This book ranks among my all time favorites and has been an election year tradition ever since I found my copy at a San Francisco antique store back in 2003. Told through a series of articles, field notes, diatribes, and ultimately taped conversations with his editor (following a nervous breakdown in November), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 is a narrative of Thompson’s experiences and impressions covering the 1972 Democratic primaries and Presidential election for Rolling Stone magazine. True to the author’s style, it contains a lot of colorful language, strong opinions, and several misadventures. Frank Mankiewicz, campaign director of eventual Democratic nominee George McGovern, once called the book “the least factual, most accurate account” of the process; which given Hunter’s huge emotional investment, not to mention penchant for wild tangents and exaggeration, sounds about right. If you’re at all interested in American politics or government this book is a must read.
For a general overview, the story begins in December 1971 and follows the path of South Dakota Senator George McGovern en route to winning the hotly contested 1972 Democratic Presidential nomination. By appealing to the more liberal wing of the party and mobilizing an enthusiastic following among young voters, his campaign’s superior grassroots network allowed him to defeat a pair of old-guard establishment favorites while fending off a surprise challenge posed by a far-right demagogue. After surviving an “Anyone But McGovern” challenge at the party convention, he seemed poised to deny Richard Nixon a second term in office. Shortly following the nomination, however, the wheels began to fall off the campaign. A scandal over an unpopular Vice Presidential selection with a history of shock therapy and lukewarm support from the defeated party establishment killed enthusiasm among new-found supporters and traditional Democratic voting blocs alike. As a result McGovern suffered a crushing defeat, winning only in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, as Nixon cruised to reelection following a historically low voter turnout percentage.
Reading this again made me wish that Hunter was still alive to give his thoughts on our current political situation. Having boasted of writing “some of the most brutal and hateful caricatures of Richard Nixon ever committed to print, in this country or any other (399),” what would he have to say about this year’s crop of Republicans? Would he have felt the Bern despite his misgivings about the Democratic Party? With these thoughts in mind, I will close with a few quotes that struck me as particularly relevant this year.
Speaking to my own Fear and Loathing about the candidates we’ve been offered for this November, the specifics might be different, but the sentiments are eerily similar:
How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but “regrettably necessary” holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils? (55-6)
How long, O Lord. . .How long? Where will it end? The only possible good that can come of this wretched campaign is the ever-increasingly likelihood that it will cause the Democratic Party to self-destruct. A lot of people are seriously worried about this, but I am not one of them. I have never been much of a Party Man myself. . . and the more I learn about the realities of national politics, the more I’m convinced that the Democratic Party is an atavistic endeavor – more an Obstacle than a Vehicle – and that there is really no hope of accomplishing anything genuinely new or different in American politics until the Democratic Party is done away with. (125)
As for Donald Trump, these next few lines instantly made me think of the Republican nominee. Again, the names may be different, but the personality disorders are apparently nothing new:
…it is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise. Our Barbie doll President, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close… (416-7)
The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy-then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece. (127)
The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy – and then doing exactly that, by howling down to them from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions…The ugly truth is that Wallace had never even bothered to understand the problems – much less come up with any honest solutions…(275)
Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President? (414)