The best writers of fiction and nonfiction narratives alike are the ones whose words are capable of taking the reader away to another time and place. Marcel Proust took us with him on his stream of consciousness journeys in A Remembrance Of Things Past, Franz Kafka plants the audience in a world of nightmarish authoritarianism, and Ian Fleming’s verbose descriptions of events in the James Bond novels go right on down to what the secret agent eats and drinks. Hunter S. Thompson falls into the same category, carefully adjusting reality into his own warped yet still believable vision of the world.
Getting into Hunter S. Thompson is a lot like getting into Jimi Hendrix. One has to separate the man from the myth, or at least the myth-spouting fan. The overenthusiastic Thompson fan is the most contradictory type of human: he touts individualism yet lacks the self-awareness that he himself is a walking stereotype, usually a philosophy major with Libertarian tendencies and has no reservations with telling you how and why you are always wrong. Overcoming the facade of stoned hyperbole is difficult, but rewarding. Yes, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a terrific film, one of the best of its era and one of my personal favorites, but the book is even better. Thompson works best as a cultural critic, although the anecdotes he describes regarding his interactions with other people are often hilarious.
An assembly of pieces written while covering the 1972 Presidential campaign, what makes On The Campaign Trail such a masterpiece is that it does not read like ordinary journalism. It only makes sense, as Thompson says in this book that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” Throughout the book, scenes are highlighted by Thompson pausing to mention the drink in his hand, the drugs in his brain, or the song in the background. It is a uniquely immersion-based approach to journalism that single-handedly shifted American nonfiction. The narrative of the Democratic primaries is a strangely fascinating one as the shift focuses from initial projected front-runner Ed Muskie to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey before the youth vote leads to the runaway success of George McGovern.
As a student of history, I knew how the election process was going to end. I knew after a combination of luck and honest campaigning, McGovern was going to come out on top, offering a promise to end the Vietnam War and a platform of progressive politics that was (and, with the present political climate in mind, apparently still is) ahead of its time. I also knew McGovern was going to lose to Richard Nixon. Despite knowing how the story was going to end, I found myself so wrapped up in the events of the book that it still shocked me that McGovern only won the popular vote in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
On The Campaign Trail isn’t as outwardly humorous as Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, but it does build on some of the most poignant ideas Thompson laid out in the earlier book. His hatred for both Nixon and Humphrey is real, based on his own experiences at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, where the good old boy party bosses patted themselves on the back while the peaceful protest outside turned into a riot. Thompson meditates often on the passage of time and the changing of eras, knowing full well that the flower power scene of the 1960’s was gone and never coming back; it was his realistic outlook on America’s future that provides such a personal investment in his war against Nixon.
The heartache that colors the loss at the end of On The Campaign Trail is outweighed by the sheer joy and excitement had by Thompson (and by proxy, us,) at the thought of McGovern, one of the most liberal politicians this side of Eugene Debs, being the man who succeeded Nixon in the Presidency. Thompson also showcases his intelligence with incredibly accurate predictions throughout. He saw McGovern becoming the front-runner long before anyone else, defeating the candidates favored by the established hierarchy of the Democratic Party. Thompson described McGovern’s idealism as “a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been.”
When the defeat finally comes, the end result of some bad decision-making and a cowardly act of the press making an established fact into a pressing story, it hurts. We see McGovern first-hand on election night, quiet but surprisingly calm as he accepts defeat. Thompson’s final chapters are not just ruminations on McGovern’s loss, but an elegant eulogy for an entire generation’s loss. Though Nixon would later resign in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal, offering some vindication for Thompson and other thinkers of his ilk, it was too late. Frankly, Thompson never wrote anything as consistently engaging after 1972. He chronicles his own breakdown in the book, showing an exhaustion and disillusionment that he was not alone in feeling.
We are left wondering what could have been. Thompson never quite got over it, nor did he live to see the spiritual successor to the progressive ideas of McGovern, Carter, and Mondale’s spiritual successor in 2008. Looking back, we are still wondering what could have been. Nixon’s exit paved the way for Ronald Reagan and his brand of conservatism, first pioneered by the “nuke first, ask questions later” mentality of 1964 Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. Had McGovern won, how different would things have been? We are left to speculate, while enjoying the fascinating journey towards slightly darker pastures.