The Greatest Political Writer Ever

He could have blown out eighty candles on a birthday cake this July 28, 2017 if he hadn’t blown one bullet through his head on February 20, 2005. If the earlier event never happened the future one likely would have happened in the exact same place, in the kitchen cum office cum command center of a rustic ranch house in Woody Creek Canyon ten miles outside of Aspen, Colorado. The house’s owner referred to it as the Owl Farm and amidst a clutter of notes, political buttons, boxes of books, Ralph Steadman drawings and a Che Guevara banner the most prominent object was (and is, for the scene has been preserved to this day) a hand-written misquotation drawn from Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”

You have to admit, exchanging coming for dying is a quite fascinating choice, revealing of the editor both in his psychology and philosophy. The nearest similarity that comes to mind would be spray-painting on the nearest brick wall, ‘To Be or Not to Be, That is the Answer.’ (We will now pause fifteen seconds while attention-seeking readers turn that into a meme. Tum te tum. Right, let us proceed.) Still, a momentary act of graffiti is a minor gesture of brusque defiance against the conventional. When the greatest political writer who ever lived places his re-write within eye view as a reminder of his task, well now, that is significant. For yes, Hunter S. Thompson was the greatest political writer, ever.

Unless one chooses to cheat the definition and include historians among whom there are many great stylists from the time of Homer or at least Plutarch, politics is a literary shelf rather barren when it comes to memorable reading. The subjects, the characters, the events described may well be important, eccentric and vital, however their description tends to be rather plodding; akin to earnest student essays explicating the imagery and significance of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ that never once give one an urgent need to ride a camel along the banks of the Nile. That’s what the poem’s for, not the essay. At least that is what we are taught, except sometimes the teaching’s wrong.

The potential within the field is seen when one searches out the articles and occasional books written by the great novelists who take a working vacation as it were and choose to hammer out some copy on politics. Norman Mailer for one was an absolute genius at it. I refer you the piece Mailer wrote about John F. Kennedy for the November 1960 issue of Esquire titled ‘Superman Comes to the Supermarket‘:

The television cameras were out, and a Kennedy band was playing some circus music. One saw him immediately. He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor, and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards. For one moment he saluted Pershing Square, and Pershing Square saluted him back, the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street, one of those very special moments in the underground history of the world, and then with a quick move he was out of his car and by choice headed into the crowd instead of the lane cleared for him into the hotel by the police, so that he made his way inside surrounded by a mob, and one expected at any moment to see him lifted to its shoulders like a matador being carried back to the city after a triumph in the plaza.

Having struck it rich with Mailer, precisely eight years later Esquire decided to set loose the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet loose on the streets of Chicago, covering a Democratic Party Presidential Convention that descended into a catastrophe of riots, police violence and overall horror that Hieronymus Bosch would have found it all too horrible to paint. Genet, whose experience is memorably captured by his late publisher Dick Seaver in the latter’s memoir The Tender Hour of Twilight said of his reportorial duty, “We are the ink that gives the white page a meaning.” In other words, in a a quantum sense the observer was and is of at least equal importance to the event. If that seems to you a counter-intuitive statement against all the best principles of journalistic objectivity, well you’re equal parts right and wrong.

Objectivity is a wonderful idea, but then again so is civilisation and we haven’t quite achieved that one either despite ten thousand years of trying, or however long it has been since the first proto-human in the Olduvai Gorge made the suggestion to the rest of the cave dwellers, “Hey, maybe it might make sense if we stopped hitting each other over the head with rocks and someone planted a garden instead.” They probably then killed him with a rock but not before stealing his idea. We have not particularly progressed much further than that; we just have nicer language to use in explaining our essential brutishness. This was not a digression.

Because so much of journalism in general and political writing in particular is a record of the acts of brutes, objectivity by any sentient writer is a foolish, foolish goal. Psychopaths and time-traveling robots from the future may be able to record and process what facts are truly vital to the course of human events without getting personally involved, but if the robots exist they have done a fine job of remaining undetected and as for the psychopaths, well the money is better in hedge fund management than in political journalism. As for the rest of us, we take sides. We are either on the side of the brutes or their victims; if the former we pretend that their brutishness is actually wisdom exercised in the cause of the greater good. Lastly, because no one in recorded history ever entered into an argument without wanting to win it, facts are chosen, sifted and presented in an order and style designed to convince the unsure and reinforce the supporters.

Hunter S. Thompson clued into this from an early stage in his career. The mid-1960s in America was the last decent counter-cultural era in that nation’s history as anyone with decent taste in music and drug amusements well knows. That experimentation into re-shaping culture had leaked into writing as well, with the (in retrospect) surprising popularity of Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, the Beat Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg and so on. The 1960s was also the last decade anyone took poetry seriously in North America. Leonard Cohen started recording albums even though he never did learn how to sing because he was starving to death as a ‘celebrated, award-winning poet.’

