“…The massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.”
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72

Hunter S. Thompson and George McGovern on the campaign trail

Hunter S. Thompson and George McGovern on the campaign trail

This passage, written over thirty years ago by Hunter S. Thompson, the late doctor of “gonzo journalism” and author of numerous works including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, could have just as easily been written anytime in the last decade – even this past year – and it would not have lost an ounce of meaning. Therein lies one of the most remarkable characteristics of Thompson’s book, which Tom Seligson of the New York Times called, at the time, “the best account yet published of what it feels like to be out there in the middle of the American political process” and many others today consider to be the best piece of political writing ever printed. The themes of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 are just as applicable today as they were at the time of its original publication in monthly installments for Rolling Stone magazine.

Thompson spent nearly a year covering the 1972 presidential campaign, from December 1971 to November 1972. Beginning his journey in Washington, D.C., before the first primaries, Thompson’s campaign coverage takes him all over the country for the Democratic primaries and both conventions, and continues past the presidential election in November. Over the course of those twelve months, the “good doctor” (as he is so often called) becomes gradually more and more engrossed in the political process, so that whereas he begins as a complete outsider he ends his trip having revealed the ins and outs of a presidential campaign. Through his patented “gonzo” style of writing, he carries the reader along with him, and is able to clearly explain every aspect of the campaign to those who otherwise may not be very well informed about the “behind the scenes” operations of the political arena.

Gonzo journalism is a journalistic style which operates on the notion that journalism can be more truthful without strict observance of traditional rules of factual reportage. Thompson pioneered the new style by immersing himself in his stories, usually while under the influence of incredible amounts of mind-altering illegal substances, blurring the line between writer and subject, fiction and nonfiction. While many criticize Thompson and other members of this class of “New Journalism,” such as Tom Wolfe and P.J. O’Rourke, for being too subjective and unprofessional, others see the hyperbole and fictionalized details that are typical of the style as a way to present an even more accurate and honest picture of the events described, by getting at the deeper truth behind the facts. Thompson himself writes in the opening pages of On the Campaign Trail ’72, “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.”

In this spirit, Thompson embarks on his year-long voyage with the press corps, where he keeps all of his biases and prejudices safely intact in order to pass them along to the reader. He makes repeated references to Democratic candidate Ed Muskie’s reported use of the psychoactive drug Ibogaine and routinely mocks candidate Hubert Humphrey with harsh invectives that would never be found in the objectve pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, but are perfectly acceptable in the gonzo-friendly world of Rolling Stone:

There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you’ve followed him around for a while on the campaign trail. The double-standard realities of campaign journalism, however, make it difficult for even the best of the ‘straight/objective’ reporters to write what they actually think and feel about a candidate.

Thompson reserves the worst of his attacks for President Richard Nixon, and refers to him as a force of evil which must be stopped, no matter who or what replaces him. Eventually, his main opponent is Senator George McGovern, who wins the Democratic nomination and Thompson’s faith. Following the Senator as he crisscrosses the country countless times in the months leading up to the election, Thompson gains an affection for the man, a new breed of politician to counter the old guard of the Nixons and Humphreys.

In the end, it is not enough, and McGovern loses by a landslide to the incumbent Nixon. Thompson blames McGovern’s incompetence in “dirty politics,” and says that he suffered the liability of being “what Robert Kennedy once called, ‘the most decent man in the Senate.’ Which is not quite the same thing as being the best candidate for President of the United States. For that, McGovern would need at least one dark kinky streak of Mick Jagger in his soul.”

Every step of the way, Thompson breaks down the inner workings of American politics in a way in which readers can comprehend and enjoy, and even begin to understand his own growing addiction to the race. One of the reasons he is able to achieve this is the fact that his many other addictions seem, for the most part at least, to take a back seat to the campaign. The gonzo style that had served the renegade writer so well in his previous works is tamed in favor of a more lucid and analytical account of the events described. Which is not to say that Dr. Gonzo completely abandons his old ways, of course. At times, working under the pressure of magazine deadlines and under the heavy influence of a veritable pharmacy of various drugs, Thompson resorts to any tactic necessary to get the story out: transcripts of interviews and telephone conversations, pages torn out of his notebook and put directly into print, even occasionally publishing other writers’ work to provide a different (more sober) perspective of the campaign.

Altogether, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 is one of the most entertaining, yet informative, pieces of political writing that I have ever read. Because the book began as a series of articles for Rolling Stone magazine, and each chapter was written for a deadline, every page jumps with the urgency of the moment in which it was written. There is not much time for hindsight and retrospection, just an ongoing record of the entire campaign as it unfolds, and the ever-changing moods of Hunter S. Thompson as he experiences firsthand the dark underbelly of the political system and lets us in on the joke as well.

This essay was written April 2005 for the NYU Journalism class “Mass Media and Government.”

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