Friday, November 14, 2008

Fear. Loathing. Politics.

I’ve had very brief run-ins with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, but I’ve mostly avoided it. I convinced myself that his average sentence must have been an incomprehensible drug-fueled explosion that made other New Journalists look mannered by comparison. But as part of my continuing spree of political reading, I picked up Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. One hundred fifty pages in, I was thrilled. It was funny, smart, and -- give or take a moment here or there -- precise. At that point in my progress, last weekend, a friend had people over for dinner, and I told him I was reading it. He asked if I didn’t feel that Thompson’s legendarily toxic habits must have been an exaggeration, given the clarity of his work. I agreed.

Then I read the rest of the book.

About the last third is not really written by Thompson -- it’s just transcripts of conversations he had with other people. The book was originally serialized in Rolling Stone, and as the final deadlines approached, Thompson was in increasingly bad shape. So instead of getting some dramatic form and stylistic flair in the final chapters, we get the transcripts. One of them in particular is about complicated maneuvering on the floor of the Democratic Convention. It renders the maneuvering opaque and it’s excruciatingly boring to read.

Even though the book stumbles across the finish line, it's worth reading. When Thompson was clearheaded enough to write properly, it’s a fascinating, subjective, hilarious look at the Democratic party in the titular year. Thompson was a fan of George McGovern’s from the start, so the book focuses mostly on his campaign. He ended up with the nomination, of course, and lost every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon.

The story has more than a few parallels to the election just passed, including a couple of big ones: The Democrats wondering about how to appeal to certain “working class” (polite shorthand for “often racist”) voters who were attracted to the candidacy of George Wallace, and McGovern possibly dooming whatever small chance he had with the selection of a controversial vice president.

As expected, it’s Thompson’s cranky voice that makes the ride. William F. Buckley critically sniffed at Thompson’s “gift for vitriol,” and Christopher Hitchens admired the same trait, praising Thompson as “a highly polished hater.” In Campaign Trail, there’s plenty of vitriol for Nixon, but the most consistent, searing hatred is saved for Hubert Humphrey. I think these three passages, from various stages of the book, give you a good idea of how Thompson felt about the former VP and senator from Minnesota:
Hubert Humphrey is a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current. The idea of Humphrey running for President again makes a mockery out of things that it would take me too long to explain or even list here. And Hubert Humphrey wouldn’t understand what I was talking about anyway. He was a swine in ‘68 and he’s worse now. least half the reporters assigned to the Humphrey campaign are convinced that he’s senile. When he ran for President four years ago he was a hack and a fool, but at least he was consistent. Now he talks like an eighty-year-old woman who just discovered speed.

Any political party that can’t cough up anything better than a treacherous brain-damaged old vulture like Hubert Humphrey deserves every beating it gets.
He had only slightly less disgust for Ed Muskie, another Democratic contender, comparing those running his campaign to “a gang of junkies trying to send a rocket to the moon to check out rumors that the craters were full of smack.” And writing that:
Sending Muskie against Nixon would have been like sending a three-toed sloth out to seize turf from a wolverine. Big Ed was an adequate senator . . . but it was stone madness from the start to ever think about exposing him to the kind of bloodthirsty thugs that Nixon and John Mitchell would sic on him. They would have him screeching on his knees by sundown on Labor Day.
But Thompson didn’t go much easier on his favored McGovern. About an article in the New York Times, which listed McGovern’s vice presidential possibilities, Thompson wrote, “...I had never seen so many bums and hacks listed in a single paragraph in any publication for any reason.”

It's not all disdain, though. Or at least, not all disdain for people. There's disdain for institutions, too, like journalism. At one point, Thompson (with an image I love) illuminates an opinion I share, and one not surprisingly held by someone remembered for helping to change journalism, for better or worse:
The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. . . . With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey there, Campaign 72 is by far my favorite HST book. A lot of folks avoid reading Hunter's work for the same reason you did. I agree he is not everyones cup of tea but I think most of his work is worth a try. Frank Mankowitz had a great quote about Campaign 72, "It was the least factual and most accurate of the 72 election." Thanks for a great post.

2:35 PM  

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