In January 1972, just one month into a 12-month assignment to cover the presidential campaign for Rolling Stone magazine, Hunter S. Thompson was exhibiting signs of burnout. “Jesus! This gibberish could run on forever and even now I can see myself falling into the old trap that plagues every writer who gets sucked into this rotten business,” he wrote in one of his biweekly submissions, later collected as Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 . “You find yourself getting fascinated by the drifts and strange quirks of the game. Even now, before I’ve even finished this article, I can already feel the compulsion to start handicapping politics and primaries like it was all just another fat Sunday of pro football…. After several weeks of this you no longer give a flying who actually wins; the only thing that matters is the point-spread.”
Thompson, then 34, was a sportswriter by trade. He’d made a name for himself with two earlier books, Hell’s Angels, about his year riding with the outlaw motorcycle gang, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, about his unorthodox decision to cover a dune-buggy race and a district attorneys’ convention while under the influence of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Now he was covering his first presidential campaign — and he was frustrated and bored, energized and mentally exhausted, often in short order.
In 1972, Democrats felt the incumbent, Richard Nixon, had glaring weaknesses that could be exploited in the general election, because “he’d failed to end the war, he’d botched the economy, he was a terrible campaigner, he would crack under pressure, nobody trusted him, etc. So any Democratic candidate could beat Nixon, and all the candidates knew it.” But in January, no one in the Democratic field looked like the man who’d get it done, at least to Thompson. ” Muskie is a bonehead who steals his best lines from old Nixon speeches. McGovern is doomed because everybody who knows him has so much respect for the man that they can’t bring themselves to degrade the poor bastard by making him run for President?John Lindsay is a dunce, Gene McCarthy is crazy, Humphrey is doomed and useless, Jackson should have stayed in bed?and, well, that just about wraps up the trip, right?”
Muskie, a senator from Maine, emerged as the early favorite, but then in April he suffered a crippling loss to McGovern in the Wisconsin primary. After that, Muskie “talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop.” McGovern quickly became the presumptive nominee, but old-school Democrats (many of them Big Labor supporters of Humphrey) didn’t fall in behind him, even trying to unseat some of his delegates at the convention in Miami, a maneuver Thompson said was “far too serious for the kind of random indulgence that Gonzo Journalism needs.”
Taken together with other developments — most notably, the need to replace Thomas Eagleton as McGovern’s running mate, after the Missouri senator’s history of mental illness came to light — and the Democratic effort was ultimately undone. McGovern lost to Nixon in a landslide, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
In 1972, Thompson openly loathed the Republican candidate and desperately wanted change (an end to the war, new economic policies), but he bitterly questioned whether a Democratic president would be a better alternative:
How many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?
Rereading these words in light of the presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama, it’s safe to say Thompson would not have described the 2008 presidential campaign as a “stinking, double-downer sideshow.” Considering his consistent support of Democratic candidates and recent statements by Thompson’s widow, Anita, the late writer (he committed suicide in February 2005) probably would have supported Obama as fully as he did George McGovern in 1972.
Thompson, unlike most political scribes, never drank the Kool-Aid of objective journalism. Campaign Trail ’72 states his contempt for the idea plainly: “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 pompous contradiction in terms.” He elaborated on this sentiment in Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, published in 1994: ” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called ‘advocacy journalism,’ I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.”
And so over the course of his professional life he openly supported candidates like McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, while loathing Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. But no sitting president, Democrat or Republican, was safe from his caustic wit. When Clinton’s first two nominees for attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both had to withdraw their names because they’d employed illegal immigrants, Thompson wrote in Better than Sex, “It is hard to feel sorry for the arrogant, glitzy elitists who seem to be so much a part of Bill and Hillary’s inner circle, with names like Zoe and Kimba.”
If Thompson disliked liberal elitists, he despised conservative stalwarts, particularly Nixon. In his obituary for Nixon, published in Rolling Stone in 1994, Thompson wrote, “He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning?. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.” It’s almost impossible to imagine a mainstream journalist writing something like that about George W. Bush. Not only was Thompson ahead of his time, but he seems to have no successor. For all the venom spewed against Bush, does one political journalist come to mind as his sharpest, most memorable critic? Arguably, Thompson was that for Nixon.
In 2003, British novelist A. L. Kennedy wrote in The Guardian that Thompson’s 1972 campaign book is one of the ten most offensive books in history, alongside books like Lolita, Wuthering Heights, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Don Quixote — books “which trouble, which are awkward, and many of which have offended at some point.” In the end, Kennedy found the “offense” necessary:
Insanity, obscenity, profanity, illegality and reptilian paranoia — but which is more distressing, lunatic chemical life and Gonzo prose style, or Richard Milhous Nixon and company taking a whole country for a nasty ride? And where, by the way, is the energy of Gonzo now when we need it?
In the introduction to Campaign Trail ’72, his “jangled campaign diary,” Thompson summarized his unique position as an outsider working on a terminal assignment for Rolling Stone: “Unlike most other correspondents, I could afford to burn all my bridges behind me — because I was only there for a year, and the last thing I cared about was establishing long-term connections on Capitol Hill. I went there for two reasons: (1) to learn as much as possible about the mechanics and realities of a presidential campaign, and (2) to write about it in the same way I’d write about anything else — as close to the bone as I could get, and to hell with the consequences.”
One of the unforeseen consequences of that ’72 campaign was a lifelong addiction to politics, a paradox he described best in Better than Sex: “Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal — like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics — especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts, and so am I.”
Next week’s Democratic Convention is in Denver, Colorado, just 220 miles from Thompson’s former home in Aspen. The creator of Gonzo Journalism won’t be there in person, but his addictive spirit will certainly make an appearance.