Hunter Without the Fear or Loathing
I flew into Aspen without a previous appointment or even a warning call. All I knew was that Hunter Thompson was home and hanging out at the Woody Creek Tavern. I could say I was drawn there hoping to meet the Good Doctor of old — that literary lion of lunacy who used to prowl the corridors of power for Rolling Stone with a quart of Wild Turkey in one hand and a bottle of speed in the other; whose fear and loathing of American politics were expressed in hilariously vituperative attacks on national political figures; whose peculiar brand of “new journalism” held that the story of the writer struggling to work through a drug- and alcohol-fueled frenzy was a lot more interesting than whatever his editors had assigned. I could say that, but it’d be a lie.
That’s because I’m a contrarian, the sort who interviews Priscilla Presley and purposely doesn’t ask about Elvis. So it was, when Bush 41 was running the dirtiest political campaign this country would see until Bush 43, that I came to question Thompson not about his past, not about his persona, but about his politics.
For the three days and nights we discussed the 1988 presidential campaign, I saw a new and improved version of him — a sedate, almost serene, scribbler of serious prose who was exhibiting all the signs of someone capable of acting, well, sane. It was while covering the Democratic national convention in Chicago in 1968 that Thompson claimed he became politically radicalized. And once he discovered his Gonzo style of writing, he and Rolling Stone found each other in 1970. There will forever be some dispute over who talked whom into opening a Washington office to launch the rock magazine on its successful foray into political reporting. Natch, publisher Jann Wenner, famed for his monster ego, claimed it was his idea to send Hunter to Washington “for better or worse.” Thompson maintained he had to talk Wenner into it.
No matter who was responsible, Thompson’s writing as national affairs editor gave the magazine unprecedented exposure. Today, it’s so easy to forget how, beneath all that speed- and LSD-induced gibberish, laid an often-astute political analyst. During the 1972 election, Democratic nominee George McGovern would have Thompson’s articles sent to him on the campaign trial. Newsweek columnists would quote him. And noted academic Garry Wills praised Thompson’s 1973 book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, as the most insightful study of that year’s presidential election.
Beginning in the 1980s, Thompson became something of a recluse, remarkably content to feed his political jones by armchair-quarterbacking the political scene from his 100-acre Colorado ranch and let the world spin by without his physical intrusion.
(True, in 1983 he produced a best-selling book, The Curse of Lono, chronicling a Conrad-dark journey to Hawaii, where Thompson started to believe he was the reincarnation of a god. And that same year, he showed up to cover the U.S. invasion of Grenada wearing pink-linen golf pants worthy of a Palm Beach tycoon who had taken a wrong turn.) Still, on a regular basis, baby boomers who had cut their political teeth on Thompson’s writing would travel to Woody Creek in search of the Good Doctor despite a dozen “Do Not Disturb” and “No Trespassing” signs and a collection of 30 shotguns. Even Washington Post political writer Haynes Johnson pleaded plaintively in a column about the 1984 presidential election, “Hunter, where are you now that we need you?” Though Thompson was gone from the political arena, he was by no means forgotten. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau had immortalized him as Raoul Duke in the Doonesbury strip. (“A lot of people want to grow up to be firemen and President,” Thompson once said. “But nobody wants to grow up to be a cartoon character.”) When I met with him that fall in 1987, Thompson was cognizant that what was cool when he was 30, or charismatic when he was 40, took on a pathetic patina with the big Five-O. That’s no doubt why he liked mixing his outrageous outfits of Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts and high-top sneakers with mountain-man khaki pants and flannel shirts. (Of course, his favorite slacks were still the ones in Day-Glo orange with white unicorns.) It also meant cutting way back on the drugs he thought integral to his creative process. (He once said amphetamines helped him get his stream-of-consciousness thoughts into the typewriter, while all the LSD he had taken in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the mid-1960s helped him to dissolve his inhibitions.) “It’s hard to find the right people to party with,” he told me. All were dead or in jail.
