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A journalist who broke all the rules

By Alan Maass | March 4, 2005 | Page 13

HUNTER S. THOMPSON was famous for his drug adventures. Most obituaries following his recent suicide naturally gave top billing to his best-known book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--a crazed story, allegedly non-fiction, in which Thompson and his "attorney" companion, stoned on all kinds of substances, wreak havoc in America's temple to glitz and consumerism.

Because of its wild humor and up-front championing of drug use, the book became a fixture in college dorm rooms for years to come. But like a lot of Thompson's writings, beneath the surface, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had more to say.

Thompson himself considered it an "epitaph for an era"--a commentary on the political and social upheavals of the 1960s. In a rare moment of calm amid the book's misadventures, he reflects on the betrayed promise of the '60s: "There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark--that point where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

This is what Hunter Thompson deserves to be remembered for. As a journalist--one who broke the rules and basically reinvented the form to serve his own purposes--he chronicled an era of immense change that exploded the complacent conservatism of the 1950s and shaped so much of what is familiar to us today.

The youth counterculture and its changes in attitudes and lifestyle had their roots in political struggles, as Thompson always recognized. "The '60s was about the Free Speech Movement long before it was about the flower children," he told an interviewer. "I was more a part of the Movement than I was of the Acid Club."

Thompson's writing, especially for Rolling Stone magazine in its early rebel days, will be remembered for its skill in capturing the feel of the youth counterculture. But he remained highly political, even when the counterculture retreated, and he bore witness to many of the defining events of the time--for example, the cataclysmic 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where Mayor Richard J. Daley's cops went on a rampage against antiwar demonstrators, Thompson among them.

No one was better at giving voice to our side's contempt for a corrupt and hypocritical political system. Even today, three decades after the fact, it's satisfying--uplifting even--to read Thompson's rants about his nemesis, Richard Nixon.

"He was dishonest to a fault, the truth was not in him, and if it can be said that he resembled any other living animal in this world, it could only have been the hyena," Thompson wrote after Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974. "If there were any such thing as true justice in this world, his rancid carcass would be somewhere down around Easter Island right now, in the belly of a hammerhead shark."

Thompson's hatred of tinhorn politicians was bipartisan. His articles for Rolling Stone on the 1972 presidential campaign--later collected in a book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, one of the best (and certainly most entertaining) inside looks at the twisted workings of American politics--display a deep distrust of the Democrats that rings true today.

"[T]he 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 no hope of accomplishing anything genuinely new or different in American politics until the Democratic Party is done away with," he wrote. "It is a bogus alternative to the politics of Nixon: A gang of senile leeches like George Meany, Hubert Humphrey and Mayor Daley...Scoop Jackson, Ed Muskie and Frank Rizzo, the super-cop mayor of Philadelphia."

Thompson wrote that before liberal South Dakota Sen. George McGovern--the only declared candidate in 1972 that Thompson had any respect for--emerged from the pack with an underdog campaign that tapped grassroots support, especially among youth, to win the nomination. McGovern was crushed in the general election by Nixon--in part because the party machine withheld its enthusiastic support, but also because of the contradictions of his own role as the liberal face of a "bogus alternative."

Thompson never came to terms with these contradictions. His most enduring weakness was his inability to imagine a political alternative outside of liberal Democrats like McGovern.

Sadly, the final high points of the '60s and '70s period--driving Nixon out of the White House and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam--also marked the end of Thompson's best writing. His later political articles never achieved the same political depth, and the clownish aspect of his writing--his bombast and often crude sexism, for example--became more pronounced. In 2000, he voted for Ralph Nader. But last year, Thompson was one of the liberal attack dogs who heaped abuse on a man who had been one of his personal heroes.

The best part of Hunter S. Thompson got left behind. But his books and writings from the 1960s and '70s should be read and reread--for the fun of it, but also for what they explain about an era of questioning, struggle and change.

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