Bob Schwartz

Tag: Hunter S. Thompson

Fight or flee?

Somewhere in the nightmare of failure that gripped America between 1965 and 1970, the old Berkeley-born notion of beating The System by fighting it gave way to a sort of numb conviction that it made more sense in the long run to Flee, or even to simply hide, than to fight the bastards on anything even vaguely resembling their own terms.

Hunter S. Thompson
Freak Power in the Rockies
Rolling Stone #67, October 1, 1970

For more about Hunter S. Thompson see If Hunter S. Thompson Was Here and Hunter S. Thompson and Political Journalism.

Unpublished Book Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (circa 1972)

Not for the first time (see here and here) I recommend reading some Hunter S. Thompson as a tonic for the times. Strange times then, strange times now. Like always maybe, only more so. (Obviously, the overlong pages of copy never made it to the book jacket.)


So now, in closing, I want to thank everybody who helped me put this happy work of fiction together. Names are not necessary here; they know who they are—and in this foul era of Nixon, that knowledge and private laughter is probably the best we can hope for. The line between martyrdom and stupidity depends on a certain kind of tension in the body politic—but that line disappeared, in America, at the trial of the “Chicago 7/8,” and there is no point in kidding ourselves, now, about Who Has the Power.

In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile—and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely. We owe that to ourselves and our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked sheep … but we owe it especially to our children, who will have to live with our loss and all its long-term consequences. I don’t want my son asking me, in 1984, why his friends are calling me a “Good German.”…

The Swine are gearing down for a serious workout this time around. Four more years of Nixon means four more years of John Mitchell—and four more years of Mitchell means another decade or more of bureaucratic fascism that will be so entrenched, by 1976, that nobody will feel up to fighting it. We will feel too old by then, too beaten, and by then even the Myth of the Road will be dead—if only for lack of exercise. There will not be any wild-eyed, dope-sucking anarchists driving around the country in fireapple red convertibles if Nixon wins again in ’72….

So much, then, for The Road—and for the last possibilities of running amok in Las Vegas & living to tell the tale. But maybe we won’t really miss it. Maybe Law & Order is really the best way to go, after all.

Yeah … maybe so, and if that’s the way it happens … well, at least I’ll know I was there, neck deep in the madness, before the deal went down, and I got so high and wild that I felt like a two-ton Manta Ray jumping all the way across the Bay of Bengal.

It was a good way to go, and I recommend it highly—at least for those who can stand the trip. And for those who can’t, or won’t, there is not much else to say. Not now, and certainly not by me, or Raoul Duke either. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas marks the end of an era … and now, on this fantastic Indian summer morning in the Rockies, I want to leave this noisy black machine and sit naked on my porch for a while, in the sun.

From The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson

If Hunter S. Thompson Was Here

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?

Hunter S. Thompson and Political Journalism

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Hunter S. Thompson developed one of the most original and irresistible voices in American journalism. He killed himself in 2005, and nowhere is his work more missed than in politics.

To sample that voice, you can and should try The Great Shark Hunt, the best single volume collection of excerpts from his many years and areas of coverage. If you just want to see what he did for and to political journalism, read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

We can only wonder what he would make of this political season and of the major party candidates for President. Wish he was here. That would be something. From his first exposure to Richard Nixon, for example, Thompson saw right through to Nixon’s dark soul. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who saw it, but he was the only journalist who would talk about it at all. Talk about it in ways that seemed borderline deranged, because faced with twisted truth, sometimes only the twisted can tell it like it is. Or as Thompson liked to say, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Thanks to him, it’s a little more common now to hear a bit more seemingly immoderate but completely justified criticism of questionable candidates. But not as much as we need and not as much as is deserved. Not as much as Thompson would have handed out.

Here is an excerpt from Thompson’s 1994 obituary for Nixon (“He Was a Crook”).   Note his criticism of the failures of “Objective Journalism” when journalists are faced with the extraordinary.

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

John Kerry’s Munich Moment: Is Political Reporting Too Polite?

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Hunter S. Thompson

About a week ago, President Obama said that if Syria’s Bashar Assad was not stopped from using chemical weapons, we might find those same weapons used against America. When asked about this days later, a presidential spokesman ignored the question. This weekend Secretary of State John Kerry said that the decision to stop Assad’s use of the weapons was a “Munich moment.” Meaning: Just as the Munich Agreement of 1938 condoned Hitler’s occupation of Czech territory, emboldening and enabling his vision of global conquest, so would our failure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons further his insidious master plan.

