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Recently read: Fear and Loathing

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on April 27, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Hunter S. Thompson. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72

“What I would like to preserve here,” Hunter S. Thompson writes in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing, “is a kind of high-speed cinematic reel-record of what the campaign was like at the time, not what the whole thing boiled down to or how it fits into history.” This conveys fairly accurately what Fear and Loathing includes, as well as what it leaves out. Except in the most general terms, there is almost no discussion of policy in this book—what the candidates stood for in the presidential race of 1972, whether their platforms were realistic or feasible, how they differed from one another. This isn’t a book about that kind of politics. It’s about the daily horse-race in the polls, about spin and counterspin, about the tedium of campaigning, and the thrill of high-stakes convention maneuvering.

It’s also very much a book about Hunter S. Thompson. “Gonzo journalism,” Thompson’s brand, allowed him the freedom to insert himself in all his frenetic, drugged up glory right smack into the story he was telling. Since Thompson is so consistently strange and funny and out of control, this adds interest to what is already a pretty interesting, if sad and frustrating, story: the rise and fall of George McGovern from an obscure unknown at the outset of the primaries to the crushing defeat he suffered against Nixon on election day.

It wasn’t supposed to end that way. Nixon was a polarizing figure in a time of widespread discontent, committed to an unpopular war, and facing 25 million new potential voters, who could be expected to skew against him. Watergate had only started to penetrate the national consciousness, but there were considerable forces arrayed against Nixon already.

The setting convinced many that the Democratic nomination would be harder to win than the Presidency, since any Democratic nominee was expected to have great odds against Nixon. The Democratic nomination went to McGovern, who beat out party insiders Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie in the course of a grueling struggle through the primaries by campaigning as a principled outsider, a refreshing and authentic voice for substantive change in a party that many felt offered a poor alternative to the Republican option.

But after a promising start, the McGovern campaign crashed in a messy convention, and a string of disasters that kept the campaign on the defensive right up until the vote. The worst of these was McGovern’s decision to back Thomas Eagleton, his (first) Vice-Presidential running mate, “1000%” after the news broke that Eagleton had been hospitalized several times with fairly serious psychiatric difficulties (for which he had undergone shock therapy)—only to reverse course later and dump Eagleton in favour of a new running mate. The stunning reversal following an agonizing period of indecision badly tarnished McGovern’s image as an unusually candid politician. It was a terrible shame. As Thompson points out a number of times, McGovern was a decent candidate whose faults and considerable missteps were hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the sins of his opponent in the White House.

After years of complaining about horse-race coverage of political campaigns, I was a bit chagrined to find Thompson’s account of the ’72 campaign so gripping. The superficiality of the approach makes it a poor substitute for a serious discussion of how a society ought to organize itself. But there really is a place for accounts of the machinery of political life and for accounts of life on the campaign trail, especially when they’re this strange and original.