Errant Reader: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail – Hunter S. Thompson (1973)

As promised, I finished Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail just in time to write a post prior to the election. I should feel pretty enthusiastic about this fact. Despite what has been a daunting schedule lately I managed to stick to my plan. Instead, I feel like I’m channeling the weary tone Thompson exudes so often in this book. This works on multiple levels. I rushed to get to the end of the book because I knew that the current election was already wearing thin on my nerves. I’m fascinated with politics in much the same unhealthy manner that Thompson describes in the book. I’m prone to burnout, but I still come back to it every election cycle. It’s a constant train wreck of human endeavor and I simply can’t look away from it for very long. And the ads…Oh the ads! (Obviously it’s a good thing I don’t live in Ohio. My emotional state would be driven to exciting new lows.) On another level I feel like I’m also rushing to write this post (for good reason because I AM rushing to write this post). It all leads to the same vibe Thompson has in the midst of the campaign trail: It’s all falling apart. A good idea for a post has gone horribly wrong and yet there’s still that looming deadline.

The joy of reading Thompson though is his prose and his candor. It stands out in these sorts of moments. I find it refreshing to read Thompson with his willing to burn his bridges of political access in order to call it like he sees it. It’s also quite entertaining.

Take, for example, Thompson’s explanation of the strange desire for people to follow politics and his own problems in meeting deadlines in the frantic pace set by a national election. Early in the book Thompson compares his tendency to keep coming back to political reporting to whatever instinct causes jackrabbits to wait until the last possible minute to dart out into traffic. The lives of jackrabbits are boring, so the thrill seeking jackrabbit sees that two lane highway and the fast moving semis and thinks “yeah, I can make it” and gets the biggest adrenaline rush possible. Yet as Thompson notes:

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.*

It’s this candor that really draws me to Thompson’s writing. It shows that following politics this closely isn’t necessarily about being informed or informing others. It’s also not inherently about the political process or the candidates. Instead, it’s really about that rush. Thompson’s continual references to football speak to this. It’s the same rush you get when you’re watching a great game. Politics just has further reaching consequences, which makes the adrenaline rush for us jackrabbits all that stronger. It’s also refreshing to hear Thompson opine against figures like Nixon or Humphrey. There’s no shortage of this sort of tone nowadays thanks to the Internet. What’s more often missing is the sheer skill with which Thompson delivers these tirades.

The other aspect of the book that deeply enjoyed was reading about George McGovern’s campaign in 1972 as Thompson covered it in the moment. I’m something of a history lover and this era has always fascinated me. In fact, one of the first historical biographies I ever read was Anthony Summers’ Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. It was an odd book for a 19-20 year old to pick up at the local library. That said, Nixon was just this odd figure to me: a national disgrace due to Watergate, a man who seemed relentlessly angry and insecure, and simply of a political time and atmosphere that came and went well before my birth. I poured through it though and found the entire thing fascinating. I can’t say whether or not Summers’ book was very good or well researched. I simply don’t remember it in any detail. It did instill in me an interest with this era of political history and with Watergate in particular but it also meant that I’ve always been more focused on the scandals surrounding the chief Republican of the era rather than the era’s politics in general.

This is where Thompson comes in: reading his dispatches, frank and often livid as they are, really allows you to transport yourself back to pre-Watergate. You forget, briefly, that 1972 was an absolute blowout election. Admittedly, having a sense of ambiguity in the air helps. Living through another election at the same time and reading the same sorts of “in the moment” dispatches from political reporters today makes it a bit easier to transport yourself back in time.

Speaking of time, I’m officially out of it for this particular post. Hopefully I leave myself more time to write next week. Besides, the last polls before the election are out…

*Thompson, Hunter S. (2012-06-26). Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (Kindle Locations 380-382). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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