Remembering Hunter Thompson

I got hit with the “How’s your pocketbook?” argument the other day. I replied that it’s actually doing fine, thank you very much. But when nearly sixty percent of American households have less than a thousand dollars in savings, we cannot claim any real national economic strength. Further, considering the erosion of civil rights in this country, we cannot pretend that our pocketbooks are a means to security.

The experience nudged the memory of an old Hunter Thompson quote to the surface, turning up in his 2003 book, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century: “Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up for refusing to kill gooks. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us — they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.”

I tend to think alot about Hunter Thompson around the time of the Super Bowl. Besides being a raw power of social and civil criticism, Thompson was a delightful sportswriter. The last regular writing gig he had was a column called Hey Rube for digital ESPN’s Page 2 site. The series produced the last book he published while he was alive, with the endearing title Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness (2004).

There has been a common thread between sports and socio-political observation in Thompson’s art at least since his breakout work for Rolling Stone, ostensibly covering the 1971 Fabulous Mint 400 motorcycle race that became his definitive Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As the personification of Rolling Stone’s National Affairs Desk, Thompson covered the Kentucky Derby and Super Bowls VII and VIII. Of course, Thompson also covered presidential campaigns for Rolling Stone, his first, notably growing into book form as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

The author browsing his collection of vintage literature (photo by Barry Dredze)

The book’s paperback edition sprawled out over 500 pages of glorious smartassed life wisdom to my impressionable 14-year-old mind, when I had discovered it during my freshman year of high school. The book’s “Epitaph” came at me as particularly cryptic, like a seed planted in moist and fertile soil. Thompson spent a fair amount of his report rubbing elbows with Frank Mankiewicz from George McGovern’s campaign to unseat Richard Nixon. With Nixon reelected and inaugurated, the final scene overlapped his coverage of that first Super Bowl story for Rolling Stone. Thompson wrote of his consideration to run for Senator from Colorado in 1974, only to learn that McGovern’s old campaign manager Gary Hart was interested in the job. After he won some bets as the Miami Dolphins crowned their undefeated season by beating Nixon’s Washington Redskins, Thompson is inspired to call Mankiewicz by a newspaper ad for McDonald’s, noting that the hamburger corporation was among the big donors to Nixon’s reelection campaign: “PRESS ON, it said. NOTHING IN THE WORLD CAN TAKE THE PLACE OF PERSISTENCE. TALENT WILL NOT: NOTHING IS MORE COMMON THAN UNSUCCESSFUL MEN WITH TALENT. GENIUS WILL NOT: UNREWARDED GENIUS IS ALMOST A PROVERB. EDUCATION ALONE WILL NOT: THE WORLD IS FULL OF EDUCATED DERELICTS. PERSISTENCE AND DETERMINATION ALONE ARE OMNIPOTENT.”

Calling Mankiewicz after several readings of the ad copy, Thompson reported Mankiewicz’s reply, saying “’Keep your own counsel,’ he said ‘Don’t draw any conclusions from anything you see or hear.’

“I hung up and drank some more gin,” Thompson concluded. “Then I put a Dolly Parton album on the tape machine and watched the trees outside my balcony getting lashed around in the wind. Around midnight, when the rain stopped, I put on my special Miami Beach nightshirt and walked several blocks down La Cienaga Boulevard to the Loser’s Club.”

It remains a strange piece of writing to me. Sure, he won a bunch of unpaid bets and Nixon won reelection to the White House under a cloud of scandal from which he would ultimately resign in disgrace. But Thompson was far from a loser. The man had a following and, with a good solid gig, he was on his way to being a legend. Even my naïve 14-year-old self could see that. But it would not be the only mystery that I would grapple with in the literature of the legendary Gonzo journalist.

It has now been fifteen years at this writing since Hunter S. Thompson took his own life; that sad event is nearly four times the historical separation it is now than it had been from the 9/11 attacks. “Nothing — even George Bush’s $350 billion “Star Wars” missile defense system — could have prevented Tuesday’s attack,” he reported in his Hey Rube column at the time, “and it cost next to nothing to pull off. Fewer than 20 unarmed Suicide soldiers from some apparently primitive country somewhere on the other side of the world took out the World Trade Center and half the Pentagon with three quick and costless strikes on one day.”

He was nothing if not genuinely patriotic and there is no question that Thompson felt like a loser in what had to be a brutal place in his head, as well as in the American place in the world. “This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why.”

Super Bowls. State of the Union Addresses. I think a lot about Hunter Thompson in February. On his last day in this life, from his perch at his home in Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, Thompson wrote a short suicide note, “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.” He even gave it a title, hand written in black marker, Football Season Is Over. Then he shot himself in the head, only a matter of weeks after the second inauguration of George W. Bush, on February 20, 2005. Before Trump. Before the Tea Party. Before all the scary crazy shit that only seems to keep picking up steam, reminding us that we live in a world without Hunter Thompson.

Somewhere in the middle of those fifteen years, while rereading 1979’s compilation of his work, The Great Shark Hunt, I came across a story called “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum” that he wrote for the National Observer, published May 25, 1964. “Like many another writer, Hemingway did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid — like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction.” It rose up from the page and struck me like a cruel joke of autobiographical foreshadowing.

“Perhaps he found what he came here for,” it continued, “but the odds are huge that he didn’t. He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him — not even when his friends came up from Cuba and played bullfight with him in the Tram. So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”

It is difficult not to believe that he somehow meant to do it all along. Like Hemingway, he was going to write the goddamn end of his own story — not any fate, virus, infection or any God.

Maintain your sense of convictions, dear friends.

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