Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72

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Overview

Hilarious, terrifying, insightful, and compulsively readable, these are the articles that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone magazine while covering the 1972 election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, Senator George S. McGovern. Hunter focuses largely on the Democratic Party's primaries and the breakdown of the national party as it splits between the different candidates.

With drug-addled alacrity and incisive wit, Thompson turned his ...

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Overview

Hilarious, terrifying, insightful, and compulsively readable, these are the articles that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone magazine while covering the 1972 election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, Senator George S. McGovern. Hunter focuses largely on the Democratic Party's primaries and the breakdown of the national party as it splits between the different candidates.

With drug-addled alacrity and incisive wit, Thompson turned his jaundiced eye and gonzo heart to the repellent and seductive race for president, deconstructed the campaigns, and ended up with a political vision that is eerily prophetic

The highly engaging account of the 1972 presidential election that's become a classic commentary on the American political process.

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Editorial Reviews

Tom Seligson
Thompson's book, with its mixed, frenetic construction, irreverent spirit and, above all, unrelenting sensitivity to the writer's own feelings while on the political road, most effectively conveys the adrenaline-soaked quest that is the American campaign. Crisscrossing the country often two times a day, stopping in hotels, shopping marts and factories in obscure Midwestern towns, Thompson might have been running for office himself. By monitoring his own instincts and observations in the process, he shows us what it must be like for the candidates … Fear and Loathing lets us understand why the men we elect to the Presidency may have needle tracks on their integrity.
— The New York Times
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 [bleep] 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. "[Edmund] Muskie is a bonehead who steals his best lines from old Nixon speeches. [George] 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, [Hubert] Humphrey is doomed and useless, [Henry] Jackson should have stayed in bed...and, well, that just about wraps up the trip, right?"

Not quite.

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: "[H. L.] 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, [Thompson's] 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. [Candidates and their advisers] 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." --Cameron Martin

From 1996 to 2007, Cameron Martin was an award-winning feature writer, columnist, and book reviewer with the Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate newspapers in Connecticut. He now freelances for Comcast SportsNet New England (covering the Red Sox) and for BugsandCranks.com, a web site dedicated to the lighter side of Major League Baseball.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446698221
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 10/20/2006
  • Series: Fear and Loathing Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson
To summarize Hunter S. Thompson’s career is nearly impossible. His writing covered sports, politics, personal letters, social commentary, and Gonzo Journalism -- his own brand of hyper-subjective observation of nearly everything that crosses his path. A welcomed troublemaker, the name Hunter S. Thompson conjures the image of a man bearing firearms and whiskey, daring his readers to question their realities.

Biography

Hunter S. Thompson has always had taste for starting trouble. As an ornery Kentucky kid, he was the undisputed leader of the pack, getting himself and his willing followers into trouble. Not much has changed -- Thompson still has throngs of supporters and fans and is now an icon of outspoken, unapologetic social commentary.

Thompson realized in high school that he didn't fit in with society at large. Seeking direction, he joined the Air Force after graduation, determined to be a pilot. While on the long waiting list for pilot training, Thompson was offered a position as an editor and sportswriter for Elgin Air Force Base's The Command Courier. He jumped at the chance, quickly excelled as a journalist, and even began moonlighting at a local paper. Despite his numerous offenses against military protocol, he was given an honorable discharge in 1957.

Thompson knew that writing was going to be a fixture in his life. He was an avid letter writer, often mixing fact and fantasy. After allegedly stealing a box of carbon paper when he left the Air Force, he began keeping copies every letter he sent. Eventually, his letters would be published in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967 (The Fear and Loathing Letters), three books of love letters, correspondence with his family, and scathing complaint letters to companies Thompson deemed bad for society. The collection is considered a must-read for the glimpse it gives of how desperately Thompson wanted to be a writer.

