The New Hunter S. Thompson : A Doctor of Gonzo Journalism Turns Political Man

Times Staff Writer

For more than an hour, Hunter S. Thompson has been calmly and cogently presenting his views on national politics between bites of his lunch. So calmly, in fact, that he doesn’t even bother to harass the waitress when she informs him that there is no more tuna salad.

Suddenly, he stops in mid-sentence and emits a blood-curdling cry.

He has detected a strand of hair on the lip of his drinking glass and cannot continue. Not just a small hair, mind you, but a “large, ugly, black-rooted hair” that is spoiling his jumbo tumbler of Chivas on the rocks.


Soon, everyone at the Woody Creek Tavern in this Rocky Mountain hamlet--from the manager to the neighborhood barfly--is holding the glass up to the light and examining it with the concentration of government health inspectors. No one can see any foreign matter--except for Thompson, who has worked himself into a snarling fever trying to get someone to admit that he’s not just hallucinating.

Vindicated at Last

Finally, bartender Mary Harris defuses the crisis. “Why, yes,” she says, turning the glass around and around, “I can see the hair now.” Vindicated at last, Thompson placidly returns to his discourse.

For a few fleeting moments, the barroom has gotten a glimpse of the Gonzo journalist of old--that literary lion of lunacy who used to prowl the corridors of power for Rolling Stone magazine with a quart of Wild Turkey in one hand and a bottle of amphetamines in the other; the “Good Doctor” whose fear and loathing of American politics were expressed in hilariously vituperative attacks on national political figures; the founder and chief practitioner of a peculiar brand of “new journalism,” which held that the story of the writer struggling to work through a drug- and alcohol-induced frenzy was a lot more interesting than whatever his editors had assigned.

Today, however, there is a new and possibly improved version of Hunter S. Thompson--a sedate, almost serene, scribbler of serious political prose with a nationally syndicated column who for the moment is seated on a chair of genuine Naugahyde at his favorite hometown watering hole and exhibiting all the signs of someone capable of acting, well, normal .

Give-and-Take Discussions

What’s different is both the man and his message. He’s 50 years old now, for one thing, and he knows that what was charming when he was 30 or wild when he was 40 takes on a pathetic patina with the big Five-O. The outrageous outfits of Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts and high-top sneakers are mixed these days with mountain-man khaki pants and flannel shirts. (Of course, his favorite slacks are still the ones in Day-Glo orange with white unicorns.) The diatribes at high decibels have given way to give-and-take discussions so quiet they could be moved to a library.

And, sometimes, if a harvest moon is shining outside and the air is as autumn crisp as a shiny McIntosh apple, the man who once derided the United States as a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen “with no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world” sounds suspiciously like a flag-waving, Republican-by-birth patriot.

“This is the only nation in the world where your vote is heard. You make a difference,” the new Thompson says with apparent sincerity. “You do have a say in things. Democracy is really not a bad

idea if you pay attention to it.”

One reason the change seems so marked is that until recently Thompson hasn’t written much of anything for anybody. In fact, for the last decade Thompson has been something of a recluse on his 100-acre farm here, content to leave the Gonzo image intact rather than go to the trouble of replacing it publicly.


Actually, he and his friends say, it’s not so much that Thompson disappeared; he simply seemed content to let the world spin by for a few years. “People think his brain has been fried. But it just isn’t true. He’s sharp as a tack,” says his longtime friend, Aspen entrepreneur Dan Dibble. “He’s been very aware and very involved,” and simply hasn’t bothered anyone lately.

Thompson himself is rather shy about discussing the change. “I’m just living a different side of life,” he explains. And what about his life before? “None of it seems crazy to me, really. Well,” he mumbles with no explanation, “maybe getting married to that fat boy down in Bimini.” (In actuality, Thompson, who is divorced, is known for his succession of much-younger girlfriends.)

But the new Thompson is more “organized,” more “sensitive,” more “open to serious intellectual exchange,” according to his friends. That may be a reflection of changing times rather than just a transformation of Thompson himself. “I’m not going to call it maturity,” Dibble says, “because . . . he was a success at 30, so he wasn’t a kid. But times were crazier back then and Hunter meets all challenges with whatever it takes. And if times are easier like they are now, then he’s easier as well.”

Political Columnist

For confirmation that Gonzo is gone, just glance at the stack of political columns he has been writing for the San Francisco Examiner since 1985. (Newly purchased by the North American Syndicate, the column also has been appearing in about two dozen newspapers since August.) For one thing, Thompson is devoting nearly all his 1,000 words a week to a discussion of the 1988 presidential candidates and issues instead of comically inflated accounts of his misadventures with dope, Dobermans and deranged dwarfs.

The new Thompson has boasting rights to the first interview with Gary Hart after the Donna Rice scandal boiled over. Phoning up his old friend, then in seclusion, Thompson asked Hart to assess the odds of the remaining crop of Democratic candidates. Hart’s answer: They were all about 12 to 1.