Experts who have bothered to talk about the prospect of these chemical weapons being used against America have dismissed it out of hand. As for the “Munich moment,” that requires a bit more nuance. Nobody claims, at least not yet, that Assad has any extra-territorial plans or delusions of regional grandeur. His plan seems to be simply to punish any Syrians who stand in the way of him and his family fiercely holding on to power. Garden variety despotry; Assad is no Hitler. If “Munich” means appeasing his inhumanity, that is also silly. The bulk of Assad’s inhumanity is also garden variety: guns, bombs, etc. Nothing that Obama has proposed is intended to take care of that.

The region really did have a Munich moment in 1990. Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. A thirty-four nation coalition, led by the U.S., pushed him back to his own borders. Both the history of the Gulf War and its aftermath—including the decision by Bush 1 to go no further and the decision by Bush 2 to finish the job—are beyond the scope of this note. This is just to say that if you want to know what a Munich moment looks like, that was it.

The authenticity and civility of our political life are always in question. We ask whether politicians and their supporters are speaking truth, saying what they mean, meaning what they say, and saying it all in a way that is reasonably respectful and polite. That’s a lot to ask of them, and our expectations are right now pretty low. It’s also a lot to ask of political pundits and commentators. Unconstrained by the limitations of office or election, some of them, left to right, go wherever their opinions take them. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

Then there are political journalists. This is where things get tricky. Calling a political statement a lie or stupid, or calling a politician a liar or stupid, is supposed to fail the professional standard on a few scores. It supposedly puts a journalist’s objectivity in question; that sort of discourse is best left to political minions and commentators. And if not carefully couched or softened, it can come off as inappropriately impolite and uncivil, another professional faux pas.

We should all miss Hunter S. Thompson right about now. His suicide in 2005 left a gap in political journalism that hasn’t been filled and probably never will be. He didn’t begin as a political reporter. He came up as a writer during the time of the so-called “new journalism” in the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, et al), when the lines between the factual, the personal and the expressive broke down. By his own admission, Thompson was crazy, formally or informally; he was also a stunningly talented observer and writer. When he hit the political beat, it was right place, right time, right writer. If politics was an exercise in duplicity, venality and near-insanity, it needed a professional journalist just as insane. The collection of his Rolling Stone coverage of the 1972 presidential election, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, is not just on another planet from the classic campaign coverage up to then; it is in another solar system.

Thompson had a special relationship with Richard Nixon. He ended up respecting and applauding Nixon’s brilliant mind as an expert football strategist, but otherwise Thompson despised him. He wrote a 1994 obituary of Nixon.  In it he continues the case for that untempered loathing, but in this excerpt also explains why it is an appropriate attitude for a journalist:

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It’s not that we don’t have good and great political journalists working today; we may have more than ever. And it’s not that there aren’t plenty of partisans pointing out gaps in someone else’s facts and reasoning.

It’s just that an amazing amount of stuff gets said and seems to get by far too unchallenged or challenged too narrowly or politely. It wasn’t so long ago that the Republican party produced a nominating spectacle that is widely characterized as a circus or a clown car. But at the time, journalists were unwilling to even hint at how ridiculous some of it was, as the party of Lincoln earnestly considered nominating Herman Cain or Donald Trump as their standard bearer.

Sure we need objectivity, maybe now more than ever in a social media enriched/poisoned environment. What we shouldn’t do is confuse objectivity with comity and politeness. If Hunter Thompson was shockingly blunt—and so much fun to read—it was to wake people up from the soporific effect of treating truth and lies, intelligence and stupidity, as rhetorical equivalents, in the name of objectivity, politeness and respect. In the name of keeping the peace. That would be the media Munich moment.

Update: Rereading this post, I have to add that the closest we come to Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo” political journalism is The Daily Show on Comedy Central. This revelation came watching the first few days of Jon Stewart’s return after his summer away, coming back to a grim and arguably ridiculous political crisis. The Daily Show’s trick is to protest (too much) that it is a “fake” news show, which gives it total license to completely get its facts straight while speaking truth to absurdity. And when, as this week, vicious jokes aren’t quite enough, Stewart vents his frustration directly and straight, no humor. Oh, to see what The Daily Show would have made of the Nixon Years.