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Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trial

HST in conversation with George McGovern.

This week in 1937 the world got Hunter S Thompson, and world of journalism would never really recover. His Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the most deranged comic novels ever written, made more so by that fact that better that 50 years later no one seems to realize it was a novel.

It’s his non-fiction follow up, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, that is one of the most wildly entertaining books on eye-wateringly tedious world of political campaigning. The book covers, almost exclusively, the political horse trading behind 1972 democratic primaries and national convention that led to George McGovern’s unlikely presidential nomination. Followed by a crushing defeat to Richard Nixon.

It’s less rambunctious than Vegas, but also a lot more “true.” Although, not exactly more factual. Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s campaign manager called it “the least factual, most accurate account” of the 1972 election. The book shows early glimpses of political like Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart, but that isn’t why it is still worth reading.

It’s the treatment of the mainstream media’s habit of only reporting on issues and events that it wanted to cover, rather than what was actually happening, on the campaign. These were unspoken truths at the time, what makes it so compelling now is that we now live in a media age where these unspoken truths are still denied by the press, but also embraced with such open abandon on both sides of the fence.

Thompson was covering the campaign for Rolling Stone before it went political, so he had the luxury of telling the truth and burning his bridges in Washington. He was never coming back. Timothy Crouse, also covering the campaign for Rolling Stone wrote his more factual memoir, The Boys on the Bus about the same campaign and also very critical of the media’s “pack journalism” mentality. It is still standard text in journalism schools.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ’72 is not that book. It is full of rants on policy and Nixon, on whom Thompson couldn’t keep quiet, writing in the man’s obituary: “I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”

This is not an objective work, and strictly speaking it isn’t very good journalism. It’s fake news as metaphor, but it’s still one of the best, and most entertaining, books on politics ever written.