“We are not a nation of truth-lovers.” The nation? America. The person making the observation? Hunter S. Thompson, in his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, a collection of the reporting he’d done for Rolling Stone magazine during the election campaign that saw Richard Nixon return to the White House.
It’s one of the key statements of the book, and not just because of its resonance at a time when the Trump presidency is still a very raw memory, but because it says something about Thompson’s own journalism, too. Even though he presents the reality of US politics in Campaign Trail ‘72, it’s not a reality that he felt obliged to relay objectively. In fact, “objective journalism” was something that he actively rebelled against – “The phase itself,” he writes, “is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
This doesn’t make Thompson a bad reporter. Far from it. He put in the thousands of yards required to cover an election campaign; he immersed himself in his subject; he spoke to everyone. But he also took the idea that all journalists insert a bit of themselves into their stories, and dialled it up to 11 – Thompson and his shenanigans were, it feels at times when reading, as much part of the campaign as any of the candidates. More than the drugs and the shirtless attorneys, this was the true innovation of his Gonzo Journalism.
It helps that, in this case, Thompson wasn’t covering an election contested by old grey technocrats in old grey suits. This terrain suited his particular brand of craziness. It’s a field full of villains and heroes – or, rather, a field of villains with only one exception. George McGovern, the political outsider who becomes the Democrats’ main challenger to Nixon, is, in Thompson’s words, “the only candidate in either party worth voting for”.
Outside of that recommendation, Campaign Trail ‘72 is full of cynicism – and it’s a cynicism that borders on prescience. Not just in the short term (the book has a good handle on Nixon’s inclinations even before his role in the Watergate scandal was fully apparent), but also in the long term (sub in Bernie Sanders for McGovern, or Joe Biden for Hubert Humphrey, and many of the grievances of 1972 would sound like they were from 2020).
In fact, you can’t help but wonder how an octogenarian Thompson would have fared today – or, more specifically, last year, on that Campaign Trail ‘20 – had he not died by suicide in 2005. Ours isn’t just a crowded digital environment in which everyone’s a publisher; it’s also one where so many people have seen Thompson’s example and copied it, inserting themselves into the narrative.
But surely Thompson would have stood out regardless? The dying days of the Trump presidency… the storming of the Capitol… America ravaged by a pandemic. This is his kind of beat. In a way, Campaign Trail ‘72 was just practice for the perfect Thompson book that we’ll never get to read.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill
James Wilson is web editor at Tortoise