Matt Taibbi on Hunter S. Thompson and the 1972 Campaign

Reading between the lines.
June 29 2012 11:29 PM

Fear and Loathing 40 Years Later

Hunter S. Thompson’s outrage-stuffed, anti-cynical campaign masterpiece.

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Illustration by Matt Kindt.

Following is an excerpt 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.

I doubt any book means more to a single professional sect than Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 means to American political journalists. It’s been read and reread by practically every living reporter in this country, and just as you’re likely to find a dog-eared paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop somewhere in every foreign correspondent’s backpack, you can still spot the familiar red (it was red back then) cover of Fear and Loathing ’72 poking out of the duffel bags of the reporters sent to follow the likes of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Barack Obama on the journalistic Siberia known as the Campaign Trail.

Decades after it was written, in fact, Fear and Loathing ’72 is still considered a kind of bible of political reporting. It’s given birth to a whole generation of clichés and literary memes, with many campaign reporters (including, unfortunately, me) finding themselves consciously or unconsciously making villainous Nixons, or Quislingian Muskies, or Christlike McGoverns out of each new quadrennial batch of presidential pretenders.

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Even the process itself has evolved to keep pace with the narrative expectations for the campaign story we all have now because of Hunter and Fear and Loathing. The scenes in this book where Hunter shoots zingers at beered-up McGovern staffers at places like “a party on the roof of the Doral” might have just been stylized asides in the book, but on the real Campaign Trail they’ve become formalized parts of the messaging process, where both reporters and candidates constantly use these Thompsonian backdrops as vehicles to move their respective products.

Every campaign seems to have a hotshot reporter and a campaign manager who recreate and replay the roles of Hunter and Frank Mankiewicz (Karl Rove has played the part a few times), and if this or that campaign’s staffers don’t come down to the hotel bar often enough for the chummy late-night off-the-record bull sessions that became campaign legend because of this book, reporters will actually complain out loud, like the failure to follow the script is a character flaw of the candidate.

Some of this seems trite and clichéd now, but at the time, telling the world about all of these behind-the-scenes rituals was groundbreaking stuff. That this is a great piece of documentary journalism about how American politics works is beyond question—for as long as people are interested in the topic, this will be one of the first places people look to find out what our electoral process looks like and smells like and sounds like, off-camera. Thompson caught countless nuances of that particular race that probably eluded the rest of the established reporters. It shines through in the book that he was not merely interested in the 1972 campaign but obsessed by it, and he followed the minutiae of it with an addict’s tenacity.

For instance, there’s a scene early in the book when he confronts McGovern’s New Hampshire campaign manager, Joe Granmaison, badgering the portly pol about having been a Johnson delegate in 1968:

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson.

“Let’s talk about that word accountable,” I said. “I get the feeling you stepped in shit on that one.”

“What do you mean?” he snapped. “Just because I was a Johnson delegate doesn’t mean anything. I’m not running for anything.”

“Good,” I said.

Now, not many reporters would bother to find out what a lowly regional manager for a primary long-shot candidate was doing four years ago, but Hunter had to know. The whole book reeked of a kind of desperation to know where absolutely everyone he met stood on the manic quest to find meaning and redemption that was his campaign adventure.

The obsession made for great theater, but it also produced great journalism. Hunter knew the geography of the 1972 campaign the way a stalker knows a starlet’s travel routine, and when he put it all down on paper, it was lit up with the kind of wildly vivid detail that only a genuinely crazy person, all mixed up with rage and misplaced love, can bring to a subject.

But saying Campaign Trail ’72 is a good source on presidential campaigns is almost like saying Moby-Dick is a good book about whales. This is more than a nonfiction title that’s narrowly about modern American elections. If it were only that, it wouldn’t endure the way it has or resonate so powerfully the way it still does.

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