Monday, November 6, 2006

The election was on the line, key precincts were reporting late, top campaign strategists were hunkered down working the phones, and Hunter S. Thompson brought the beer.

It was May 1972, and the Democratic campaign of Sen. George McGovern was in the process of narrowly losing the Ohio primary to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Frank Mankiewicz, whom Mr. Thompson called the “wizard” of the McGovern campaign, was convinced that Mr. Humphrey’s supporters had perpetrated massive fraud in inner-city Cleveland.

Turning to pollster Pat Caddell, Mr. Mankiewicz said: “We got raped.”

That was just one of many memorable scenes Mr. Thompson reported for Rolling Stone magazine in a series of dispatches collected in “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72,” a chronicle that begins in the snows of New Hampshire and ends with the landslide re-election of President Nixon.

Mr. Thompson died last year at age 67, but his account of the 1972 campaign, recently reissued in paperback by Warner Books,remains timely, said Corey Seymour, a former assistant to the famous “gonzo journalist.”

“I think it holds up really well,” Mr. Seymour said. “It’s about a specific time and a specific place. … What’s remarkable about it is the way it sort of broke open the genre of political reporting.

“Hunter had a way of describing the candidates and the campaign in a way that the layman could understand and relate to, rather than simply spelling out the spin from one side versus the spin from the other side. Hunter had the ability to render a judgment on the candidates and the kind of campaigns they were running.”

And what judgments they were:

• “There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey really is until you’ve followed him around for a while on the campaign trail.”

• The early Democratic front-runner, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, was “a bonehead who steals his best lines from old Nixon speeches.”

• “Nixon himself … represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.”

As viciously as he condemned other candidates, Mr. Thompson wrote with deep admiration for Mr. McGovern, the anti-war candidate who emerged as the upset winner of the Democratic nomination, as “a gentle, soft-spoken and essentially conservative Methodist minister’s son from the plains of South Dakota.”

Mr. Thompson “would deny that such a thing as objective journalism was possible,” said Mr. Seymour, who is completing an oral history, “Gonzo: The Oral History of Hunter S. Thompson,” to be published next year. “He simply dispensed with what the other reporters would describe as an attempt to be objective.”

Despite his mocking contempt for the concept of objectivity, Mr. Thompson’s 1972 campaign dispatches were filled with details about the mechanics of politics.

“I think that it’s often underappreciated what a fine grasp he had of the nuts and bolts and specifics of the campaign,” said Mr. Seymour, who worked for Rolling Stone in the 1990s.

Mr. Thompson “had the ability to predict things that were going to happen based on a deep inside knowledge of candidates and their campaign strategies [and] his very deep reporting skills and a kind of inside access that he managed to get through his charm and his wiles,” Mr. Seymour said.

A Kentucky native, Mr. Thompson began his career as a sportswriter in Florida, then worked as a freelance writer before gaining national attention in 1966 with “Hell’s Angels,” a nonfiction chronicle of the California-based motorcycle gang. In 1971, he published his drug-culture classic, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” based on reporting first published in Rolling Stone, which then assigned him to cover the 1972 presidential campaign.

Mr. Thompson “had paid his dues” as a reporter, Mr. Seymour said. “The campaign book, especially, is the longest sustained period of reporting and deadline writing that Hunter did. He was on a biweekly deadline for the campaign season and traveled all over the country.”

In “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72,” Mr. Thompson described encounters with a variety of political personalities, including a young campaign worker named Gary Hart — a future senator from Colorado and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate who described the McGovern strategy as “traditional politics with a vengeance.”

He also recounts an interview with Mr. Nixon — during the 1968 New Hampshire primary campaign — arranged by Nixon aide Patrick J. Buchanan.

“Hunter was a football fanatic … and Pat Buchanan talked to Hunter, who had been trying to get access to Nixon,” Mr. Seymour said.

“Buchanan offered him a ride in the back of the limo at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, on the single condition that Hunter talk to him only about football, because Nixon wanted to relax. And they did so, and whatever Hunter’s problems with Nixon, the one thing he had to admit was that the Old Man knew his football.”

Mr. Thompson’s ability to gain unequaled access to candidates was a function of his personality, Mr. Seymour said.

“He had an ability to cut directly to the chase and dispense with the formalities that the other reporters relied on. At the same time, he had a degree of courtliness and a certain Southern hospitality and an innate charm, which essentially endeared him to everybody.”

Mr. Thompson often mixed satire with his reporting, at one point suggesting that Mr. Muskie, who had given a tearful press conference in New Hampshire, was addicted to a rare drug called ibogaine.

“It was a joke. … I don’t think he believed that people would take that as seriously as they did,” Mr. Seymour said. “People were just completely unused to seeing that degree of satire in political reporting because nobody else was doing it.”

Published in 1973, Mr. Thompson’s campaign book was hailed by the New York Times as the “best account yet of what it feels like to be out there in the middle of the American political process,” and helped establish his popularity among young writers. Mr. Thompson’s status as a cultural icon was cemented in 1998 when he was portrayed by Johnny Depp in the movie version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

What would the self-proclaimed “king of gonzo” think of the 2006 campaign, particularly the newfound influence of political bloggers who seem to mimic Mr. Thompson’s sarcastic style?

“Hunter was deeply suspicious of the Internet,” Mr. Seymour said. “But at the same time, I’ve heard bloggers lay claim to Hunter as being a blogger ahead of his time.

“The problem with taking that line of thinking too far is that Hunter’s very strong and vitriolic opinions were based on very hard research and reporting. I think he’d be mistrustful of the ease and instant authority that some bloggers seem to assume.”

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