Home > Culture, Literature, Politics > Politics as Narcotics: Hunter S. Thompson on the 1972 Campaign Trail

Politics as Narcotics: Hunter S. Thompson on the 1972 Campaign Trail

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is one of the Big Three book-length works of Gonzo Journalism by Hunter S. Thompson, the heroically depraved and indulgently eloquent chronicler of America’s desperately Rabelaisian society and culture of the 1960s and 1970s. It cannot match Hell’s Angels for sheer daring hubris or palpable sense of danger, and it is not as disorienting, literary, or evocative as his greatest book (but not his greatest work of journalism), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s not as gripping or involving a read as either, particularly because the deflating final result is known in advance to anyone with even a bare knowledge of American political history. But Campaign Trail ’72 combines Thompson’s uncompromising subjectivity with furious detail and brief flights of hallucinogenic fancy to provide what one prominent campaign functionary called the least factual but most accurate account of America’s quadrennial gladiatorial match for its tenuous future.

The 1972 American Presidential Election had rich potential to be one of those historical fulcrum campaigns on which the country’s ever-fluid national identity could well have campaigntrail72turned. Richard Nixon, for Thompson as for many other liberals the very personification of the worst, most reactionary and most authoritarian impulses of the American lizard brain, was running for reelection after having picked up the Electoral College pieces following the shattering of the Democratic Party in 1968 amidst division over the Vietnam War, policy and culture war quarrels, and frightful political assassinations. The seemingly unpopular Nixon seemed vulnerable, and a cadre of Democrats lined up to contend against each other in the primaries to win the nomination to oppose him in the general election.

Democratic Party establishment candidates with considerable union support like Senators Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey (the latter, for whom Thompson reserved nearly as much derision as he did for Nixon, had lost narrowly to Tricky Dick in ’68) looked to sweep aside countercultural niche candidates like youth-appealing Eugene McCarthy (who had helped to make Lyndon B. Johnson’s candidacy unviable 4 years before) and rock-star Southern segregationist demagogue George Wallace before aiming their guns at Nixon. But an underdog emerged from the pack instead, Senator George McGovern, who built a formidable organization and appealed especially to the young voters who had been driving social upheaval in the counterculture of the late ’60s (Freak Power, as Thompson dubbed it). Winning enough delegates to be in a position to outmaneuver a determined Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention in Miami (McCarthy was a non-factor, Muskie imploded early, and Wallace was shot), McGovern made a massive blunder by choosing an unvetted running mate with a history of mental problems (Thomas Eagleton, with his infamous shock therapy treatments) and was absolutely crushed by Nixon in November, winning only a single state.

This is the story of the 1972 campaign, as history would have it. Thompson hits on most of these points in differing degrees of depth and focus, as well as on details that seemed minor at the time but loomed larger in retrospect: Jimmy Carter, the Democratic victor for President in 1976, is mentioned in a very cursory way in the Vice-President discussion, major McGovern campaign figure Gary Hart’s later electoral career is teased near the end, and there are a few references to the Watergate burglary that would take down the Nixon White House barely two years after his landslide victory.

But minor anecdotes and details are treated with particular importance, the immediacy of Thompson’s New Journalism expanding greatly on features of the election campaign that would be of less interest if examined solely in retrospect. Thompson shares a tale of chatting football with Nixon in the back of a campaign car four years before, the only time he met his cosmic nemesis; recounts the bacchanalian circus on board the McGovern press plane, dubbed the Zoo Plane; and infamously (and satirically) smeared Muskie as junkie whose erratic, awkward behaviour on the campaign trail could be explained by the Man from Maine’s addiction to an obscure South American narcotic called ibogaine.

With so many wild tangents, and with so little access to the Nixon campaign due to his various negative public statements about the President, Thompson’s journalistic legacy in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is most evident in his close examination of the McGovern campaign, which he was in near proximity to (some reporters might say unprofessionally so) from very early on. He gets an inside look at the formidable organization that helped McGovern to win over voters in key early primary states like Wisconsin, shakes down important campaign operatives on South Beach to get the full story of the byzantine convention machinations that allowed McGovern to overcome challenges to his nomination, and carries out a wary dance with McGovern’s campaign manager, the inscrutable Frank Mankiewicz. He even scores a one-on-one with McGovern himself for a thoughtful but maddeningly vague post-mortem discussion of the historic defeat.

What emerges above all else from this book, and the thesis-like point Thompson makes near its conclusion, is the idea of political campaigning as a drug, as the means to reaching a psychotropic high unlike almost any other. Thompson himself ran for Sheriff in Colorado before going on the road with the candidates in ’72, and mentions contemplating a Senate run in the state for the next cycle (Hart beat him to it, and indeed won). He also, quite famously, consumed a great deal of narcotics, alcohol, cigarettes, and other indulgences of all kind. This did not necessarily pre-condition Thompson to become the pre-eminent commentator on America’s heedless culture of overindulgence, but the fact remains that he was, so no one could be faulted for filling in the premises from which that conclusion stemmed. Politics carries a persistent aura of selfless public service and civic grandeur even in our inescapably cynical age. There are no scales whatsoever on Thompson’s eyes as concerns the delirious madness of America’s robust but crooked political process, however. Politics is a drug, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 vividly imparts the giddy high of being in the middle of it.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Politics
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