years earlier, a "Freak Power" campaign for the office of Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. He lost, but only because the local Democrats and Republicans consolidated their votes behind a single candidate. Toward the end of this book, Thompson muses about running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
This book is filled with venom for our political structure and a certain fundamental awe for the potential in grass-roots politics, a balance that can be found in most of Thompson's work. One of my favorite lesser-known poets, David Lerner, said "There is so much to hate These Days / that hatred is just love with a chip on its shoulder," and I don't think I can better describe the tone of Thompson's entire body of work, or better explain why Thompson crafts his words with such sharp edges and barbs.
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson
Illustrated by Ralph Steadman
491 pages, Copyright © 1973 by Hunter S. Thompson
Straight Arrow Books
All block quotations in this writeup are Copyright © by Hunter S. Thompson.
This writeup is CST Approved.