This piece originally appeared in The Age
This year is the 40th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, which just might be the high-water mark of the American journalist’s powers. Certainly towards the end, when he would end it with a gun like his hero Hemingway, he could unfavourably compare the current shoreline with the high marks of the ’70s.
Thompson had been sent to cover the Nixon/McGovern presidential campaign by Rolling Stone, then a new, alternative magazine with high ambitions. Its editor envisioned it boasting “the professionalism of Time and the hipness of the underground press with stories that would run as long as The New Yorker’s“.
Thompson brought a meth-fuelled avidity to the campaign trail. He was, back then, before the mania and misanthropy turned his work into self-parodic gibberish, a strong and lucid reporter, a tireless traveller, an obsessive for detail and a great acquirer and nurturer of sources.
Like Paul Keating, he had a powerful talent for invective. Thompson applied these gifts to his coverage, but he was also conducting a dangerous experiment with journalism.
Most newspapers conceived of their credibility as dependent upon objectivity. That is, truth was knowable and observable and so the journalist, equipped with the spear of objectivity, could hunt and capture his prey before the trophy was laid out in ink in columns.
Thompson had other ideas. “Some people will say that words like ‘scum’ and ‘rotten’ are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true—but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House … you had to get subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”
For Thompson, objectivity had become a cult—a fetishisation of facts that missed the bigger picture. The five Ws, inverted pyramid and pursuit of objectivity were consigned to the scrap heap. Thompson was in search of a higher, poetic truth that trumped whatever truth emerged from the mundane assemblage of facts.
The arrogance is breathtaking, the stance perilous, but it also produced one of the best campaign books around. Such risky, high-octane writing should only be attempted by a top-flight artist, and Thompson was, for a short while. But the contemporary deification of Thompson has more to do with his sexy iconoclasm—the cartoon super-freak of Doonesbury, heroically necking peyote and going in search of the American Dream.
The sad truth is that Thompson wrote nothing of importance after Nixon left the White House. It’s tempting to view the 37th president of the United States as the white whale to the rogue journalist’s Ahab, but the truth is that the drugs and depression were always going to take their toll. It was just a matter of when.
The truth is, as readers laughed at Thompson’s exploits and felt the white rush of his incredulity and sadness, the myth and the man were blurring together out in the Colorado wilderness. Thompson had been mostly absent for the big stories of the ’80s, ’90s and noughties—occasionally firing off incoherent, drug-touched screams but they were now the stuff of hatred and confusion, not the old-fashioned reporting he used to do. Thompson was AWOL, cracking off rifle shots on his compound and dreaming of J. Edgar Hoover.
There’s another tainted legacy of Thompson’s adventurism. When he defended his use of “scum” and “rotten”, he didn’t mention that the fiercely subjective journalism he advocated could quite as easily be used by demagogues as it could be against them. In the hands of someone less funny, less strange, less gifted than the Thompson of the ’70s, his tenets of subjective journalism quickly turn into verbose hate letters lazily stripped of any of the journalistic rigour that he was once good at.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of this landmark book, it’s worth thinking about our own political writing. Most of our political columns lack the vigour and creativity of Thompson’s work, but that isn’t the most notable absence in Australian political letters. Our novelists aren’t much interested in politics. The last great political book in this country might be Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory—it’s hard to think of another, more recent example.
In the new introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition of Campaign Trail ’72, Matt Taibbi writes touchingly of a man who was “deathly earnest, passionate and deeply troubled” and who wrote a book filled with “genuine surprise and outrage”. It’s true, and while I won’t speculate as to why we don’t write political novels any more, or why novelists don’t join campaign trails, the theatre of politics is as rich for writers today as it was in Thompson’s heyday.
As Taibbi points out, Thompson “enters a nightmarish maze of deceptions and prevarications and proceeds to throw open every door … searching every nook and cranny for the great Answer, for Justice.” There’s no reason why our best writers can’t do the same today.