The Arts Council sounds off on… Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72

By David A. Brensilver

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here – not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. 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.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72

Frank Mankiewicz, who was George McGovern’s campaign manager, memorably described Thompson’s book as the “the least factual, most accurate account” of the 1972 presidential campaign.

It’s difficult, thinking about Mankiewicz’s description of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, not to think about passages like this:

“Not much has been written about The Ibogaine Effect as a serious factor in the Presidential Campaign, but toward the end of the Wisconsin primary race – about a week before the vote – word leaked out that some of Muskie’s top advisers had called in a Brazilian doctor who was said to be treating the candidate with ‘some kind of strange drug’ that nobody in the press corps had ever heard of.”

It’s that kind of writing that makes Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 more entertaining than any of the lazy and predictable campaign coverage we’re getting today. And it doesn’t matter that the above-quoted passage was among what Mankiewicz called the “least factual” aspects of Thompson’s coverage.

In Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, which was published 1990, Thompson wrote:

Simon & Schuster’s 40th anniversary edition of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.” Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

“I never said that Muskie was taking Ibogaine. I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that a strange Brazilian doctor had been showing up at his suite to administer heavy shots of some strange drug called Ibogaine. Of course it wasn’t true. I never said it was true. I said there was a rumor to that effect. I made up the rumor.”

As far as being what Mankiewicz called the “most accurate account” of the 1972 presidential campaign, Thompson’s coverage, which was originally reported for Rolling Stone, should be mandatory reading for any aspiring political writer – or for anyone who likes to go “inside baseball,” as the phrase goes.

With the 2012 presidential election just weeks away, it’s hard not to find Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 race particularly relevant. Giving that campaign some context vis-à-vis the 1968 presidential election, Thompson wrote:

“I went to Nixon’s Inauguration. … and as one-time Presidential candidate George Romney passed by in his new role as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, the mob on the sidewalk began chanting ‘Romney eats shit! Romney eats shit!’ George tried to ignore it. He knew the TV cameras were on him so he curled his mouth up in a hideous smile and kept waving at the crowd – even as they continued to chant ‘Romney eats shit!’”

Beyond the obvious genetic relationship between the 1972 presidential election and the current race, what one finds in Thompson’s masterwork is that things haven’t changed much at all, as is made clear by this passage:

“The assholes who run politics in this country have become so mesmerized by the Madison Avenue school of campaigning that they actually believe, now, 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.”

Or this one:

“The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy – then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.”

Reading Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 allowed me to process today’s politics from a broader perspective than I might have had I not read it.

Thompson was not a pundit or an analyst. He was a writer who adored his craft. As a young man, Thompson took it upon himself to retype classic novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald to get the rhythm of his literary hero’s prose in his fingers. Thompson’s writing, from his letters to his fiction and nonfiction, has a musical quality to it. It has rhythm. And it has melody. Reading Thompson, for me, feels like tapping directly into his catharsis.

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 made me care about and enjoy politics on several levels. With his writing, Thompson aimed for Fitzgerald’s “high white note,” and he made me want to reach for the same. He always knew where to look for the truth in the bigger picture and he left us clear directions for getting there – if we can stomach the trip.

I was devastated when Hunter S. Thompson took his life in 2005 and I’m grateful for the pages of his work that line my bookshelves.

David A. Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper. This is his opinion.


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