“When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road running, it is only a matter of time before he gets smashed -- and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.”
-- Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72.
1972 was a major year in my personal political development.
It was the year of my first anti-war demonstration at the University of New Mexico — an adrenalin-charged and tear gas-soaked week that still gets me riled and antsy.
It was the first year in which people between the ages of 18 and 20 were legally eligible to vote. I was 19 and I voted as part of that youth vote that some — wrongly — predicted would be huge enough to oust Richard Nixon.
And one thing that helped make the year bearable were the regular mondo gonzo campaign dispatches from Hunter Thompson published in Rolling Stone.
Thompson’s bad-craziness exit this week prompted me to pick up my well-worn first edition paperback (price tag: $1.75) of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, which I‘ve always thought to be his greatest work, despite the greater infamy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Reading all the praise and final respects for Thompson from mainstream press folk around the country struck me as ironic. Though Thompson had plenty of friends among non-gonzo journalists, he didn’t think much of the establishment political press.
“The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists — in Washington or anywhere else they meet on a day-to-day basis,” Thompson wrote in the introduction of Campaign Trail. “When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in … especially for the `minor infractions of rules that neither side takes seriously; and on the rare occasions when Minor infractions suddenly become Major, there is panic on both ends.”
Many of us envied Thompson’s fearlessness and reckless freedom shown in Campaign Trail. Who among us doesn’t fantasize about blurting out — in print — pejoratives like “evil swine,” or “treacherous geek” or “corrupt old ward-heeler” when describing some of the politicos we cover? (Note to politicos: You know who you are.)
But while many of us admired Thompson, few, if any, actually emulate him either in writing or antics. Here in New Mexico some of our judges come a lot closer to Hunter Thompson than our journalists.
The ‘72 race was Thompson‘s high-water mark for political writing. His subsequent stabs at writing about presidential campaigns seemed half-hearted and weary.
I remember trying to trudge through his late ‘80s book Generation of Swine, a collection of his columns about national politics. His observations there seemed like warmed-over conventional wisdom spiced up with familiar Thompsonisms like “money-sucking animals,” and “greed-crazed lunatics.”
Some believe Thompson by the end had become a sad parody of himself. Many believe his legendary drug and booze intake eventually fried his spirit and diminished his talent.
But for one glorious stretch 35 years ago, Thompson single-handedly cut through the crap of politics and journalism, revealed disturbing truths and made his work seem like twisted fun. For that he should be honored.
Remembering Campaign ‘72: New Mexico voted for Nixon over Democrat George McGovern — as did every state but Massachusetts.
But there was weirdness in the air earlier that year. In the June primary there were enough renegade Republicans here who voted for Paul McCloskey — an anti-war congressman from California — that New Mexico sent the only delegate to that year’s Republican convention who didn’t vote for Nixon. (That was Tom Mayer, an author from Española who taught creative writing at The University of New Mexico.)
The most surreal political event I attended that year — not counting the war demonstrations — was an Albuquerque airport rally for Democratic vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver. The main draw wasn’t Shriver but singer Richie Havens, who explained to the crowd that he personally didn’t intend to vote because he refused to give control of his life to anyone. Not the message the organizers wanted.
At the rally, then-Gov. Bruce King urged the crowd to “knock on doorbells for George McGovern.” The cowboy governor then introduced actor Dennis Hopper, who read Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.
Ring of Fred: Thumbing through Campaign Trail '72, I found a Thompson reference to New Mexico political figure — Fred Harris, a former state Democratic chair who then was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. Describing a press conference to announce the formation of a National Youth Caucus, Thompson wrote, “Harris didn’t say much; he just sat there looking like Johnny Cash …”