That week in Woody Creek, I found his high-decibel diatribes had given way to give-and-take discussions so quiet they could be moved to a library. And he loved that this Los Angeles Times reporter was taking his national political views as seriously as if he were a policy wonk. Contrite if not quite sober (after many tumblers of Chivas on the rocks), this wasn’t the man who once derided the U.S. as a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen “with no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world.” Suddenly, he made like a flag waver. “This is the only nation in the world where your vote is heard,” said Thompson, “You make a difference. You have a say in things.” He sounded almost sorry he had threatened the life of Dubya’s dad during a speech at Marquette University. “To an auditorium filled with 3,000 Jesuit gentlemen, no less,” he sighed. He compared then–Vice President Bush to Nazi architect and Hitler buddy Albert Speer. Called him the “meanest yuppie who ever lived.” Described him as an “evil demoniac politician.” Thompson admitted to me, “I got carried away. I said in fact that George Bush is so guilty that if you of the Jesuit persuasion believe what your faith believes, then you would have to stomp George Bush to death.” He paused. “Then I called for a vote. They believed it, 2 to 1.” The old Thompson would have dismissed the outburst as funny, like the time he accused NBC newsman John Chancellor of spiking his drink with black acid. But not after the Secret Service came out from Denver to talk to him, and an “agent said my life might become a series of terrible misunderstandings if I even thought about going to Washington without consulting him first.” Looking back, I realize Thompson was one of the first to comprehend that politics — whether Lee Atwater’s heinous Willie Horton assault on Michael Dukakis the next year, or, much later, his heir Karl Rove’s equally disgusting Swift Boat strike against John Kerry — had mutated into an extreme sport. “I like to see bloodshed. I like to see combat. We’re all better for that, you know,” Thompson explained to me When I went to see him, I had a stack of political columns he’d been writing for the San Francisco Examiner and about two dozen other newspapers all about the presidential candidates and issues instead of comically inflated accounts of his misadventures with dope, Dobermans and deranged dwarfs. The new Thompson had boasting rights to the first interview with Gary Hart after the Donna Rice scandal boiled over.
He claimed to have been on the phone with Hart’s campaign manager when his beeper went off with the news that the Miami Herald was about to break the Rice story. (“I was so far ahead of the story that I couldn’t confirm it,” Thompson told me. A day before the Herald hit the streets, he learned that Hart had met Rice at the home of his neighbor, Don Henley. “Two hours later, I had a picture of her, which I’d gotten from Henley’s bodyguard.”) In the ‘80s, Thompson got so hooked on the rush of covering national politics — “like a jack rabbit gets addicted to road-running” — that he began betting on the outcome of each primary. He liked to think of himself as the Jimmy the Greek of the presidential campaigns. “I’m a handicapper. That’s how I see my business — as a gambler rather than as a wisdom-giver. But if you want to know who’s going to be president next year, I’m probably the best person to ask.” It wasn’t an idle boast, either. In a San Francisco Examiner column on the 1986 midterm elections, Thompson correctly picked 15 of 17 Senate races. (He sat out the 1980 and 1984 campaigns because no one paid him to write about them.) My meeting with Thompson took place just as Texas producer Ross Milloy (Alamo Bay, The Trip to Bountiful) and Aspen independent filmmaker Wayne Ewing were creating a cinéma vérité biographical picture about and starring Thompson. “We want to look at the cultural journey Hunter’s made over the last 20 years,” Ewing told me, “within the context of the 1988 presidential campaign.” Thompson considered the project a pain in the ass for the most part, though he was flattered by the attention — as he was by his newfound fame on college campuses. “It’s very queer. I can’t grasp it,” he noted. “It’s not so much a resurgence of interest in me as a total awareness.” He told me with weary finality he got bored looking back on his past. “What should be done is not to look back at the ‘60s or ‘70s with great nostalgia.
It’s to get out and participate in the present.” But when it came to Thompson, the past was always prologue. I remember the time he was calmly and cogently presenting his views on national politics while ordering lunch. So calmly, in fact, that he didn’t even bother to harass the waitress when she informed him there was no more tuna salad.
Then, he stopped in mid-sentence and emitted a sharp shriek.
He had detected a strand of hair on the lip of his drinking glass. Not just a small hair, mind you, but a “large, ugly, black-rooted hair” that was spoiling his liquor. Soon, everyone in the saloon — from the manager to the barfly — was holding the glass up to the light and examining it with the concentration of government health inspectors. No one could see any foreign matter except for Thompson, who had worked himself into a snarling fever trying to get someone to admit that he was not hallucinating.
“Why, yes,” bartender Mary Harris finally said as she turned the glass around and around, “I can see the hair now.” Vindicated, Thompson placidly returned to his discourse. For a few moments, I’d glimpsed Gonzo. May he, and Hunter, rest in peace.
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