Monday, April 7, 2008

Campaign Trail '08

Cazart! It seems that Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative is currently reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72:
The Thompson cult is too hip for my tastes — and many a young writer has been ruined trying to emulate the godfather of gonzo — but I’m enjoying the book a great deal. George McGovern is the hero of the book, and since McGovern is also one of the good guys in Kauffman’s book (which I’ll eventually be reviewing, the fact that I’m quoted therein notwithstanding) means that I suppose Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail counts as research. My Ron Paul campaign colleague Jonathan Bydlak was the one who recommended the book to me — a good call.
The big mystery is why McCarthy didn't contact me, since I'm arguably the Right's foremost authority on all things Gonzo. In addition to having been a fan since 1979, I'm on friendly terms with Thompson's widow, which is something few right-wingers can say.
Certainly McCarthy's friend Bydlak made a good recommendation -- HST's '72 campaign book is arguably the most honest book of its kind ever written. (I wrote a feature about the book when it was re-released in 2006.) Thompson's hilariously blunt assessments of liberal phonies like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey are worth the price of the book. He also provides some fascinating inner-circle glimpses of how the McGovern campaign fought it out during the Democratic primaries -- and then hopelessly bungled the general election campaign against Nixon.

What's important to understand about HST's journalism, as I explained last month in my "Notes on Gonzo" post, is that he did not plan to become a journalist. He planned to be a great novelist -- his heroes were Hemingway and Fitzgerald -- and stumbled into journalism as a way to pay the bills. As he writes in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (pg. 478 of the latest paperback edition):

There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bulls---, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.
Throughout his writing (including Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), HST persistently ridicules the self-important cluelessness of "serious," "objective" journalists. Thompson himself never claimed to be objective -- he had strong feelings about the stories he covered and never bothered to hide his feelings -- and engaged in wild antics (such as giving his press pass to a drifter who wreaked havoc on Muskie's campaign train) that injected chaotic mischief into the compulsory dullness of "serious" journalism.
McCarthy is correct that "many a young writer has been ruined trying to emulate the godfather of gonzo," as Thompson's widow herself said:
"A lot of young people are under the assumption that if you do a lot of cocaine and drink a lot of Wild Turkey, you, too, can write like Hunter S. Thompson," she told the audience that included Richard Cusick of High Times magazine and R. Keith Stroop, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Gonzo journalism is not about substance abuse, but about the writer's self-awareness -- and his awareness that much of what passes for journalism is no better than "hired bulls---," to quote Thompson. What he was trying to get at was something beneath the PR hype, something real and true, something honest and human.

I became a fan of HST three decades ago because his books made me laugh. Now, after more than 20 years in the news business, I still laugh, but HST also makes me think, and stand amazed that he was able to do what he did. That's why I get angry when John McCain's ditzy daughter compares her insipid blog to Thompson's campaign opus. That stupid brat hasn't paid enough dues, and never will pay enough dues, to compare herself to Thompson.

Oh, one more thing I meant to point out: McGovern is not the hero of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. McGovern is a nice guy, but he's also a loser. The real hero of the book is Thompson. He always is the hero of his books, which goes a long way toward explaining the "Thompson cult" among young writers who dream of being heroes themselves.

UPDATE: Linked by James Poulos, whose monstrous sideburns are proof that long-term ibogaine abuse can lead to the growth of bizarre facial hair.

It disturbs me, however, that Poulos calls me a "DC fixture." (A urinal is also a fixture.) What James means is that I show up once or twice a month at the same open-bar gatherings of right-wingers that he attends regularly. But while James lives in DC, I live 70 miles away on the far side of South Mountain in rural Maryland.

So how is that I have managed, via these periodic visits to DC, to create the impression that I am a ubiquitous "fixture" in the city? Poulos must be hallucinating, and it's probably not just the ibogaine. He must have gotten into the ether. And I remind you, there is still "nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge."

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