Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Page 2Hunter S. Thompson
But Thompson couldn’t accept any of it. This book buzzes throughout with genuine surprise and outrage that people could swallow wholesale bogus marketing formulations like “the ideal centrist candidate,” or could pull a lever for Nixon, a “Barbie-Doll president, with his box-full of Barbie Doll children.” Even at the very end of the book, when McGovern’s cause was so obviously lost, Thompson’s hope and belief still far outweighed his rational calculation, as he predicted a mere 5.5 percent margin of victory for the Evil One (it turned out to be a 23 percent landslide for Nixon).
This desperate story, of the fruitless search for honesty and hope in a corrupt world that openly worships fakery and cynicism, is what makes Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 an accessible story even for people who have no interest in politics. It’s a timeless theme, a classic comic theme—the earnest hero trying and failing to communicate with the random and Godless outside world, drowning in misunderstandings, and incurring absurd disasters every step of the way.
In fact, when I read this book now, it reminds me a lot more of vast comic epics like The Castle or The Trial than one of Fear and Loathing’s smart nonfiction thematic contemporaries (like the excellent The Selling of the President, 1968, for instance). Just like Kafka’s Land Surveyor, Hunter in Campaign Trail ’72 enters a nightmarish maze of deceptions and prevarications and proceeds to throw open every door—bursting into every room with a circus clown’s theatrical self-importance and impeccably bad timing—searching every nook and cranny for the great Answer, for Justice.
And as a reader you’re right there with him, you desperately want him to find what he’s looking for (on the page, Hunter is the most instantly trustworthy and sympathetic first-person narrator America has had since Mark Twain), and you feel with him that what he’s seeking is so achievable, so close… The society around him is finally going to rise up with him, reject evil and enter paradise… And yet, in the end, Hunter ends up right back where he started, right back in Dick Nixon’s America, a nation of “200 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
What makes the story so painful, and so painfully funny, is that Hunter chooses the presidential campaign, of all places, to conduct this hopeless search for truth and justice. It’s probably worse now than it was in Hunter’s day, but the American presidential campaign is the last place in the world a sane man would go in search of anything like honesty. It may be the most fake place on earth.
The problem is the sheer quantity of the lies. From morning till night, the person trapped in this jaunt hears nothing but evasions, obfuscations, misrepresentations, half-truths, and not-at-all truths. The trenchant off-the-cuff remarks the candidate tosses off at the ropeline were survey-tested weeks ago; those spontaneous bursts of applause at the rally were scripted and even openly rehearsed in front of You the Reporter before the event even started.
My own first campaign trip was typical of what young journalists visiting this world experience. I was so overwhelmed with the sheer number of cardboard clichés that a certain presidential candidate used in his speeches that I literally couldn’t keep up. So I ended up creating a numerical shorthand system: “1” stood for “I don’t just believe in the American Dream, I’m a product of it,” while “2” was “We’ve got to take America back from the Washington insiders,” and so on.
Within a few weeks I was able to take notes on his speeches easily by simply copying the mindless-cliché sequences in my notebook: 1–9–11–14–7–3… etc., etc.
On the Bus, everybody lies, and you even start to mistrust your own eyes. With every person, you look twice: Is that his real hair? Has she had a neck tuck? And why is Mitt Romney, who probably sleeps in thousand-dollar suits, wearing faded blue jeans? He must, you think, have a new poll showing that he’s soft with exurban white males…
Thompson violently and entertainingly rails against all of this throughout Fear and Loathing, and he tries early on to convince the reader that he understands that only the best and most shameless liars succeed in this environment. “The main problem in any democracy,” he writes, “is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—and then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.”
But even as he writes passages like that, he’s celebrating the chances of George McGovern, whom he describes as “the most honest big-time politician in America.” Hunter wants so badly to believe that the honest McGovern can win in this world, you can actually hear him in the early chapters running McGovern down, as though he doesn’t want to ruin the man’s chances (sportswriter Bill Simmons calls this the “reverse jinx,” i.e., publicly talking down the team you’re secretly rooting for). In one early chapter, he talks about how McGovern is “just another good Democrat” and insists that something about the man “left me politically numb, despite the fact that I agreed with everything he said.”
This weary pessimism is unconvincing, however, and as time goes on and McGovern racks up one unlikely primary win after another, we see Hunter—like a jilted lover who once swore she’d never love again, but is now letting her heart get carried away one last time—finally give in to his emotions. By the middle of the book, he’s fully emotionally invested in McGovern’s campaign and allows himself to think a defeat of Nixon is possible.
