Sunday, March 22, 2015

March is Mostly Mets Reading Month: 'Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72' and real-life adventures with Hunter S. Thompson

I must have the early 1970s on the brain. After yesterday's look at the baseball world of 1973, we can step back a year and the wild world of Hunter S. Thompson.

“Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Published in 1973

This was actually required reading for one of my college journalism classes. 

Hunter S. Thompson is the legendary Rolling Stone writer famous for “gonzo” journalism that blurred the lines between fact and exaggerated truth.  And I say blurred, because it appears much of what transpires in a Thompson story occurs through a haze of booze and drugs, all thoroughly documented by the author.

That’s because the main character in a Hunter S. Thompson story is usually Thompson, with the stories being a first-person account of his adventures on the campaign trail.

When Thompson is “on,” he’s incredibly insightful and biting, and no one escapes his pointed wit, especially his colleagues in the media. And when he’s not, he’s still very entertaining. There are parts of this book that are hysterical, difficult to read because of the laughing it provokes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Thompson takes his role too seriously, or not seriously at all.

“Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” is a collection of Rolling Stone stories from the presidential election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, who Thompson describes as a good man who was over matched when the party establishment took over his campaign.

Among the things we learned is that Thompson had a running feud with straight-laced NBC News anchor John Chancellor.

There’s a scene from the GOP convention in Miami where Thompson is trying to infiltrate a group of young Nixon supporters as they are about to be ushered on to the convention floor for a celebration. All was going well until he spotted Chancellor in the broadcast booth above. Here’s an excerpt:

“They herded us out of the Ready Room and called a ragged kind of cadence while we double-timed it across the wet grass under the guava trees in the back of the hall and finally burst through a well-guarded access door held open for us by Secret Service men just as balloons were released from the ceiling. It was wonderful; I waved happily to the SS man as I raced past him with the herd and then onto the floor. The hall was so full of balloons that I couldn’t see anything at first, but then I spotted Chancellor up there in the booth and I let the bastard have it. First I held up my “GARBAGE MEN DEMANDS EQUAL TIME” sign at him. Then, when I was sure he’d noticed the sign, I tucked it under my arm and ripped off my hat, clutching it in the same fist I was shaking angrily at the NBC booth and screaming at the top of my lungs: ‘You evil scumsucker! You’re through! You limp-wristed Nazi moron!’

“I went deep into the foulest back-waters of my vocabulary for that trip, working myself into a flat-out screeching hate-frenzy for five or six minutes and drawing similes of approval from some of my fellow demonstrators. They were dutifully chanting the slogans that had been assigned to them in the Ready Room – but I was really into it, and I could see that my zeal impressed them.”

A true story? Who knows. But it’s a fun read, especially if you've ever covered one of these things.

Rich and I had the opportunity to see a Thompson appearance in New Haven, Conn. in the late 1980s. It was a surreal evening.

Thompson sat at a table on stage, wearing aviator sunglasses and a cheap, tan Yankees cap that had a visor decorated with ballpoint pen. A bottle of some kind of booze was there, too, and he kept refilling his glass. 

A local radio host sat at another table and served as the moderator, asking a number of political questions, and Thompson, sometimes mumbling, would reply. It was difficult to hear what he was saying, but it was clear he still didn’t like President Nixon.

At some point the moderator called for questions from the audience. After several political questions, an attractive – and I’m guessing rather drunk – girl asked Thompson if he could sign her shoe.

Thompson disappeared behind the curtain – much to the apparent shock of the moderator – and appeared a short while later with another chair and invited the girl to come sit with him at the table.

Questions resumed, with Thompson answering some questions and the girl answering others, especially after the questions were about her and Thompson’s intentions toward her. Any doubts about her sobriety were soon dashed.

This went on for a while before Thompson again got up and disappeared behind the curtain, apparently much to the surprise of the moderator, who, at this point, was barely controlling things. Thompson emerged a short time later with a large trash can, set it on one side of the stage, and proceeded to try to fling like a Frisbee his empty box of Canadian cigarettes. (Unlike American packs, smokes from up north are sold in boxes that are flatter and wider with stronger cardboard.) Thompson was pretty good at this, then started challenging audience members to come up on stage and do the same.

This, too, went on for a while before Thompson again abruptly disappeared behind the curtain, this time not returning.

“Well everyone, I guess that’s ‘Good night,” the bemused moderator said.

Looking back, I’m glad I went to see Thompson, because he’s a legend and the night was an unpredictable sideshow that always seemed about to careen out of control. But I probably wouldn’t have ever plunked down $11 to see him again. Perhaps what had once been a brilliant and sharp mind had become dulled. It was a night both fascinating and frightening.

The book, however, remains a good and very funny read.

Thompson certainly in't a role model as a journalist, though I absolutely know one who thinks he is the heir apparent. But he does show a different way of looking at things, especially the people we cover and how they cover them. 

Your reading list so far:

March 5: "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" by Marc Okkenon
March 4: "Clemente! The Enduring Legacy" by Kal Wagenheim 
March 3: "Mets by the Numbers" by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman
March 2: "Faith and Fear in Flushing" by Greg W. Prince

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