Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson

Grand Central, 1973 (2006 reprint), 481 pages, C$20.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-446-69822-1

Few things age faster that political reporting, especially when covering actual elections. Today’s hot scoop is tomorrow’s accepted wisdom and next week’s irrelevant history. It’s no surprise that political commentary has been embraced so fiercely by the instant-publishing world of blogging, when every moment counts and no opinion goes unpublished.

But it wasn’t always so, and a lifetime ago (my lifetime, at least) some periodicals had to be content with running election coverage once every two weeks. Few people would be crazy enough to accept such an assignment, but gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t an entirely sane man even when he was completely sober. When Thompson managed to convince the biweekly Rolling Stone magazine to cover the 1972 presidential elections, a unique match was struck between reporter and venue: Thompson would set up shop in the nation’s capital and cover the election from an avowed left-leaning perspective, without any regard to keeping bridges standing longer than it would take to make it to November 1972.

From the very first installment, in which Thompson describes a hellish wintertime drive from Colorado to Washington (speaking to some suspiciously convenient interlocutors along the way), it’s obvious that this isn’t routine objective political reporting. Thompson barged on that world with an outsider’s perspective, and no amount of official accreditation would alter this mindset. By the time he allows his press credentials to be used by a heckler to climb aboard disliked candidate Ed Muskie’s whistlestop tour, and later plants rumors of Muskie’s Ibogaine drug addiction, it’s obvious that Thompson is neither neutral nor interested in playing it safe. That largely explains why the result of this year-long electoral chronicle still remain compelling, more than 35 years after publication.

Much of the book has aged ungracefully: Despite Thompson’s intent to explain the mechanics of the presidential campaigning process to readers discovering politics for the first time, many of his off-hand references to contemporary figures and events are now mystifying: Readers may want to invest a few minutes into reading a more objective summary of the 1972 campaign before leaping into the more impressionistic, commentary-enhanced prose of Thompson’s chronicles. Some of the photos, most notably, could now use updated captions as the event surrounding them have completely faded away and the surrounding text doesn’t help.

Thompson isn’t nearly as interesting a reporter as he is a commentator, or a walking stereotype of his own burgeoning legend. Some of the most dramatic hard-news moments of the campaign (such as the attempted assassination of candidate George Wallace) are distantly described at a remove, whereas some of the book’s strongest passages occur as Thompson takes flights of fancy into the mystique of a hard-boozing reporter stuck between hellish working conditions and inflexible deadlines, or editorializes the results of the election —famously saying

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves, finally just lay back and say it —that we are really just a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” [P.389]

and proving that some things remain true even decades and a few more million Americans later.

But the insane pacing of a presidential campaign eventually takes its toll on the reporter. It’s not insignificant if more than half of the book focuses on the Democratic party primaries and if nearly two-thirds of the narrative occurs before the end of the two party conventions in Miami –the rest of the campaign is covered limply, and a good chunk of the book’s last third takes the form of post-election analysis. In the grand arc of Thompson’s career, Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 marks an intellectual crescendo of sorts; an enduring proof of what he could do when running in peak condition. But many biographers also describe how the campaign broke Thompson’s spirit, dogged him through tense personal moments, led him to harder drugs and made him a celebrity, all of which would make it impossible for him to go back to the type of work he was capable of doing between the release of Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which was finally published in book form during the campaign). More significantly, it’s also the book that cemented Thompson’s credentials as a celebrity political commentator —a role he would adopt until the end of his life.

But On the Campaign Trail ’72 hasn’t aged as well as Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in part because its ground-breaking quality gets increasingly less distinct as the years go by. For modern readers tempered in the fire of the 2004 and 2008 elections, Thompson’s prose reads a lot like pungent blog entries fueled by an unusual level of access. Thompson’s then-revolutionary subjective viewpoint is now a common quality of partisan blogging, and his “getting the story” gonzo-journalism shtick has now been co-opted by an increasing number of blogs set up by established mainstream reporters. In their own ways, bloggers are the true children of gonzo, reporting quickly and without any editorial filters to their readers and trusting them to see where reporting ends and subjective commentary begins. (No wonder if some of Thompson’s last writing was published on ESPN’s web site, in a style faithful both to his earlier gonzo work and to modern blog-writing.)

For those who have read a lot about Thompson and his writing process, it’s hard to read this collection of essays without sparing a thought for the Rolling Stone editors who had to wrestle Thompson’s undisciplined output into readable shape. The effort isn’t completely transparent: The columns still have a herky-jerky stream-of-madness quality that reads more like a stack of related items than a sustained narrative. The last third of the book is particularly scattered, as the “notes from the editor” multiply and narrative fiction is suspended in favor of interview-like questions-and answers. After lengthy missives earlier during the year, the entirety of the month of October fits in four airy pages of anguished prose about the inevitability of Nixon’s victory.

It’s hard to make out the true shape of the campaign at is occurs, but the final pages are made of savvy analysis about the campaign. For modern readers, the 1972 presidential campaign remains one of the most baffling one in American history: Even as the Watergate scandal was picking up steam, a war-torn America still awarded Richard Nixon one of the largest majority on record, only a few months before he resigned the presidency —and that’s not even mentioning Spiro Agnew’s straight journey from the vice-presidency to prison. Thompson’s instant analysis provides a few clues as to what happened, but it’s noteworthy that his undisguised loathing of failed vice-presidential democratic candidate Thomas Eagleton would dovetail with the 2007 revelations that Eagleton
was the undisclosed originator of the “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid” catch-phrase that so damaged George McGovern during the campaign.

But the most remarkable thing about the book is that even nine presidential elections later, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains an intriguing read for American politics junkies. The good moments are still a joy to read, and the time-capsule aspect of the narrative has a certain interest. Needless to say, the book amply proves why it remains near the top of Thompson’s bibliography. It’s a just a shame that he was never able to reach that level of sustained political analysis ever again.

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