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"Between the Idea and the Reality...Falls the Shadow"
on July 4, 2012
There are certain books that help define the tumultuous era between JFK's election and Nixon's resignation. Fear and Loathing can included in a list with The Best and the Brightest, Armies of the Night, Nixon Agonistes and All the President's Men. Just as importantly, each of these writers - Halberstam, Thompson, Mailer and Wills - infused their texts with a writing style that matched in virtuosity the events being covered.
Gonzo Journalism was well suited to a sixties journey to Vegas but is even more illuminating covering the 1972 election. Thompson is insightful enough to read the political currents of the campaigns and conventions while lending his own brand of craziness to an epoch of American electioneering that makes our rabid era look placid in comparison. He can start with an interesting observation such as: "Hubert (Humphrey) seems genuinely puzzled by the fast-rising tide of evidence that many once-sympathetic voters no longer believe anything he says." The author later stretches a bit to say that "Sending Muskie against Nixon would have been like sending a three-toed sloth out to seize turf from a wolverine." Soon, Thompson is describing Muskie's emotional collapse over the "Canuck letter" through a fantasy in which an Ibogaine induced candidate imagines that gila monsters are attacking his legs as he speaks from a train. The beauty of the text is that somehow, Thompson's nightmare version seems more real than what actually occurred.
Not to be overlooked are Englishman Ralph Steadman's wonderful and embittered illustrations such as Nixon waving to supporters behind a police line. The book also includes a host of well chosen photos which stretch our vision of the era: Gary Hart planning with Warren Beatty; Sam Yorty waving from his touring bus; a CREEP button which reads "Acid, Amnesty, Appeasement: Vote McGovern;" Sammy Davis Jr's famous man hug of Nixon; and a shot of Thompson writing in sun glasses with 2 Miller High Lifes in front of him. The best photo of all catches McGovern's expression of visceral disappointment on the way to a press conference to announce that his new running mate had a history of (you can't make this stuff up) electric shock treatments.
Thompson admits his biases and argues that no writer can transcend his/her own preconceptions: "With the possible exception of box scores, race results and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms." Given his bias, however, Doctor Gonzo demonstrates, at times, an unequaled eye and unsparing observations. On the counter-culture: "The importance of Liking Yourself is a notion that fell heavily out of favor during the coptic, anti-ego frenzy of the Acid Era - but nobody guessed, back then, that the experiment might churn up this kind of hangover: a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything." On the 1968 Democratic nominee: "Hubert Humphrey is a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current." On Ed Muskie's doomed campaign: "He talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop." On the appeal of the candidate from Alabama: "George Wallace is one of the worst charlatans in politics but there is no denying his talent for converting frustration into energy." On blind ambition: "A career politician finally smelling the White House is not much different at all from a bull elk in rut." On message discipline: "If God himself had showed up in Miami and denounced Nixon from the podium, hired gunsels from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President would have quickly had him arrested for disturbing the peace."
Fear and Loathing may no longer be topical in its 40th year edition but it remains as insightful, controversial and often hilarious political reporting. Thompson was not just the drug-crazed reporter made infamous by Johnny Depp. He is also one of the pioneering journalists of the last half of the 20th century and this book is by far his finest and most serious effort.