More election season reading: Hunter Thompson’s ‘bible of political reporting’

Posted 8/13/20

by Hugh Gilmore The ads for November's Battle of the Giants – Mr. Trump v. Mr. Biden – No Holds Barred, Ladies and Gentlemen – have lately come falling out of the skies on us like millions of …

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More election season reading: Hunter Thompson’s ‘bible of political reporting’


by Hugh Gilmore

The ads for November's Battle of the Giants – Mr. Trump v. Mr. Biden – No Holds Barred, Ladies and Gentlemen – have lately come falling out of the skies on us like millions of fortune cookie mottoes during a ticker tape parade. In self-defense, it would be good to read Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.”

Thompson covered the entire 1972 Presidential campaign as the National Correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine. In December, 1971, he began hobnobbing in Washington and then joined the press crews' planes, trains, and automobiles through nearly all of the Democratic primaries, both party's conventions, and on past the election. Given his Rolling Stone credentials, his reporting was not of the laced-up, three-piece-suit kind, meant for consumption on Main Street USA. Nonetheless many professional journalists consider to it be a kind of bible of political reporting.

Not the current kind of bible, though, the kind a modern prophet would hold up in front of St. John's Episcopal Church parish house in D.C. No, indeed. "Fear and Loathing" is brilliant, honest and illuminating on the subject of American politics but also profane, drug-propelled and cruelly accurate. People still debate whether Thompson's defiantly flaky side diminished his prodigious talents, enabled them. No one, except perhaps Mark Twain had such a penchant for colorfully and humorously describing the emperor's skin.

For example, he writes early on that, "The problem in any democracy is that the 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."

Thompson's purpose in joining the campaign tour was to "preserve here a kind of high-speed cinematic reel" of what the Nixon–McGovern presidential competition was like at the time, not what the whole thing boiled down to or how it fits into history." What we get is a documentary of what it was like to be "On the Bus" in 1972, among hundreds of other reporters, TV news anchors, front men, backroom poker games, volunteers, photographers, analysts, speechwriters and, oh, yes, the candidates themselves.

It was known from the start that the presidential incumbent, Richard M. Nixon would carry the GOPs banner again, so Thompson spent most of his time covering the multifarious Democrats seeking their party's nomination. What a cast: Senators Edmund Muskie of Maine, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Henry Jackson of Washington and George McGovern of South Dakota. Plus, Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm, the first African American person to vie for the Presidency of the United States. And, the openly racist George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, who started early to capture the vote of the working man by "speaking for the little man, the working man," as Donald Trump seems to have managed in the 2016 election. There were others, but those characters get most of the lines in the play.

Shading the whole scenario that Thompson covers is the lingering, looming parade balloon known as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Together Hubert Humphrey and Richard Daley use every dirty trick in the book to hold together the "Traditional" Democratic party and block the new kid on the block, George McGovern, from getting the nomination. Their machinations, complex as they are at times, form the compelling "plot" of this nonfiction book.

Thompson writes, "The a--holes who run politics in this country have become so mesmerized by the Madison Avenue school of campaigning, that they actually believe...that all it takes to become a Congressman or a Senator–or even a President–is a nice set of teeth, a big wad of money, and a half-dozen Media Specialists."

Hubert Humphrey, he writes, "is a treacherous, gutless, old ward-heeler who should be put in a god---- bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current." As for Muskie, who was the front runner for a while because everyone said he had the best chance of beating Nixon, "Sending Muskie against Nixon would have been like sending a three-toed sloth out to seize turf from a wolverine."

Doesn't sound objective, does it, but Thompson's answer to that charge was: "Don't bother to look for it (objective journalism) here–not under any byline of mine...The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms."

McGovern eventually won the nomination, but on election day, November 7, 1972, Nixon crushed McGovern, taking every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. By 1974, however, both Nixon and his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew were forced to resign for corruption.

In later years, Frank Mankiewicz, Senator George McGovern's campaign manager, would often say about "Fear and Loathing," that, despite its embellishments, Thompson's account represented "the least factual, most accurate account" of the election.