Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 -Hunter S. Thompson

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So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother looking for it here… The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction.

Okay, so Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 doesn’t fit perfectly into the realm of literature but it certainly cannot be misconstrued as non-fiction either. Written over the course of a year following the Democratic Primaries up through the 1972 Presidential election and its aftermath, Hunter Thompson blends expert political analysis with madcap drug-fueled insanity so deliciously one can scarcely detect where the lines are drawn.

The book moves month by month with Hunter on the campaign trail following Senator George McGovern on his journey from unlikely radical outlier to Democratic candidate for the Presidency in what would become one of the greatest landslide defeats in American politics. The book was originally written in installments while Thompson was a correspondent for Rolling Stone and the ending format takes on the fitting premise that the good Doctor and his editor are holed up in a hotel room frantically churning out pages through a Mojo Wire in order to make deadline.

Any who have tried to really look past the smoke and mirrors of the American electoral process can tell you it is complicated, dirty, and painfully boring, and this is a welcome bastion for those who wish to dig deeper. Even today 40 years later it is chilling to see how little has changed.  In 1972 with Nixon as the incumbent, the extent of Watergate not yet fully appreciated by the American public, and the Vietnam War still very much in effect, came an unorthodox Senator from middle America who talked of peace and championed the image of the ’anti-politician’. This was a great ray of hope for disgruntled youth and minority demographics and for a while it even seemed the unthinkable might happen.

We’ve come to a point where every four years the national fever rises up—this hunger for the Saviour, the White Knight, the Man on Horseback—and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Nixon is now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years…a person who moves all his friends into the White House and does whatever he wants for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to a point where you almost can’t run unless you cause people to salivate and whip on each other like big sticks, You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.

For a fleeting moment at the Democratic Convention George McGovern had indeed done the impossible, saying no to big money party heads and political gamesmanship but alas it was all too good to be true. McGovern would backpedal his original daring to become just another member towing the party line and would be decidedly crushed by Nixon as a result.  Unfortunately this particular piece of history is a familiar story and no less depressing four decades later.

However, as in all of Thompsons work, amidst the horror, the pain and confusion there is an ever present ray of hope in the antics and insight of Doctor Gonzo himself.  How refreshing it is to remember a time when a (semi) mainstream reporter had the stones to call a former Vice President a ‘treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a bottle and sent out with the Japanese current’ and later be quoted on it by Newsweek. How thrilling to entertain the bizarre (albeit plausible) accusation Senator Ed Muskie is addicted to Ibogaine powder supplied by a mysterious Brazilian doctor who fled the scene before Thompson could track him down for a statement. How disturbing the thought of a young delegate being framed for drug-use and murder as blackmail for his vote, and yet how chillingly convincing.  In the true spirit of Gonzo any would-be lines drawn congeal into this hellish diary of one mad man’s reality; a reality which would years later be described by Senator McGovern himself as ‘the most truthful and least factual account of the 1972 campaign.’

Supplemented by the brilliantly demented artwork of Ralph Steadman this is a beautiful concoction of politics and drugs, truth and myth, humor and terror, rage and carnage. It is never light and rarely easy to swallow but the rewards are well worth the sting.

Nobody laughed. I finished my double-tequila and went upstairs to my room to get hopelessly stoned by myself and pass out. It was that kind of convention.

 

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