He even touchingly talks himself into his conclusion using the schlock-cliché horse-race logic of a mainstream campaign reporter, calculating that the candidate’s ability to tap into the hidden “Youth Vote” (he also quotes black congressman Ron Dellums, who calls it the “Nigger Vote”) will help carry the day. “If you give 25 million people a new toy,” he offers cheerfully, “the odds are pretty good that a lot of them will try it at least once.”
Allowing himself to be seduced into believing, of course, only makes the bitter end (which we all see coming from miles away: unlike contemporary readers, who digested most of this narrative in magazine serial form as the campaign was unfolding, the inevitable crushing conclusion is known to modern readers from the first page) more devastating. That horrific disappointment leads to one of the great tirades in the history of political writing, a breathtaking broadside against the bad judgment of the American people near the end of the book:
The tragedy of all of this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes, and all his imprecise talk about “new politics” and “honesty in government,” is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States who really understands what a fantastic monument to all of the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if it had been kept out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.
McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and as a perfect expression of everything he stands for.
Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?
With apologies to Austin Ruse and the National Review, it’s passages like this, not any endorsement of the drug-fueled, last-minute allnighter, that explain why Hunter Thompson will always be celebrated by young people. It had nothing to do with drugs, the F word, or being cool, and everything to do with the fact that Thompson never lost his sense of appropriate outrage, never fell into the trap of accepting that moral compromise was somehow a sign of growth and adulthood.
Both now and in Thompson’s day, most of the press figures we lionize as great pundits and commentators seem to think it’s proper to mute our expectations for public figures. We’re constantly told that politicians should be given credit for being “realistic” (in the mouths of people like David Brooks, “realistic” is really code for “being willing to sell out your constituents in order to get elected”) and that demanding “purity” fro
m our leaders is somehow immature (Hillary had to vote for the Iraq war; otherwise she would have ruined her presidential chances!).
To me, the reason so many pundits and politicians take this stance is because the alternative is so painful: if you cling to hope and belief, the distance between the ideal and the corrupt reality is so great, it’s just too much for most normal people to handle. So they make peace with the lie, rather than drive themselves crazy worrying about how insanely horrible and ridiculous things really are.
But Thompson never made that calculation. He never stooped to trying to sell us on stupidities about “electability” and “realism,” or the pitfalls of “purity.” Instead, he stared right into the flaming-hot sun of shameless lies and cynical horseshit that is our politics, and he described exactly what he saw—probably at serious cost to his own mental health, but the benefit to us was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
And while most journalists try to impress us with their glibness and their world-weariness, Thompson laid out his fragile hopes and his awesome disappointments for everyone to see. He reminded us that we’re supposed to have high expectations for our leaders, maybe even impossibly high expectations. In this book he did what all great writers do, he absolutely and completely let it all hang out, and put every last emotion he had into his subject matter. Fellow Rolling Stone scribe Tim Crouse noted that while other writers had to tell their wives what the Trail was really like when they got home, Thompson’s wife didn’t have to ask, because she’d read his articles. That’s because he’d put his whole self into the pages of his adventure. He didn’t hold anything back to whisper to his wife back home. He did it exactly the way it should be done.
One last thing: the Campaign Trail today is a different story than it was in Hunter’s time. It was possible in the era of Vietnam and Watergate to believe in a simple narrative of a good candidate versus a bad one, and Hunter’s gushing endorsement of the antiwar Democratic challenger in Campaign Trail ’72 made perfect narrative sense in the context of the times. Decades later, corporate money so completely dominates both parties, and the oligopoly of billionaire interests that operates outside the two-party system is so powerful in itself, that a book-length narrative of good-guy Democrats versus bad-guy Republicans would seem trite and hopelessly naive if it were tried today, in the age of Occupy and the Tea Party. That and a few insufficiently PC word choices are probably the only thing about this book that seems dated. The rest of it is as relevant as ever. After all, the campaign today is the same story it was back then: a string of doddering dunces trotted out by rich and powerful people to sell the general public on the same generally cruel and moronic policies that guided the American empire forty years ago. The electoral salesmanship involved in making voters think they chose those principles is more elaborate now, but it’s basically the same scam and Thompson’s take on it would be the same as it was in 1972.
We can easily imagine how Hunter would have described people like Mitt Romney (I’m guessing he would have reached for “depraved scumsucking whore” pretty early in his coverage) and Rick Santorum (“screeching rectum-faced celibate”?), and all you have to do is look at his write-up of the Eagleton affair to see how this writer would have responded to whatever manufactured noncontroversy of the Bill Ayers/Reverend Wright genus ends up rocking the 2012 election season.
