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Memories of Gonzo Journalist Are Reminder of What Campaigns Used to Be

My one vivid memory of Hunter S. Thompson is from the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami. It was getaway day. The convention -- a disaster for Democrats -- had ended in the wee hours. And we were waiting at the valet stand in front of the Doral Hotel.

A long, pale-green convertible with fins rolled up, top down -- “the great green shark.” Thompson bounded across the pavement with a six-pack of Bud, popped open one can, laid the other five on the passenger seat and jumped behind the wheel, stomping on the pedal.

The monster car burst across one lane of driveway, roared onto the boulevard and darted across two lanes into the fast lane. Accelerating all the way.

Absurdly reckless and irresponsible. And way cool. My fellow journalist wife and I looked at each other, mouths open, speechless. This was Mr. Gonzo Journalism living his legend.

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It was how I always figured that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson -- as he preferred to be called -- might ultimately die. He would either perish in the twisted wreckage of a high-speed vehicle accident or in some twisted overdose of drugs and booze.

A lover of life, Thompson didn’t seem the type to commit suicide, as he did a week ago Sunday at his “fortified compound” in Colorado. But who really knows about such things?

My fondest and most indelible memories of Thompson, of course, are from his books, especially “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”

It rests on a shelf above my desk -- my most valued book, together with another that sits beside it: “The Boys on the Bus. Riding with the Campaign Press Corps,” by Timothy Crouse.

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This was an era of breakthrough political books -- witty, biting, irreverent, on the mark. Mostly fun.

There also was another landmark category, the comprehensive, compelling “The Making of the President” series by Theodore H. White. His volumes focused on insider strategy and changed political writing forever. Reporters began emphasizing the “why” and “how,” not just “who, what, when and where.”

Unfortunately, we ultimately went overboard and deemphasized issues, especially complex ones. These days, I suspect, readers get served a lot more information about strategy than they want -- and not enough substance about policy that actually affects their lives.

And recent political books too often have read like wooden cut-and-paste jobs that lean on Internet research and sterile Q&As;, rather than being written from the heart and gut, with a take-no-prisoners attitude based on close up reporting.

Thompson was in a class by himself. Far off beat, but perfectly in tune with the story.

In 1972, the story was the race between Sen. George McGovern and former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to be the Democratic nominee against President Richard Nixon. Even if he did make up half the stuff he wrote -- as “national affairs editor” of Rolling Stone magazine -- Thompson captured the essence of the campaign from a liberal perspective, with humor.

He wrote of the California primary: “Humphrey’s senile condition was so obvious that even I began feeling sorry for him. Indeed. Sorry. Senile. Sick. Tangled.... All those words and many others, but my brain is too numb to spit them out.... No person in my condition has any business talking about Hubert Humphrey’s behavior. My brain has slowed down to the point of almost helpless stupor. I no longer even have the energy to grind my own teeth.”

Of the party bosses who had backed Humphrey: “Now, less than three weeks before the convention, [McGovern] is so close to a first-ballot victory that the old hacks and ward-heelers who thought they had total control of the party ... find themselves skulking around like old winos in the side alleys of presidential politics.”

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On McGovern after the convention: “He has crippled himself with a series of almost unbelievable blunders ... that have understandably convinced huge chunks of the electorate, including at least half of his own hard-core supporters, that the candidate is a gibbering dingbat.”

After the election: “McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose.... Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?”

It ended for Nixon with the Watergate scandal. But in 1972 that was off in the future.

Back then, I was the Sacramento bureau chief for United Press International and its California political writer.

We mainstream reporters could only envy Thompson’s license and admire his talent. We could not try to emulate him and keep our jobs. But he inspired many of us to expand our parameters of creativity.

It was a great time to be a political writer -- especially in California. Politics shared a bigger part of people’s lives and their reading habits. That was partly because Americans were torn apart by the Vietnam War and were demanding that Washington either win it or withdraw.

California was center stage. The 1964 Republican primary had tipped the GOP nomination to Sen. Barry Goldwater. The 1968 Democratic primary would have earned the nomination for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy if he hadn’t been assassinated on election night. McGovern won his nomination in California.

Voter turnouts for those primaries exceeded 70%. By contrast, turnouts for recent primaries have been mostly in the 40s. That’s partially because California hasn’t had a meaningful contest since 1972. It’s also because Watergate made people much more cynical about politicians.

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There might not even be a market for Thompson today. You couldn’t write “The Boys on the Bus” -- and not just because there are as many girls. There are few buses and even fewer reasons to ride them. Campaign events have become mostly TV bait.

Hunter Thompson’s political era ended long before his life did. Both demises were tragic.

George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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