December 2, 2021

THE FAT IS IN THE FIRE Or: Get off Your Dead Ass and Get Excited, It’s Election Season Again! A review of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” by KW

There are many reasons why you should listen to me and read the 39-year-old, sweeping, 500-page “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” by Hunter S. Thompson right now in late 2011. If you are one of the dwindling few who cares about the politics of Our Time, this book still holds a clear, uncompromising, and remarkably prescient insight into the great American swindle of the electoral process.

Even though we know the outcome of that ill-fated race[1], Thompson’s mix of musings and genuine what-the-fuck moments are a refreshing and unrestrained glimpse into the belly of the beast that remains categorically unchanged to this day. For an entire year, Thompson devoted himself to covering the landmark 1972 presidential race—standing with hopefuls as they get ignored by factory workers outside of Manchester, NH mills during the critical 1stDemocratic primary; witnessing aging White hacks give the Revolutionary Drug Brother handshakes to charm Black voters; and sitting with candidates on visits with senior citizens gumming down lunches in low-income, Midwest retirement homes. Notably, 1972 was also the first year that the caucus system we know today was first enacted in the Democratic primaries, which effectively disarmed the old-school powerhouse ward heelers and changed the terrain for party candidacy to this day.


[1] The incumbent President Nixon successfully defeated Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) in a landslide victory, winning over 60% of the popular vote and 49 of the 51 electoral college states, save for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
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Thompson is also careful to construct the fractured psyche that was 1972 America. The sense of optimism and hope brought on by the sea change years of the mid-1960s was effectively snuffed out and was instead replaced by the ghosts of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and Altamont and Kent State, as well as 60,000+ American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese. And Richard Milhous Nixon—the thirty-seventh President and Thompson’s adversarial embodiment of all that is evil with the political system—is an auspicious spectre lurking throughout the campaign, “…waiting to pounce [on the candidate]…the instant he comes out of his scumbag.” Please note that Thompson never gained press access to the White House or Nixon during the 1971-1972 campaign season. “Why shit in your own nest, eh?,” he proclaims to a confused secretary after a five-month unsuccessful trial at gaining access through the still-infant Rolling Stone magazine. It is worth stating that over 20 years later, Thompson eulogized the former president as a man who “has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest.”[2]
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 [2] Thompson, Hunter S. “HE WAS A CROOK.” Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994.
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As the campaign drags on, things get strange. The 1970s, as most readers of this blog may have only briefly experienced as babies (if at all), were an incredibly weird time. Conservative Democratic candidate and Governor of Alabama George Wallace was gunned down (and survived) in April 1972. Some drunk Yippies show up and fuck up a key Florida primary event. AND a few decades of hindsight and a little FBI investigation known as Watergate tells us that earlier in the race, former frontrunner Edward Muskie (former Governor and then-Senator of Maine) had his campaign derailed by an editorial that implicated Muskie as having anti-French-Canadian sentiments. This editorial was published in a Manchester, NH newspaper (a subsequent article also accused Muskie’s wife of off-color remarks and a drinking habit) and was based on an anonymous letter—a letter which, as it turns out, was fabricated by the Nixon campaign to discredit any strong opponents. And it made Muskie cry.[3]
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[3] Muskie denied there were tears, but rather, snowflakes had melted on his face.

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“We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear — fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.” – Thompson’s “Hey Rube” column for ESPN, March 2, 2003

The first time I read this book, I was a typical substance-addled, paranoid college student, and I needed to do my goddamned homework. It was the eve of George “Dubya” Bush’s second race, and I could not fathom a victory. I also had not left the Northeast corridor much in my short lifespan, which accounted for some of my disbelief in the rest of the country. Similarly, I could not fathom a victory for Nixon as I read this book for the first time, knowing full well there was never a President McGovern.

As one of the few young people I knew of who participated in politics—not just the 2002-03 war protests—but rather, in the local elections of 1997-99 in my hometown of Windsor Locks, CT, up through the helpless and hopeless Presidential campaign of 2000[4], I felt as though I had been put through a political ringer at age 19 in 2003. I already knew first-hand about the door-knocking, envelope-stuffing, cold calling, and working the polls that Thompson covers in great detail. Not much has changed to this day, save for ubiquitous messaging through whatever current social media platform is en vogue with the desired constituency (on the higher levels, at least. The super-small-town local pols are still very much concerned with mail, and remain wary of Facebook, Twitter, etc.).


[4] Like Thompson, I regrettably supported Ralph Nader in 2000 (in theory, due to my lack of legal voting status).

 The millennials—born between the beginning of the Reagan era and the end of the Clinton presidency—are the largest age group in America today, numbering approximately 80 million. There are 17 million more millennials than Baby Boomers and 27 million more than Generation Xers (ages 31-45). –Michelle Hoover, American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party, 2011.

We all know the outcome of the 2004 election.[5] So why am I dragging myself—and attempting to drag you—down this sobering and grim road? Because the young people of 1972 America are not unlike us today. The general sense of apathy hangs low as it did four decades ago. Relative-poverty, a sagging job market, bloated deficits, and lack of optimism are as prevalent today as they were then. Thompson describes the children of the 1950s—“There is an ugly portent for the 25 million or so new voters between 18 and 25 who may or may not vote in 1972. And many of them probably will vote. The ones who go to the polls in ’72 will be the most committed, the most idealistic, the ‘best minds of my generation,’ as Allen Ginsberg said it fourteen years ago in ‘Howl.’”


[5] Thompson later reflected, “Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?” (ESPN)

The number of voters under 30 who showed up at the polls in 2008 increased by approximately 11 percent (up from the 2004 election)—and the number of older voters who cast a ballot increased by only 3 percent. A lot of politics is betting and using the odds to influence the outcome, and happily that is part of what keeps me so interested in these number games. I am, therefore, genuinely fearful that the pissed off Alex P. Keatons of our generation will turn out in full force on November 6, 2012, outnumbering the “hope” and “change” voters of 2008, and replace the current administration with clowns like Romney, Santorum, Bachmann, etc. See the quote by Michelle Hoover about 200-words ago. And how much “change” can we expect after wading around in 8-years of Bush and Cheney’s shit? The young people of today would expect the answer to be “a lot”, and given the hyperspeed of delivery and comfort of convenience expected of nearly everything these days, it’s not surprising.

 The kids are turned off from politics, they say. Most of ’em don’t even want to hear about it. All they want to do these days is lie around on waterbeds and smoke that goddamn marrywanna… yeah, and just between you and me, Fred, it’s probably all for the best. –Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72

This article was not supposed to be a call to action, but is hard to avoid where we are at right now. Read this book for a candid portrait of Thompson’s struggles and admissions of self-doubt as a writer. Ralph Steadman’s warped illustrations throughout the book perfectly complement the ugly and twisted realities Thompson witnesses. Enjoy the author’s icy February 1968 car ride through New Hampshire with who-else-but Pat Buchanan in the front, and Thompson snuggled in back with then-presidential hopeful Nixon, discussing nothing except football. Years later, when asked why he failed to tear off the monster’s mask then and there, Thompson replied, “There were two possible reasons. One is that I was chickenshit and didn’t have the courage of my convictions. The other is that it was 20 below zero on the Massachusetts Turnpike that night.”[6] The smell of Dunhills and Wild Turkey on Thompson throughout the 12-month ride that was the 1972 elections is as strong today as it was when this book was written nearly 40 years ago.


[6] Thompson, Hunter S. and Anita Thompson. Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson.

 

–KW

New York, NY

The author of this article also enjoys Wild Turkey. She makes her living as a hustler for a museum in New York City.

 

 

 

 

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