Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ‘72, Hunter S. Thompson

I never got round to reading ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ because for some reason it never really appealed to me, although like most things in my life if I were slightly less judgemental I’d probably enjoy it.

The first thing I noticed was how genuinely interested the author is on the subject matter, and it’s clear that he was well informed on all aspects of modern American politics. His passion for his chosen subject of the moment seemed to run as deep as that for American football, or taking every conceivable drug known to man.

‘Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72’ is about the ups and downs of following a political campaign culminating in the 1972 U.S. Presidential election. Most of the book concerns the state hopping trail and political manoeuvring of the Democratic nominations that are finalised before challenging the presidency. Once George McGovern is chosen as the Democratic candidate it’s all over pretty quickly, then comes the fascinating dissection of how it all went badly wrong.

The politics is as intriguing as it can be complicated, and at times the wrangling, strategy and plain back stabbing is simply baffling. However, the window this book provides into the sinister world of big business, greed and politics is as shocking as anything by Micheal Moore. You get the feeling that you’ve been there many times, and like before its ordinary people like us who are left absolutely powerless at the hands of madness. It’s strange that the farcical nature of American politics that Thompson described so well 33 years ago has only in recent years become so well accepted. His cutting descriptions of political figures carry with them an entirely believable weight, it’s not simply about him being nasty, just an honest portrayal of how he saw those people.

I liked the way he was genuinely angered at the government and the general direction of a country that he obviously had a deep attachment to. This anger manifests itself throughout in different ways. For example, “It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every other country in the world has learnt to despise”. The book is littered with other such quotes that reassure readers that they are not alone in their resentment and bitterness at what was, and still is, a hideously corrupt process.

This is an eye opener for me, I’d always thought that laying anger bare in such a manner was what writers did when they couldn’t articulate themselves, or inject humour. Now I realise that anger and articulation can coexist and also have the potential to be unstoppably funny. I find this approach far more readable, and funny, than the recent trend of apathy and wit that seems to blight broadsheet newspapers in this country. In that respect his writing has many of Orwell’s simple idealistic qualities that do away with reasoning and annoying economic considerations.

He also uses the book to put forward his own anti war ideals, this at a time when the war in Vietnam had reached the point where death and destruction on such a huge scale was spiralling out of control. You can almost taste his contempt for the Nixon administration, unsurprisingly it resonates deeply with the current tide of feeling towards those other two nasty little spivs, Bush and Blair. Interestingly a character called Ron Kovic appears at a veterans anti war demo outside the Republican conference in Miami. It is his treatment, after returning home paralysed from Vietnam, that is the story in Oliver Stones best film to date, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989).

The political process is underpinned by a captivating narrative about the everyday proceedings of life on the campaign trail. From German run hotel chains in Milwaukee to nearly drowning on a Californian beach, it’s all explained with a gritty and often compelling intensity. I especially liked his descriptions of the unrelenting air travel and sleep deprivation that slowly turned the press community mad. You get the feeling that although Thompson hated it, he somehow thrived in press suites and aboard the press planes where gambling, drugs and an accepted disillusionment where the way of life.

So, Hunter S. Thompson. He’s dead now, but after reading this book I get the feeling that I would have quite liked the bloke. There are qualities that go beyond the obvious NME style hype about Gonzo journalism, drug taking and mad behaviour. Here was a person who had a genuine interest in the world around him, an innate understanding of the human character and a razor sharp sense of humour.

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