The Short Version: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, doctor of journalism, heads out on the campaign trail, following the Democratic Primary in 1972 on behalf of Rolling Stone. But 1972 was when it all changed – and as McGovern unexpectedly rockets towards the nomination, Thompson buckles down for some full Gonzo journalism…
The Review: One of the first pieces of political journalism I can remember reading of my own volition was “Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004” – Hunter’s last piece for Rolling Stone, as it would turn out – and it stuck with me. Several years later, I’d see (and then read, and then see many times over again) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – and when Christopher suggested that we read some political journalism for a recent episode of So Many Damn Books… well, it just seemed right. We’re missing a voice like Hunter’s in our own political discourse today and so wouldn’t it be fun to see him having his way at the peak of his powers?
Turns out “fun” isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe this experience. (I’ll see the argument that no Hunter S. Thompson book is “fun” because of the level of drug use and craziness and so on, but I don’t agree with it.) Instead, as with any deep dive into the political process – especially any honest one – the reader ends up feeling a little bewildered and a little unwell by the end of this tome. Maybe it was easier to digest when it was spaced out over the course of the year, mixed in with RS’s record reviews and pieces on rock stars. Or maybe, just maybe, politics is always going to be a little nausea-inducing.
Fear & Loathing ’72 feels particularly timely here in 2016, on both sides of the campaign. It’s hard not to think of McGovern when you look at Bernie Sanders and his grassroots uprising (ditto Barack Obama in 2008) – but it’s also not too much of a stretch to see strains of McGovern in the campaign of Donald Drumpf, who has tapped a similar (if differently aligned) vein in the populace. The thing about McGovern, Sanders, Obama, and Drumpf all is that they were successful (to varying degrees) in positioning themselves as the dark horse, as the outsider, as the one who would speak the truth when nobody else would. Of course, it’s also why Sanders’ campaign will only come in third when you talk about great grassroots organizations on the left in modern politics: McGovern actually won the nomination and Obama, well, he went all the way. And the thing about McGovern is that he might’ve run a great primary campaign but had no idea how to be a general election candidate – and we’ll see if the same thing can be said (please god let it be true) of Drumpf.
It’s Thompson’s portraits of these people that make the book most interesting, both as pleasure-reading material and a historical text. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson and Richard Nixon, two men who hated each other, riding in the back of an armored car… talking about football. Picture Hunter posting up next to McGovern in the bathroom and asking him a question that turns into one of the more insightful interviews from the campaign. It’s these moments that really bring these people to life, which was of course one of Hunter’s great gifts as a writer.
He also has a gift for, well, being crazy. And that craziness is well served here. Yes, there’s a point where suddenly he’s a little too famous to be pulling off the stunts that he got away with even a year or two earlier… but this isn’t quite that point. Look to the scene, somewhat hilarious and somewhat harrowing, where he ends up at the Republican Convention, on the floor with a bunch of young Nixon supporters who nearly tear him apart because of his press credentials until he throws another reporter under the proverbial bus in order to stay with the kids. Or the moment when, after being pretty messed up on several things and running into the trunk door of his car, he believes that Frank Mankiewicz (McGovern’s campaign director) has rushed out from the woods and beaned him over the head in an attempt to kill him. Yes, it’s paranoia brought on by drugs – but it’s also hilariously rendered. If you’ve seen the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I challenge you not to see an addled Johnny Depp-as-Hunter in that (and many other) scene(s).
Still, the cumulative effect of this book is an exhausting one. And as the campaign heads into the general election, McGovern making every possible mistake that a campaign could make on the way to nearly the biggest electoral defeat in history (only Reagan over Mondale would be a bigger electoral blowout and Johnson over Goldwater is the only other bigger win by percentage, if my history serves), it’s hard to watch. Especially when we think about the angry, bitter, polarized conversations taking place in the media today – or when you read a fawning, “look how insider-y we are” take on the electoral process like Game Change. Don’t get me wrong, Game Change is a great read for what it is – but Hunter S. Thompson would’ve torn that book to shreds, given the chance. Even as he became a politics junkie (and let’s be real, he already was – his demurring throughout this novel is all for show), he still retained a sense of being an outsider, of being someone who was observing and reporting and wondering just how on earth this could actually be the reality we lived in.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. “How low do you have to stoop in this country to become President?” Thompson asked. 44 years later, we still don’t know. And it’s only gotten worse. If only all those kids reading this book on the campaign trail these days actually took a lesson from it and forced the candidates to be honest… And while this book has its funny moments and definitely plenty of insightful ones, it’s also a hell of a bummer much of the time. Still, I’d rather an HST bummer than just about any other…