By the end of 1971, the Democratic presidential primaries were well underway. Governor George Wallace, and Senators Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern were the front-runners by 1972, and the latter would ultimately get the ticket. It was a contentious election, as the South Dakota senator would go up against incumbent President Richard Nixon in the fall. Ideologically, the race was bookended by McGovern on the Left, and Wallace on the Right, leaving the rest battling for the coveted Center.
Caucuses and press events overflowed with rhetoric concerning the Cold War and the military’s then-seven year involvement in Vietnam, claiming almost sixty-thousand U.S. military casualties and a high-end estimate of over one million civilian deaths. Rolling Stone journalist Hunter S. Thompson serialized the absurdity of the democratic processes and media frenzy in his coverage for the magazine in what would later be compiled into Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.
Renowned for pioneering the controversial “Gonzo” journalism, Thompson often cast aside any or all regard for objectivity, instead inserting himself into the narrative, either literally in the first person or in aesthetic with fantastic (or surreal) imagery and biting, often vulgar quips. His stylistic, stream-of-consciousness brand of writing had a unique place following what would be known as New Journalism. Pioneers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese paved the way for this movement in the 1960s and 1970s, as journalists began to adopt the literary conventions of fiction writing. This reflected a unique assurance of the “truth,” as the subjectivized narrative structure reflected the order and perception of their surroundings via the writer’s own gaze.
The amplification of a subjective point of view helps ground the reader, allowing them to discern “truth” from the piece without the pretense of objectivity. Thompson, having come from the tradition of New Journalism, took it to a new extreme; rather than drawing a line between fiction and nonfiction, he skewed the line altogether. He epitomized the Gonzo anti-ethic in his 1971 book, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, in which he and his lawyer encounter a series of bizarre and inane happenings, either by virtue of the fact that the duo was perpetually hopped up on a medley of drugs and alcohol or by the very nature of Las Vegas and American consumer culture:
…Stand in front of this fantastic machine, my friend, and for just ninety-nine cents your likeness will appear, two hundred feet tall, on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. Ninety-nine cents more for a voice message. “Say whatever you want, fella. They’ll hear you, don’t worry about that. Remember you’ll be two hundred feet tall.”
Jesus Christ, I could hear myself lying in bed in the Mint hotel, half-asleep and staring idly out the window, when suddenly a vicious nazi drunkard appears two hundred feet tall in the midnight sky, screaming gibberish at the world: “Woodstock Über Alles!”
We will close the drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping-pong ball. Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you begin to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing.
But nobody can handle that other trip—the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this was not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.
— Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“When people speak of fiction, they speak of fiction that carries great truth to it,” says KQED radio host Michael Krasny. “But even when you talk about truth in journalism, a different kind of truth, you’re obviously not talking about Thompson. Is it a subjective truth, a truth that rings true in subjectivity? People used to apply a standard [of absolute objectivity] to journalistic truth that was impossible.”
Krasny, also a literature professor at SF State, interviewed Thompson only once in his broadcasting career. Possibly intoxicated, Thompson arrived about fifteen minutes late to the studio with some glasses and champagne, along with several scratches and bruises on his face. While the flamboyant writer was much more subdued in person, he described his injuries as having resulted from swimming out on Ocean Beach to talk to the sea lions, Krasny recalls.
“I work in public broadcasting and we try to present as many sides of an issue as we can, so the listener can make up their mind,” Krasny continues. “Is the truth multiple? Maybe. There are often kinds of universal truths that we apply to great literature. I don’t known if you get those with Thompson. You often get what he sees at that particular time and the way he transmutes it, and it has to go through the funnel of his own consciousness and his own way of seeing.”
February 1972 saw the publishing of the “Canuck Letter,” addressed to the editor of The Manchester Union Leader. A forged document, it held that Senator Muskie used pejorative language in reference to Americans of French-Canadian descent in his home state of Maine. Although having denounced the allegations made in the letter many times over, it received overwhelming media attention well into April, culminating in Senator Muskie’s “Crying Speech.” During the event he admonished the newspaper’s publisher, William Loeb, for running the letter in the first place. The highly emotional speech and snow melting on his face led some, like The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, to speculate that he was actually breaking down in tears.
