Fear, Loathing, Politics

I pulled out my dog-eared early-80s paperbacks of the now-late Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Great Shark Hunt just before watching my downloaded versions of The West Wing (the current season showing in the US, not three seasons behind like here). Hunter Thompson was a politics junky (and memorably discussed football with ’68 presidential candidate Richard Nixon in the back of a limo), but he probably hated the West Wing (although in terms of sheer self-destructive drug-induced behavior he was clearly a kindred spirit of WW creator Aaron Sorkin). It’s ironic that it wasn’t, in the end, that self-destructive drug-induced behavior that killed him, but a much sadder, quite literal, self-destruction (unsurprisingly, he did himself in with one of his own arsenal). Apparently, Thompson, no longer spry at 65, was hobbled by hip replacements and a recently broken ankle, unable to live up to his own swaggering vision of himself, immortalized as Doonesbury‘s amoral Uncle Duke and played by Johnny Depp. Still, it’s often forgotten amid the talk of gonzo journalism, of drugs, drink and guns, that Thompson was in fact a keen and knowledgeable observer of American politics, and despite the famous cynicism, had a kernel of idealism deep down that, thirty years ago anyway, drove him. Writing about the 1972 presidential campaign, it’s clear the world hasn’t changed much. It may have even gotten worse:


The polls … indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the youth vote. And that he might carry all fifty states…. This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves — that we really are 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 anyone else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

[Sounds familiar?]

The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and his imprecise talk about “new politics” and “honesty in government,” is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.

McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.

Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?

From Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt. (Illustration by Ralph Steadman.)