Fact & Fiction on the Campaign Trail: The Politics of Hunter S Thompson

I might not get the date right once in a while. I try to be more accurate than other journalists, which is not that difficult. You have to distinguish between what happened and what the situation was.

You can’t be objective when you’re dealing with passionate situations, politics and so forth. I guess you can, I never have. For instance if you were objective about Richard Nixon, you would never get him or understand him. You had to be subjective to understand Nixon. You have to be subjective to understand the Hells Angels.[1]

 

A Strange and Terrible Transition

 

Following the publication of Hell’s Angels, Hunter S Thompson had earned the respect necessary to write for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Pageant and others. Then, with the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972, he cemented his own strange reputation. Between these major events, he began to write for Rolling Stone, who would publish serialisations of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the original articles that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. His articles for Rolling Stone documented his running for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, and many of his other crazy escapades. Jann Wenner recalls Thompson’s first appearance at Rolling Stone’s headquarters as wearing a perm wig and carrying beer, suggesting again Thompson’s desire to making an impression.

So by the time Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 was published, Thompson was a legendary figure in his own right, with notoriety rivalled by no other journalist. It became difficult for him to attend press conferences, because the questions would inevitably be aimed at him, while his ‘fortified compound’ in WoodyCreek became a point of pilgrimage for fans.

There was no doubt then in the minds of his readers, and even in the minds of those who had never read a Hunter S Thompson book, that his life was exactly like he presented it in his novels. And it is with this infamy that a new era emerges in his writing, marking a shift from an exploration of events through the presentation of himself as the comical centrepiece and the event or idea as the background, to direct character assassination and the use of his notoriety as an angry man to bend the truth openly to present a feeling that captured a person.

It appears that after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas his work becomes more journalistic, yet less accurate in many ways. He takes on politics, especially following his unsuccessful sheriff campaign, and does so as a reporter. His adventures become second string to the action on the political circuit, yet the action on the political circuit takes place through his warped eyes.

In 1968, Thompson was invited onto Nixon’s campaign bus, and told that he could talk to the politician about ‘nothing but football.’ Nixon was well aware of Thompson’s reputation as a sports reporter and football fanatic, and the two apparently talked about football for some time. This conversation suggested to Thompson that Nixon’s brilliant understanding of tactics and plays allowed him manipulate everything to his political advantage.

Later that year Thompson went to Chicago to cover the Democratic Convention and, despite his press credentials, was beaten by police batons and thrown through a plate glass window. Thompson claims the event turned him into a ‘cold-blooded revolutionary’.

The two events are pivotal in Thompson’s writing career. The first introduced him to his nemesis, Richard Milhous Nixon, the man with whom Thompson became synonymous, and the second was a personal encounter with the injustice of state oppression.

Of course, if we are to ignore the fact that these events are known because they were described by Thompson himself, then we can take them as keys to his shift in style. His apparent intimacy with Nixon allows him to tell us things about the President that are never proven and explained in great depth. And Thompson’s style of reporting from this point on becomes significantly more vulgar as he begins to insinuate and make unfounded and comical attacks on politicians, unprovoked seemingly, as perhaps unprovoked as his attack by government forces in 1968.

 

[1] Bulger, A., ‘The Hunter S Thompson Interview’ Culture March 9 2003

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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