If Hunter S. Thompson Was Here

by Bob Schwartz

How long, oh Lord, how long? And how much longer will we have to wait before some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers will finally bring us face-to-face with the ugly question that is already so close to the surface in this country, that sooner or later even politicians will have to cope with it?

Is the democracy worth all the risks and problems that necessarily go with it? Or, would we all be happier by admitting that the whole thing was a lark from the start and now that it hasn’t worked out, to hell with it.

Hunter S. Thompson, January 1974

Hunter S. Thompson was the great political journalist of his generation—maybe any modern generation. He brilliantly, sometimes sadly, expressed one underlying theme: politics is mostly a crazy, misguided and dishonest business, many who engage in it are crazy, misguided and dishonest people, and the only way to report on it was to be crazy yourself—but also crazily honest. Thompson knew demons when he saw them, because he had his own different demons to deal with.

Had he not committed suicide in 2005, and had he lived to see this, we don’t know what he would write. Or, as was apparent even while he has covering Nixon and Watergate, he may have already had enough. He covered political hell so many times that it was not an assignment he wanted to repeat.

The good news is that there are plenty of excellent edgy and transgressive journalists writing about politics now, which was hardly the case in the 1970s. But even these contemporary writers will tell you they are not him.

This is from the New York Times, January 1, 1974. Thompson is looking back on 1973 and the Nixon presidency (Nixon had not yet resigned):


Maybe that’s why the end of this incredible, frantic year feels so hollow. Looking back on the sixties, and even back to the fifties, the fact of President Nixon and everything that has happened to him—and to us—seem so queerly fated and inevitable that it is hard to reflect on those years and see them unfolding in any other way.

One of the strangest things about these five downhill years of the Nixon Presidency is that despite all the savage excesses committed by the people he chose to run the country, no real opposition or realistic alternative to Richard Nixon’s cheap and mean-hearted view of the American Dream has ever developed. It is almost as if that sour 1968 election rang down the curtain on career politicians.

This is the horror of American politics today—not that Richard Nixon and his fixers have been crippled, convicted, indicted, disgraced and even jailed—but that the only available alternatives are not much better; the same dim collection of burned-out hacks who have been fouling our air with their gibberish for the last twenty years.

How long, oh Lord, how long? And how much longer will we have to wait before some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers will finally bring us face-to-face with the ugly question that is already so close to the surface in this country, that sooner or later even politicians will have to cope with it?

Is the democracy worth all the risks and problems that necessarily go with it? Or, would we all be happier by admitting that the whole thing was a lark from the start and now that it hasn’t worked out, to hell with it….

George Orwell had a phrase for it. Neither he nor Aldous Huxley had much faith in the future of participatory democracy. Orwell even set a date: 1984—and the most disturbing revelation that emerged from last year’s Watergate hearings was not so much the arrogance and criminality of Nixon’s henchmen, but the aggressively totalitarian character of his whole Administration. It is ugly to know just how close we came to meeting Orwell’s deadline….

Six months ago I was getting a daily rush out of watching the nightmare unfold. There was a warm sense of poetic justice in seeing “fate” drive these money-changers out of the temple they had worked so hard to steal from its rightful owners. The word “paranoia” was no longer mentioned, except as a joke or by yahoos, in serious conversations about national politics. The truth was turning out to be even worse than my most “paranoid ravings” during that painful 1972 election.

But that high is beginning to fade, tailing down to a vague sense of angst. Whatever happens to Richard Nixon when the wolves finally rip down his door seems almost beside the point, now. He has been down in his bunker for so long, that even his friends will feel nervous if he tries to re-emerge. All we can really ask of him, at this point, is a semblance of self-restraint until some way can be found to get rid of him gracefully.

This is not a cheerful prospect, for Mr. Nixon or anyone else—but it would be a hell of a lot easier to cope with if we could pick up a glimmer of light at the end of this foul tunnel of a year that only mad dogs and milkmen can claim to have survived without serious brain damage. Or maybe it’s just me. It is ten below zero outside and the snow hasn’t stopped for two days. The sun has apparently been sucked into orbit behind the comet Kohoutek. Is this really a new year? Are we bottoming out? Or are we into The Age of The Fear?

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