Hart later claimed that the conversation had been off the record. Not so, says Thompson, who contends he “did him a great favor. That was about as smart a thing as he’s been quoted as saying after all his whining and bitching about this sex thing.”

(Thompson says he also happened to have been on the phone with Hart’s campaign manager, Bill Dixon, when Dixon’s beeper went off with the news that the Miami Herald was about to break the Rice story. Claims Thompson: “I was so far ahead of the story that I couldn’t confirm it.” A day before the Herald hit the streets, Thompson says, he learned that Hart had met Rice at the home of his neighbor, ex-Eagles rock singer Don Henley. “Two hours later, I had a picture of her, which I’d gotten from Henley’s bodyguard.”)

Thompson is rightfully proud that even back in the Gonzo days, mainstream journalists recognized that beneath all that LSD-induced gibberish lay an often-astute political analyst. Even the late Stewart Alsop went of his way to quote Thompson in his well-read, albeit conservative column in Newsweek. And Garry Wills, among others, has praised Thompson’s 1973 book, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72,” as the most insightful study of that year’s presidential election.

Thompson got so hooked on the rush of covering national politics in 1972--”like a jack rabbit gets addicted to road-running”--that he began betting on the outcome of each primary, a practice he continues to this day. “I just found it was a good way to learn it,” he says.

He likes to think of himself as the Jimmy the Greek of the 1988 campaign. “I’m a handicapper. That’s how I see my business--as a gambler rather than as a wisdom-giver,” Thompson says as he orders another tumbler of Chivas. “But if you want to know who’s going to be President next year, I’m probably the best person to ask.”

Savoring New Role

It may not be entirely an idle boast. In an Examiner column on the 1986 mid-term elections, Thompson correctly picked 15 of 17 Senate races. And though he sat out the 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns because he claims no one paid him to write about them, he is savoring every second of the 1988 contest now that he again has a national outlet for his writing.

Indeed, he delights in talking for hours about such issues as the confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. One night, after watching every minute of the televised Senate hearings and hanging on every word of “Nightline” for weeks, Thompson got the tavern bar-tending staff together for a toast “to the death of Bork.”

“I like to see bloodshed. I like to see combat. We’re all better for that, you know,” Thompson explains. “The more I get into politics, the more I take it seriously.”

But not entirely. There was, for example, the moment six months ago when he threatened the life of Vice President George Bush during a speech at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “To an auditorium filled with 3,000 Jesuit gentlemen, no less,” he sighs.

It’s not just that he compared Bush to Nazi follower Albert Speer, or called him the “meanest yuppie who ever lived,” or described him as an “evil demoniac politician.” The truth of the matter is “we were talking about guilt, and I got carried away,” Thompson admits. “I said in fact that George Bush is so guilty that if you of the Jesuit persuasion believe what your faith believes then you would have to stomp George Bush to death.”

He pauses. “Then I called for a vote. They believed it, 2 to 1.”

Visit From Secret Service

The old Thompson would have dismissed the outburst as funny, like the time he accused NBC newsman John Chancellor of spiking his drink with black acid, a kind of LSD. Not anymore, he says, especially when the Secret Service came out from Denver in May to talk to him. Thompson had to cancel a trip back East “after the agent said my life might become a series of terrible misunderstandings if I even thought about going to Washington without consulting him first.”

Thompson also got into trouble over the summer when he was charged with firing a shotgun within Aspen’s city limits--specifically a sawed-off riot gun he was using for target practice on a local golf course. “He figured this town needed a little fun,” Dibble explains.

The Woody Creek Tavern set up a legal defense fund--two industrial-size mayonnaise jars that bar patrons have filled with bullets, keys, a hacksaw blade and a file.

Last year, he got the most angry letters he has ever received over one piece of writing when he described in a column how he had beaten to death a red fox that persisted in hanging around his house. “I was in a foul mood,” Thompson explains.

“I saw the hate mail,” Dibble confirms. “It was the kind that Charles Manson probably gets.”

Another reason Thompson has said goodby to Gonzo journalism--founded when he was sent to write a story about the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlon’s magazine and, unable to cope with the deadline pressure, “just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer”--is that drugs were always integral to his creative process.

Amphetamines helped him get his stream-of-conscious thoughts into the typewriter, he once explained, while all the LSD he had taken in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the mid-1960s helped him to dissolve his inhibitions.

‘The Last Dope Fiend’

Today, the drugs have been cut way back. “Oh yeah, I had to,” he laments. “There’s not enough people to have any fun with. What the hell, I’m by myself. The last dope fiend. It’s hard to find the right people to party with.”

“Yeah,” Dibble interjects. “All the fun people are dead or in jail.”

A self-described “hillbilly” from Kentucky, the son of an insurance agent, Thompson began as a sportswriter for an Air Force base newspaper in Florida. He was discharged honorably but early for his “flair for invention and imagination” and overall disregard for authority.

