Fear and Loathing 40 Years Later
Hunter S. Thompson’s outrage-stuffed, anti-cynical campaign masterpiece.
Hunter had such a brilliantly flashy narrative style that a lot of people were fooled into thinking that’s all he was—a wacky, drug-addled literary party animal with a gift for memorable insults and profanity-laden one-liners. The people who understood him the least (and a lot of these sorry individuals came out of the woodwork, bleating their complaints on right-wing talk shows and websites, when Thompson died) had this idea that he was just the journalistic version of a rock star, an abject hedonist with a gift for the catchy tune who was popular with kids because he stood for Letting Loose and Getting Off without consequence. I particularly remember this passage from someone named Austin Ruse in the National Review:
Author Hunter S. Thompson.
Photo by William J. Dibble.
[Thompson’s] famous aphorism, “When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro” was the font of more ruined GPAs than any other single source back in the 1970s. “When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro” meant that you could stay up all night doing every manner of substance and in the few milky hours between sunrise and the start of morning classes churn out a master term paper. Almost all of us discovered this was not true. Some, like Hunter himself, never learned it.
People like this either never read Hunter’s books, or they read them and didn’t understand them at all. All the drugs and the wildness and the profanity ... I’m not going to say it was an act, because as far as I know it was all very real, but they weren’t central to what made his books work.
People all over the world don’t identify with Hunter Thompson because he was some kind of all-world fraternity-party God who made a sexy living mainlining human adrenal fluids and spray-painting obscenities on the sides of racing yachts. No, they connect with the deathly earnest, passionate, troubled person underneath, the one who was so bothered by the various unanswerable issues of life that he went overboard trying to medicate the questions away.
People who describe Thompson’s dark and profane jokes as “cynical humor” don’t get it. Hunter Thompson was always the polar opposite of a cynic. A cynic, in the landscape of Campaign Trail ’72, for instance, is someone like Nixon or Ed Muskie, someone who cheerfully accepts the fundamental dishonesty of the American political process and is able to calmly deal with it on those terms, without horror.
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).
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.
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.
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” from 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.
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.
Excerpted from Matt Taibbi’s introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, out now from Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2012 by Matt Taibbi.