Brief introductory explanatary note about title. I describe my blog thusly: “The rantings of a long haired iconoclast.” Periodically this word will pop up in my reviews or commentaries, as it forms such a large part of the role I’ve taken on with my postings; popping some balloons and laughing at sacred cows.
I’ve been wanting to say something about Hunter S. Thompson since he died, but I have been having a hard time of it. For too many people Hunter was the drugs, alcohol, and violence; the larger-than-life persona that he created, lived and wrote about. My least favourite book to this day remains that icon of the counter culture Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Therein, I think, lies my discomfort with that title, and by extention Mr. Thompson himself: status, and for all the wrong reasons.
Hunter S. Thompson was the quintessential outsider. How else could he have ridden and lived with Hell’s Angels in the early sixties? Sure they ended up giving him a good beating, but then Hunter never was one for being a joiner, so that should come as no surprise. To me he was always the epitome of the famous Groucho Marx line, “I’d never be a member of a club that would have me as a member.” When you rail against the machine, to have the machine try to incorporate you into its mechanism is your worst fear. No matter the effort, there is always the fear you are being co-opted. You’re only paranoid when they’re not out to get you. The easiest way to neutralise dissent is to make it part of acceptable mainstream. Middle-class thrill-seekers can say they’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. and get safe shocked looks in return, but it will go no further than that.
It’s sad that a searing indictment of all the worst elements of the American Dream was co-opted in that way, but that’s the risk that we all take when we offer our souls up to the maw of the mass market. Unfortunately for a writer to live, he has to have a market to sell his books to, so his control is limited as to how his work is interpreted. I resent blaming the artist for the way in which people try to manipulate a work to suit their own prejudices, and think that to be just another sad reflection of the wasting away of individuality of thought.
As an outsider (poor white boy from the south), Hunter came to the world of American politics with none of the baggage carried by any of the mainstream press. Totally lacking in the reverence normally associated with the coverage of presidential hopefuls, but still maintaining a fearsome understanding, and a fascination bordering on the compulsive for the process, he compellingly brought a presidential campaign to life in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Comparing his work to that which passes for journalism in these days of “embedded reporters” is impossible. I doubt if even Bill Clinton would have allowed him the access that both George McGovern and Jimmy Carter gave Hunter to their lives.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail was a compilation of articles written for Rolling Stone Magazine during the 1972 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, tied together loosely with historical and hysterical background pieces. With Hunter, the process of the story’s development was an integral part of the story. His struggles to cope with the reams of information, the seemingly endless perfidious nature of the majority of politicians, the mechanisms of the back-room boys, and the shortcomings of his fellow journalists were in themselves as important as the issues (if in fact there were any) in the election.
As early as 1972, Hunter had discovered the cynical truth about American politics: issues don’t matter. (A famous story that he recalled has former President Lyndon Johnson, running for Govenor of Texas, telling his campaign manager to call his opponent a pig fucker. When the campaign manager complained, saying that he wasn’t one, Lyndon’s reply was, “Yeah, I know—but make him deny it.)
Richard Nixon was the first American presidential candidate who truly understood how to manipulate the press to his advantage. He knew that the majority of them hated him and that they would over-compensate in an effort to be objective in their coverage of him. This allowed him to willfully misrepresent George McGovern’s policy ideas, and have his interpretation be reported verbatim, and appear as headlines. So if McGovern said he was considering some way for draft dodgers to return home, the next days headlines were “McGovern favours Amnesty for Draft Dodgers,” which would of course be used to paint him with the unpatriotic brush.
There was no way for a daily reporter to do anything else. They were on tight deadlines, and dependent on the press people, who worked for the candidate, for their stories. With no time to sniff out stories or do more then re-write press releases, they all fast became shills for whichever candidate they were covering. The good press handlers, and Nixon and his team were the best, learnt to release information within about an hour before stories had to be submitted, thus ensuring that their version and nothing else made the news.
Hunter also discovered that the myth of the liberal journalist was just that. (Who else remembers Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativity”—they just don’t make quotes like that anymore.) Although some journalists were liberal, they would never allow their own opinions to show through in a piece, and even if they wanted to, they knew that it would be quashed by their editors or publishers. It turns out that most publishers were Republicans, and as likely to publish anti-Nixon stories as they were to pose for a photo with a Black Panther. The other thing was that the papers hated originality. If no one else was running a story, then they didn’t want to stand out like a sore thumb. (This makes all the more amazing what was about to happen over at the Washington Post with the Watergate stories in the mid-seventies. I think Hunter’s explanation of that was pretty accurate: Woodward and Bernstein were neither of them part of the political-writer establishment, the owner of the Post was a woman, Katherine Graham, making her an outsider in a predominately male world, and the Post was considered a poorer cousin to the New York and Los Angeles Times papers, making a situation ripe for the exposing of a scandal.)
What had started out as coverage of an American election became coverage of those who covered it, and how they were manipulated by those they were meant to be reporting on. The myth of the press as the great leveler, the monitor of those with the public’s trust, took a big hit with this book. Of course nothing has changed except for the worse, but it was Hunter who first exposed the lie and laid it bare for all to see, if they wanted. It seems nobody did.
Hunter S. Thompson loved his country, and what it could possibly stand for. He hated what he call the “greedheads and the swine” who had turned it into the cesspool of corruption that it is now. Although I’ve really only talked about the one book, all his writing was on that path, explorations of what America had descended to, and a mourning for its potential. If by the end his writing grew more frenetic, and his screeds wilder, who’s to blame him, given the current crop of slime that works in politics. Going from the hope of Bobby Kennedy to the cynicism of George W. Bush would be enough to warp anyone’s brain. Hunter once wrote of somebody else as being the ultimate free-lancer, Hunter was the ultimate free individual in a country that once claimed to champion them, but now suppresses them.
If I still drank I would raise a toast of Wild Turkey in your memory, but consider it done in spirit. I hope whereever you are, that you have been able to find some peace, and that nobody is asking you to join their club.