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On the Campaign Trail, 50 Years On


What would the good doctor have made of all of this? This week marks the 17th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s 20 February suicide in 2005. He was the writer best known for missed deadlines and his lifestyle choices rather than what he actually wrote. And he grew to hate the parody he helped create. Useless as a reporter, he wrote colorful, wild human truths twisted into absurd shapes. His Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas was an accidental book that became an accidental classic and even it got twisted. Privately, Thompson always maintained that is was a novel and would complain that “No one ever asked Hemingway if it was true.”


Whatever else the book is, it’s a page turner about two wildly intoxicated middle-aged men in search of the American Dream. They don’t find it, or anything else for that matter. It is an entertaining tale about… well, not much. The pair tear up some rental cars and a hotel room, skip the bill, are rude to everyone in earshot for no good reason, terrorize a maid but mostly themselves. Our protagonist, Raul Duke, fails to do the one thing he’s been hired to do. The status quo is maintained and nothing is achieved. And yet somehow you can’t stop turning the pages.


So, of course, Thompson was the perfect guy to write about Washington, D.C. The American Dream, even its death, is a slippery subject but at least it’s timeless. Politics is just as slippery but has the shelf-life of unpasteurized milk. The protagonists and issues get dated so quickly that readers have to struggle to remember the background color five years later, much less half a century. Not, however, if you get to the core of it. The beauty of Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trial ‘72 fifty years on isn’t that Thompson was a political insider, but that he wasn’t. He wasn’t even mainstream but a self-described freak operating out on the fringe. Without skin in the game, the inner-workings of politics were both baffling and offensive to him. And because he wouldn’t be talking to these people next year, could say what no insider could ever say without burning every bridge he’d ever crossed.


Politics is also a boring subject, where not much happens other than maintain the mean. In 1972 it was middle-aged white men pestering the little guy and squeezing businesses out of some money, making unwelcome passes at waitresses, not doing the job they were hired to do and always maintaining the status quo. Yet Campaign Trail ‘72 is not only a page-turner but a timeless one. Sure, things change, they always do: Now men and women – of all sorts of shades – can go to the ailing heart of the republic and pester the little guy, squeeze businesses, and fail to earn their paycheck while cashing it anyway.


It’s hard to know what Thompson would have made of the late unpleasantness. He did become a parody of himself and it shows in his writing. Rereading Campaign Trial ’72, however, makes you nostalgic for a brand of political sleaze within normal, almost quaint perimeters. Fifty years on, you yearn for old school politicians like that crook and testament to a jilted ego, Richard Nixon or George McGovern and his traditional bowl of socialist tapioca.


The tragedy of Thompson’s classic on Campaign Trail ’72 is that he only thought he’d answered the question: How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”


Well, we showed him.