After various stops and starts, including a stint as a bowling writer in Puerto Rico, Thompson in 1960 began free-lancing articles for major publications about South American smuggling, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and the hippie drug culture in Haight-Ashbury.

He first gained notoriety as the author of a 1967 book about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Though written fairly conventionally, the book employed the New Journalism technique of participating in the story, detailing how he rode with the Angels for a year until they savagely beat him during a brawl.

It was while covering the Democratic national convention in Chicago in 1968 that Thompson claims he became politically radicalized. And once he discovered the Gonzo style of writing, he and Rolling Stone found each other in 1970.

To this day, there is some dispute over who talked whom into opening a Washington office to launch the rock music magazine on its successful foray into political reporting. “It was my idea to send Hunter to Washington--for better or worse,” publisher Jann Wenner claims. Thompson maintains he had to talk Wenner into it.

No matter who was responsible, Thompson’s writing as national affairs editor gave the magazine unprecedented exposure. During the 1972 election, Democratic nominee George McGovern would have Thompson’s articles sent to him on the campaign trial.

Thompson’s relationship with the magazine deteriorated in 1975 after he succeeded in getting sent to Saigon during the last days before the U.S. pullout and then couldn’t write anything about it save for rambling cables about his expenses and some lackluster pages from Laos.

Still on Magazine Masthead

By the end of the year, Thompson asked that his name be removed from the masthead, later acknowledging that “it was a toss-up whether I was fired or whether I quit.” Wenner refused, and Thompson is still listed as a reporter for the National Affairs Desk.

After more or less cutting his ties with Rolling Stone, Thompson devoted himself to writing books, novels and screenplays. His 1971 book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” is probably his most critically acclaimed, but he also had huge success with “The Great Shark Hunt,” a 1979 compilation of his articles.

In a foreword to the latter book, he formally announced his retirement--perhaps because he knew that the Universal movie based on his Dr. Thompson character, “Where the Buffalo Roam,” starring Bill Murray, would be released the next year. Even now he chides the film for being “cheap” and “silly,” but he is also quick to acknowledge that “I made a lot of money off of it. I’m trying to think where it went.”

In the 1980s, Thompson surfaced only occasionally. In 1983, he produced a best-selling book, “The Curse of Lono,” chronicling in typical Gonzo fashion a Conrad-like dark journey to Hawaii, where Thompson started to believe he was the reincarnation of a god. That same year, he showed up (ostensibly to cover) the U.S. invasion of Grenada--wearing a pair of pink linen golf pants that made him look like a Palm Beach tycoon who had taken a wrong turn.

But if Thompson was gone from the political arena, he was by no means forgotten. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau immortalized him as Raoul Duke in the “Doonesbury” strip. “A lot of people want to grow up to be firemen and President,” Thompson once said. “But nobody wants to grow up to be a cartoon character.”

Pilgrimage to Woody Creek

On a regular basis, baby boomers who had cut their political teeth on Thompson’s writing would travel to Woody Creek in search of the Good Doctor despite a dozen or so “Do Not Disturb” and “No Trespassing” signs in front of his home, not to mention his collection of 30 shotguns. And Washington Post political writer Haynes Johnson pleaded plaintively in a column about the 1984 presidential election, “Hunter, where are you now that we need you?”

In fact, Thompson was hiding out in Woody Creek and in the Florida Keys supposedly getting in the mood to write a new novel--suffering a massive case of writer’s block. He’s over it now, thanks in part to the pressure of penning the weekly column. “It’s good to write every week. It gets to be a habit, like a drug,” he says contentedly. But as far as his work habits go, “nothing changes,” he adds. “I sit up here and spit lead and wear the same filthy clothes and suffer my spells while a lot of money passes through my hands.”

This fall, Thompson finds himself more in demand than ever. Texas producer Ross Milloy (“Alamo Bay,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) and Aspen independent film maker Wayne Ewing are working together to create a cinema verite biographical picture about and starring Thompson. “We want to look at the cultural journey Hunter’s made over the last 20 years,” Ewing says, “within the context of the 1988 presidential campaign.”

Thompson considers the project a pain in the derriere for the most part, though he’s flattered by the attention. He says he is getting another book together, this one to be a compilation of his Examiner columns. And next month, he has six speaking engagements in two days at college campuses. “It’s very queer. I can’t grasp it,” notes Thompson. “It’s not so much a resurgence of interest in me as a total awareness.”

The Woody Creek tavern is getting ready to close up for the evening. It has been a long three days and nights. And the conversation has stayed squarely centered on Thompson’s past--what he did 10 years ago, what he did 10 months ago, what he did 10 weeks ago.

“I get bored looking back on it,” he says with a weary finality. “What should be done is not to look back at the ‘60s or ‘70s with great nostalgia. It’s to get out and participate in the present.”

With that, he reaches behind the bar for a fresh bottle of Chivas and tucks it under his arm--”in preparation for the primaries,” he says.