The previous summer, Democratic Party figureheads were positive that Muskie was the “only Democrat with a chance of beating Nixon.” Thompson felt otherwise, and seized the opportunity to exploit the New England senator’s increasingly questionable emotional stability:
This was bullshit, of course. Sending Muskie against Nixon would have been like sending a three-toed sloth out to seize turf from a wolverine. Big Ed was an adequate Senator—or at least he seemed like one until he started trying to explain his “mistake” on the war in Vietnam—but it was stone madness from the start to ever think about exposing him to the bloodthirsty thugs that Nixon and John Mitchell would sic on him. They would have him screeching on his knees by sundown on Labor Day. If I were running a campaign against Muskie I would arrange for some anonymous creep to buy time on national TV and announce that twenty-two years ago he and Ed spent a summer working as male whores at a Peg House somewhere in the North Woods.
Nothing else would be necessary.
— Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72
Since his losing the presidential election in 1960 and the California Governor election in 1962, President Nixon blamed “the hostile working press” for his losses and usually barred reporters from the White House. After 1962, he seldom held press conferences, except for his indignant speech concerning the recently surfaced Watergate scandal in 1973, in which he lambasted the press for their vicious coverage.
In any case, it seemed as though Nixon was sure to win in 1972, especially after Muskie’s possible breakdown. Some political historian believe that reporters typically cast Democrats’ campaigns in a negative light, especially with McGovern and Muskie, because they did not want to be on the bad end of the Nixon Administration’s vindictive attitude towards journalists. They would run questionable stories like those concerning the “Canuck Letter,” but another falsified story, conjured by Thompson, brought Gonzo to the forefront of traditional news media.
In April 1972, Thompson wrote of Senator Muskie exhibiting signs of being high on Ibogaine. Ibogaine is a slow-onset African sex drug, extracted from the roots of Tibernanthe Iboga, a small plant indigenous to West Africa:
Not much has been written about The Ibogaine Effect as a serious factor in the Presidential Campaign, but toward the end of the Wisconsin primary race—about a week before the vote—word leaked out that some of Muskie’s top advisers had called in a Brazilian doctor who was said to be treating the candidate with “some kind of strange drug” that nobody in the press corps had ever heard of.
I immediately recognized The Ibogaine Effect… There he was—far gone in a bad Ibogaine frenzy—suddenly shoved out in a rainstorm to face a sullen crowd and some kind of snarling lunatic going for his legs while he tried to explain why he was “the only Democrat who can beat Nixon.”
— Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72
John Burks, former managing editor of Rolling Stone and journalism professor at SF State, recalls working with Thompson when he got his start at the publication, as well as Thompson’s “Ibogaine Effect” on Muskie’s campaign.
“About this time Hunter is beginning to acquire a big name for himself,” Burks says. “He’s kind of a new Vaudeville journalist or something, being really outlandish and everything. But the mainstream political reporters don’t know what to think about it. He’s writing everything about Muskie, and the idea of him using some sort of slow-fuse sex drug is completely flipped out.
“So political reporters are hearing all this Ibogaine stuff, and they don’t know whether to believe it, and they sort of don’t,” he continues. “But Thompson’s writing it and it’s getting attention, so they start asking Muskie about it in interviews and press conferences. Naturally, he denies it, but where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the press is running headlines like, ‘Despite reports that he uses Ibogaine, Muskie denies it.’ All this is happening and Thompson’s loving it, and that just blew [Muskie] out of the water.”
The combination of the “Canuck Letter,” public tears, and the obscure African root equivalent of Viagra mixed with amphetamines was central to the media frenzy shrouding Muskie’s campaign, even though said reports were completely unfounded. Thompson would later admit that his Ibogaine piece was a work of satire, and that he never expected it to take hold of the national media the way it did.
“The whole Muskie thing, I mean, it’s silly,” says Krasny. “Look at a guy like Representative John Boehner, and it seems like every five minutes there are tears flowing from his eyes. Thompson had a lot of targets, and Muskie was one of them. That whole story was warped in a lot of ways, and Thompson saw things in a pretty oblique and twisted vision. But that’s what New Journalism was [in a time when] you had journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein taking down a presidency.”
The Woodward/Bernstein and Hunter S. Thompson camps had in common the fact that they were both willing to do what needed to be done to get the story. Woodward and Bernstein not only took on the Nixon Administration with their reporting on Watergate, but their persistence also led them to uncover a conspiracy leading up through the Justice Department, the CIA and the FBI. Thompson embedded himself in the Hell’s Angels for an extended period of time in his coverage that would be Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, eventually ending in a savage assault on him by several bikers.
But the significant difference in their methodology was their regard for truth, which led both parties down completely different paths. Thompson’s path, the Gonzo path, was much to the dismay of many an editor at Rolling Stone, particularly an accomplished John Burks, who was then on leave from Newsweek.