But more than anything, this book remains fresh because Thompson’s writing style hasn’t aged a single day since 1972. Thompson didn’t write in the language of the sixties and seventies—he created his own timelessly weird language that seems as original now as I imagine it did back then. When you read his stuff even today, the “Man, where the hell did he come up with that image?” factor is just as high as it ever was. There’s a section in this book where he’s fantasizing about the pro-Vietnam labor leader George Meany’s reaction to McGovern’s nomination:
He raged incoherently at the Tube for eight minutes without drawing a breath, then suddenly his face turned beet red and his head swelled up to twice its normal size. Seconds later—while his henchmen looked on in mute horror—Meany swallowed his tongue, rolled out the door like a log, and crawled through a plate glass window.
I’ve read every one of Thompson’s books three or four times, and I’ve probably read hundreds of passages like this, but this stuff still makes me laugh out loud. Why a plate glass window exactly? Where did he come up with that? On top of everything else, on top of all the passion and the illuminating outrage and the great journalism, the guy was just one of a kind as a writer. Nobody was ever more fun to read. He’s the best there ever was, and still the best there is.
Dawn is coming up in San Francisco now: 6:09 A.M. I can hear the rumble of early morning buses under my window at the Seal Rock Inn… out here at the far end of Geary Street: this is the end of the line, for buses and everything else, the western edge of America. From my desk I can see the dark jagged hump of “Seal Rock” looming out of the ocean in the grey morning light. About two hundred seals have been barking out there most of the night. Staying in this place with the windows open is like living next to a dog pound. Last night we had a huge paranoid poodle up here in the room, and the dumb bastard went totally out of control when the seals started barking—racing around the room like a chicken hearing a pack of wolves outside the window, howling & whining, leaping up on the bed & scattering my book-galley pages all over the floor, knocking the phone off the hook, upsetting the gin bottles, trashing my carefully organized stacks of campaign photographs… off to the right of this typewriter, on the floor between the beds, I can see an 8x10 print of Frank Mankiewicz yelling into a telephone at the Democratic Convention in Miami; but that one will never be used, because the goddamn hound put five big claw-holes in the middle of Frank’s chest.
That dog will not enter this room again. He came in with the book-editor, who went away about six hours ago with thirteen finished chapters—the bloody product of fifty-five consecutive hours of sleepless, foodless, high-speed editing. But there was no other way to get the thing done. I am not an easy person to work with, in terms of deadlines. When I arrived in San Francisco to put this book together, they had a work-hole set up for me downtown at the Rolling Stone office… but I have a powerful aversion to working in offices, and when I didn’t show up for three or four days they decided to do the only logical thing: move the office out here to the Seal Rock Inn.
One afternoon about three days ago they showed up at my door, with no warning, and loaded about forty pounds of supplies into the room: two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls. There was also a big Selectric typewriter, two reams of paper, a face-cord of oak firewood and three tape recorders—in case the situation got so desperate that I might finally have to resort to verbal composition.
We came to this point sometime around the thirty-third hour, when I developed an insoluble Writer’s Block and began dictating big chunks of the book straight into the microphone—pacing around the room at the end of an eighteen-foot cord and saying anything that came into my head. When we reached the end of a tape the editor would jerk it out of the machine and drop it into a satchel… and every twelve hours or so a messenger would stop by to pick up the tape satchel and take it downtown to the office, where unknown persons transcribed it onto manuscript paper and sent it straight to the printer in Reno.
There is a comfortable kind of consistency in this kind of finish, because that’s the way all the rest of the book was written. From December ’71 to January ’73—in airport bars, all-nite coffee shops and dreary hotel rooms all over the country—there is hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga that wasn’t produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy. There was never enough time. Every deadline was a crisis. All around me were experienced professional journalists mee
ting deadlines far more frequent than mine, but I was never able to learn from their example. Reporters like Bill Greider from the Washington Post and Jim Naughton of the New York Times, for instance, had to file long, detailed, and relatively complex stories every day—while my own deadline fell every two weeks—but neither one of them ever seemed in a hurry about getting their work done, and from time to time they would try to console me about the terrible pressure I always seemed to be laboring under.
Any $100-an-hour psychiatrist could probably explain this problem to me, in thirteen or fourteen sessions, but I don’t have time for that. No doubt it has something to do with a deep-seated personality defect, or maybe a kink in whatever blood vessel leads into the pineal gland…. On the other hand, it might easily be something as simple & basically perverse as whatever instinct it is that causes a jackrabbit to wait until the last possible second to dart across the road in front of a speeding car.
People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity, and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jackrabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now & then…. No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenaline rush in crouching by the side of a road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.