It was no great surprise then that with all these strange and experimental novelists and poets getting published and making a good dollar that journalists with imagination would want a piece of that action. Besides, the novelist Henry Miller was 76 when he married the 29 year old Hiroko Tokuda in 1967, despite the obscenity trials arising from Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, so risk-taking in writing held forth the possibility of a decently long life of hedonism. Even dubious incentives can be powerful incentives.

And so it was that aspiring novelist Hunter Thompson from Louisville, Kentucky became a journalist, taking the form of so-termed New Journalism as practiced by Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese and making it even more personal, wilder, as electrically shocking as a box fab dropped in a bathtub. Despite the fame and following he received from his work in fiercely independent magazines such as Ramparts, Scanlan’s and Rolling Stone or his bestseller Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not everyone got it or approved of it. Sally Quinn, writing in The Washington Post chastised Thompson for writing about actual events but only forty-five percent of what he wrote was actually the truth. The esteemed historian and friend of Thompson, Douglas Brinkley asked him how he reconciled journalism with that. Thompson replied:

That’s a tough one. I have a hard time with that. I have from the start. I remember an emergency meeting one afternoon at Random House with my editor about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “What should we tell The New York Times? Should it go on the fiction list or nonfiction?” In a lot of cases, and this may be technical exoneration, but I think in almost every case there’s a tip-off that this is a fantasy. I never have quite figured out how the reader is supposed to know the difference. It’s like if you have a sense of humor or not. Now keep in mind I wasn’t trying to write objective journalism, at least not objective according to me. I’d never seen anybody, maybe David Halberstam comes closest, who wrote objective journalism.”

Is that perhaps a selfish attitude? Maybe it is and yet selfishness is an intrinsic part, maybe the most important part, of a great writer. On that one, I can supply a certain expert testimony. For the last six years I have interviewed writers for a podcast series, hosted on a variety of book review sites, called ‘Thoughts, Comments and Opinions.’ When I was starting out, one of my standard questions had been, “Do you write for yourself or for the audience?” I gave up asking that, although it still comes up occasionally. I gave up asking that because absolutely every one of the interviewees – all of them bestsellers in every genre imaginable – gave the same answer. They write the books they would like to read themselves. If an audience happens to agree with the writer’s own passion and amusement, bonus! Bear that one in mind if you want to be a writer. The next time a ‘helpful’ friend suggests you should write something like what’s hot on the Sunday Times Bestseller List, find yourself a new friend. They’re much easier to come by than great books.

Speaking of great books (as for once in my life I execute a semi-smooth segue) to me the greatest of all of Hunter Thompson’s books is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Essentially a collection of articles Thompson write on the 1972 American Presidential election it has a level of shrewd insight amidst all the colourful writing that has never been matched.

As background, the late Theodore H. ‘Teddy’ White had been writing a quadrennial series of Presidential campaign books beginning with The Making of the President 1960 and carrying on through 1980 with the exception of 1976. This may seem very odd to millennials, but the idea of getting inside a campaign, knowing the true personalities of candidates and political operatives alike was a brand new thing fifty some years ago. White himself eventually doubted their value, and saw the public’s fascination with the ultimately trivial detail clouding over the important issues of governance. As he put it, in a delightfully crude self-question, “Who gives a fuck if the President likes milk with Total for breakfast?”

That campaign was fought between Thompson’s bete noire Richard Nixon for the Republicans and Senator George McGovern, very much the Jeremy Corbyn of his day. One sails close to the icebergs when paralleling historic events, however the McGovern-Corbyn comparison is actually rather close. McGovern, like Corbyn, had to defeat both the former Vice-President and 1968 Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey and Senator Edmund Muskie, who had been Humphrey’s running mate four years earlier. No one gave the pacifist McGovern much of a shot against the Blairite, er, I mean Lyndon Johnson era veterans except for millions of young people, recently detoxed after the 1960’s happy clouds of fun who were determined to elect a progressive nominee who would end the Vietnam War once and forever. Thompson loved McGovern, no other word properly describes it, and yet he knew that Nixon had a rapacious evil that would likely crush the Democrats. Well, he certainly got that right as McGovern only won the State of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, 520 – 17 in Electoral College votes.

You might not think that a great book could emerge from a slaughter, yet there it is. Right off the top, Thompson warns the reader of where his position was:

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.”

Do read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 if you have never read it; or if you have, read it again. Trust me, between its fictional jab at Edmund Muskie as an addict of ibogaine, and a surreal yet true encounter with Nixon where they discussed football, there are truths in Hunter S. Thompson’s writing that are as prescient as Nostradamus wanted to be. I shall leave you with two quotes that could be said today about yesterday or tomorrow about today:

How many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote FOR something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?”

And: “Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represented it.”

Rage, rage against the coming of the light. The monsters rise with the dawn.

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