When the SF State professor was working with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner to gather up their first staff of writers, Burks brought in nearly half of them, including a younger Thompson.
“Thompson’s initial writing had to do with some local politics in Denver, some wild and crazy bullshit, but nothing memorable,” Burks recounts. “I had a feeling that Hunter was dashing them off, none of the really good Thompson stuff that I had read.”
But through their time together at Rolling Stone, Burks encountered more and more the Hell’s Angels writer’s penchant for the fantastic.
“He’d turn in an article and I’d ask, ‘If I phone this guy up and ask if he said this, what’s he going to say?’” Burks describes. “And Thompson would mumble, ‘All right, I’ll rewrite the fucking thing.’”
Thompson would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to get around the editor’s adherence to careful fact-checking. He would find out the very last minute that Rolling Stone would go to print and wait until about four hours before to try to turn in his piece. There would barely be enough time for the art department to lay the story and photos down, but no time for anybody to edit or question the story.
Eventually, Burks left the magazine, and there was no managing editor for a time. Thompson seldom had a problem publishing his journalistic fantasia with no one to keep him in check.
Towards the end of 1971, the Rolling Stone staff held a retreat at the Esalen Institute in California to discuss their possible coverage of the upcoming presidential
election. The magazine had been around since 1967, covering not just rock music, but “the things and attitudes the music embraces,” according to Wenner.
While political pieces were not uncommon for Rolling Stone (there had been articles concerning drug culture and civil rights), the staff had never embarked on any kind of extensive election coverage. Although the prospect was met with some hesitation, Thompson stepped up to the plate.
Because of the sheer magnitude of the election, spanning the entire country, and the need for constant travel to ensure full, adequate coverage, the publication managed to procure a very expensive, first-generation fax machine. The machine, also known as “the Mojo wire,” upped the ante for Thompson’s knack for turning his work in dangerously close to deadlines, and he took full advantage of it. Writers and editors would often organize his notes and transcriptions over the phone with Thompson, down to the last minute.
“He would wait to send in the most outrageous stuff, with only a few hours to go,” laments Burks. “It would be well-written, charming, and exciting shit. But shit, nonetheless. I know that this was New Journalism, and we would write in our own voice, and we won’t follow every convention, but we have got to tell the truth. People are relying on us as journalists, and there’s a need to hold on to those certain fundamental, ethical behaviors that anybody would expect of us. Hunter didn’t care about any of that.”
Then-writer and senior editor of Rolling Stone, Ben Fong-Torres, a colleague of both Thompson and Burks, saw mostly the other side of the controversial writer.
“I never saw him as an editor [like Burks], other people had that difficult task,” Fong-Torres says. “Most of us towed the line, but Thompson went over the line. We understood him as a different animal and gave him the room to move around.”
The escalation of U.S. militarism with Vietnam in a post-War, post-McCarthy era America spurred a widespread distrust of the “facts” presented by media and government officials. In the 1960s, subsequent counter-cultural movements licensed what literary theorist Linda Hutcheon called “a revolt against homogenized forms of experience.”
This set the stage for New Journalism, a confrontational style pitted against the social realities perpetuated by dominant structures. Thompson had a unique capability of channeling his distrust and disgust towards the prevailing narratives of the time through written word, even if it meant crafting a new reality in the process. Fong-Torres compares him to a cartoonist, able to see and draw in words the caricatures of people, and the absurdity of the “facts.” This could very well speak to his collaborations with artist Ralph Steadman, who accompanied his work with hyper-real, ink-splotch illustrations of the fear, loathing and paranoia he saw in the remnants of the “American Dream,” a theme permeating much of Thompson’s writing.
“Thompson would get closer to the truth than the truth itself,” says Fong-Torres. “What you see isn’t really what it appears to be, and he countered that deception by adding his own layers of perception and ‘truth’ in political coverage. Vietnam showed that traditional journalists could get no closer to the truth than Hunter with his lies.”
While Hunter S. Thompson and the Gonzo approach fall far from the ethical standards held dear by most communications purists, they do call to attention the way journalism mediates what reality is for the consuming public. Thompson’s unabashed personalization grants his work a large degree of self-reference and reflexivity, and paradoxically, it demands our participation in the action while laying claim to real people and events. His revolt against the falsity of objectivity highlights the very nature of truth as being a theory of relativity all its own. Is one real truth possible? Or are we being deceived? And is artifice the best path to the truth?
As the man himself oft said, “Jesus Creeping Shit!”