After the Air Force, Thompson bounced through newspaper jobs, barely making ends meet and working on his first novel, the still unpublished Prince Jellyfish. In 1960 Thompson moved to Puerto Rico. It was less than ideal -- paychecks bounced regularly -- but his time in the Caribbean yielded The Rum Diary. Thompson tried to sell the novel to Random House in the 1960s, but they declined (it was eventually published in 1998).

Thompson's first novel, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, came out in 1966, catapulting him to fame and intriguing readers with his fast-paced writing and mischievous, wicked sense of humor. With the success of Hell's Angels, Random House finally purchased The Rum Diary. However, as legend has it, Hunter felt that it needed more work, so he convinced a Random House secretary to steal his manuscript back for him.

By the time Thompson released Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream in 1971, he had perfected his signature style, Gonzo Journalism: wild and erratic, capturing events as they happen, stripped of motive yet decidedly fictionalized. Thompson isn't a passive observer but is instead another one of his freaked-out characters. In the voice of Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, he and his attorney, Oscar Acosta (Dr. Gonzo), go on a destructive drug binge while traveling to Las Vegas to report on a motorcycle race and crash a district attorneys' convention. Thompson found an artistic counterpart in illustrator Ralph Steadman, who designed this cover and others. It's classic Thompson and in 1998 was made into a movie staring Johnny Depp.

A self-proclaimed political junkie, Thompson gave his readers a glaring testimony of the truth and lies found while following the 1972 presidential race in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. In fact, one of Thompson's grand, recurring themes is the myth of the American Dream. The four-volume Gonzo Papers consists of articles, essays, and fiction. They are a massive attempt to expose the failure of the American Dream and show where hope is still possible. The four volumes, in order, are The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (1979), Generation of Swine:Tales of Decadence and Degradation in the Eighties (1988), Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (1990) and Better than Sex: Trapped like a Rat in Mr. Bill's Neighborhood (1994).

In 1980, Running magazine sent Thompson to Hawaii to cover the Honolulu Marathon. Friend and illustrator Ralph Steadman joined Thompson for the trip, and the result was The Curse of Lono, a fully illustrated, colorful, and strange mix of fiction and travelogue. Another oddity in Thompson's collection of works is his notorious 1991 release, Screwjack, a limited-print novella containing three short stories, ostensibly written by alter ego Raoul Duke.

In Thompson's 2003 release, Kingdom of Fear, he seems to have broken the rules one more time and written his own biography. The book tracks the life of a rebel -- the formative experiences of a wisecracking southern boy questioning authority and the unorthodox journalist who came to personify genre-bending, mind-bending outlaw stories.

Thompson's final book, Hey Rube (2004) brings him full circle; it's a sample of his columns from his stint as a sportswriter for ESPN.com. Thompson doles out searing indictments and uproarious rants while providing brilliant commentary on politics, sex, and sports -- at times all in the same column. Proving once again that he's on top of his game, his keen eye for corruption is as sharp and unforgiving as ever.

Fans and friends were shocked and saddened to learn of Thompson's death in February, 2005. While his narratives are often weird and ugly, he will always be respected and hailed as a professional risk taker, legendary agitator, and literary genius.

Good To Know

True to form, Hunter S. Thompson missed his high school graduation because he was in jail at the time, serving a six-week sentence for robbery.

Thompson once ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, under his own Freak Party, whose platform included changing the city's name to Fat City in hopes of scaring off corporate investors.

Thompson was the original inspiration for Uncle Duke, a larger-than-life controlled substances buff created by Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau.

Mötley Crüe named their Generation Swine album after Volume Two of Thompson's Gonzo Papers. The book dealt with the debauchery and decadence of the era, and they found it perfect for their sleazy, irreverent brand of rock 'n' roll.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Hunter Stockton Thompson (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 18, 1937
    2. Place of Birth:
      Louisville, Kentucky
    1. Date of Death:
      February 20, 2005
    2. Place of Death:
      Woody Creek, Colorado

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