Hunter S. Thompson in sunglasses & Hawaiian shirt

It’s a mistake to focus on Hunter Thompson’s debauchery while ignoring his political wisdom.

Go to GoodReads, search on Hunter S. Thompson, and you’ll get first-page results like this:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’

And this:

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Thanks to quotes like those, the efforts of Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, and Garry Trudeau — and the fact that Thompson was every bit as wild as they portrayed him — his name will probably forever conjure Raoul Duke, the outsize self-portrait he wove in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — a.k.a. “Uncle Duke” in Trudeau’s Doonesbury.

But remembering Thompson only as a Ralph Steadman caricature is a mistake. Immeasurably more important — more even than that “expensive little twister rising up from the Great Red Shark” — is Thompson’s gift for keen social and political analysis. In a single presidential election, he taught us more about who controls America than the combined work of all those who pounded the same beat for entire lifetimes.

Nonetheless, since stumbling upon Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shortly after its publication, I — like legions of others — had been most enamored of Thompson’s scathing wit; most engaged by his Sixties sentimentalism; most vicariously thrilled (right!) by his dedication to mind-altering substances — and, as a writer, wholly envious of his ability to smite even the jumbo-est mumbo-ers in 10 words or less.

There’s not much of that Thompson I haven’t read, along with his (more or less) straight reporting (Hell’s Angels), fiction (The Rum Diary), and the vast collection of letters and essays he banged out on his IBM Selectric.

The excellence of it all should have convinced me years ago, but until two recent, ridiculously long experiences “in the system” (as the air travel monopoly now calls it), and for reasons I’ve resigned myself to never fully knowing – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which I now consider Thompson’s masterwork, was a blip on the radar I chose to ignore.

*ping*

Maybe its half-borrowed, ungainly title had me thinking it was an attempt to capitalize on the success of that other Fear and Loathing.

*ping*

Maybe it was the age of the story itself.

*ping*

Or maybe, rather than ignored, I avoided Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 for the same reason others have: The depression I knew reading it would cause, thanks to the story’s already-known, fateful ending.

Whatever the reasons, not reading it until now was a mistake.

Cover of Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72

“What did Thompson know in ’72, exactly? That conservatives had already won.”

I won’t go so far as to suggest that if Thompson’s incisive reporting and analysis of Nixon v. McGovern were more widely known it might have stopped American politics’ long slide into the cesspool, for even back then, the slime was oozing freely. (It’s widely believed Nixon preferred it to Brylcreem.)

What Campaign Trail can do, however — whether at this seemingly late moment or a hundred years hence — is snap any reader into total clarity about what happened to America, and our only way out of the muck.

That sounds hyperbolic, I know — but let me assure you: A weekend spent with Campaign Trail will provide far more than the belly laughs and great turns of phrase which helped establish Thompson’s talent. While the John-Chancellor-on-acid riff is hilarious (along with others), this book will answer questions about the American political system you might wish you’d never asked, and then be supremely thankful you did.

It exposes how the same sort of off-the-rails tribalism that even now rules the Democratic Party killed the peace movement — not Richard Nixon, slimy though he was. It shows why otherwise intelligent people go into politics — and the brutality with which they who dare to challenge the status quo are spit out the other end, by what they thought was “their” party.

If there were any justice, “Thompson knew in ’72” would become the rallying cry of the nascent people-first movement, and the last thing the leadership of the DNC hears on its way to the FEC to officially disband.

What did Thompson know in ’72, exactly? That conservatives had already won — eight long years before Ronald Reagan jacked off in the Private Residence. (More accurately, paid someone to jack him off.) Thompson knew because he’d seen Reagan’s rise in California. He knew because he’d talked football with Nixon. He knew, in short, because he could spot the difference between bullshit and The Real Deal at 500 yards — an ability the typical American voter forsook a long time ago.

But Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ’72 is not a treatise on the futility of political engagement. Like every great commentator, Thompson didn’t bitch for the sake of bitching. He offered solutions. After presenting overwhelming firsthand evidence gathered throughout the ’72 campaign, Thompson built upon that evidence a more profound conclusion than any observer of American politics had drawn before, or has since:

[T]here is really no hope of accomplishing anything genuinely new or different in American politics until the Democratic Party is done away with.

Short of pasting the whole thing into a search, you won’t find that quote online very easily. Meanwhile, the mere phrase “I hate to advocate” produces nearly two full pages of Thompson references.

Go ahead, try it.

Then ask yourself why that might be – remembering, of course, that Al Gore “invented the Internet.”

Cross-posted at NewProgs.org

Photo via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.