Catcher In The Wry

Page added 1998
Last updated: Fall 2005

B/W pic with article

unsigned article, Newsweek, May 1, 1972

"By chance," Hunter Thompson recently wrote in his column for Rolling Stone, "I found George (McGovern) downstairs in the men's room, hovering into a urinal and staring straight ahead at the gray marble tiles. "Say...ah...I hate to mention this," I said. "But what about this thing with Hughes?" He flinched and quickly zipped his pants up, shaking his head and mumbling something about "a deal for the Vice Presidency."

No other political writer chronicled George McGovern's sorrowful reaction to the news that Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes had endorsed the candidacy of Edmund Muskie quite as graphically as Thompson, in an on-scene report from the men's room of a hotel in Exeter, N.H. But it's precisely that sort of bizarrely irreverent political coverage that has made the 34-year-old Thompson the counter-culture's most-listened to voice during this election campaign. Thompson's voluminous, highly personalized dispatches from the hustings have also won accolades from many of his colleagues in the "straight" press. Indeed, after only four months as national correspondent for Rolling Stone, the "underground" San Franciso biweekly that reaches some 300,000 readers, Hunter Thompson is viewed by many veteran observers as this election year's most refreshing phenomenon. "Thompson's is the best stuff on the campaign I've read anywhere," says Nicholas Von Hoffman, whose own approach to journalism is pretty far out. "In fact, it's the only stuff on this campaign I can bear to read."

The style of Thompson's "Fear and Loathing" column is often as excessive as its author's personal habits (he swigs two six packs of beer on a tough working day). But whether his mood is polemic or profane or just plain vicious, Thompson invariably gives off sparks. Some of his characterizations of the 1972 Presidential contenders:

NXION: "Getting assigned to cover Nixon (is) like being sentenced to six months in a Holiday Inn."

HUMPHREY: "A treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler...He looks like he did in 1959 and has been frozen ever since."

MCGOVERN: "To be President, McGovern would need at least one dark kinky streak of Mick Jagger in his soul."

MUSKIE: (campaigning in Wisconsin): He talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop."

WALLACE (campaigning in Florida): The air was electric even before he started talking, and by the time he was on for six minutes into his spiel I had a sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us. It reminded me of a Janis Joplin concert."

Not surprisingly, Thompson's assault on the Washington political establishment has generated a certain amount of official displeasure. He has been denied press credentials by the White House, which has said that he did not meet its general criteria. Thompson himself claims that he was informed by an Administration official that a "music magazine" had no need to cover the executive branch and he has gleefully replied in kind. "Getting barred from the White House," he has written, "is like being blackballed at the Playboy Club. There are definite advantages to having your name on the Ugly List in places like that."

Somewhat more with it than the White House - and duly cognizant of the hordes of potential new voters who hark to Thompson's voice - the Democratic candidates have been more cooperative. But some Muskie staffers are still chafing over what Thompson did to the senator in Florida. During a night of heavy drinking, Thompson decided to turn over his press badge to a newfound friend who called himself Peter Sheridan. Next day, the youthful Sheridan boarded the Muskie campaign train and immediately caused total havoc - abusing the candidate's supporters, provoking numerous fist fights and at one point grabbing for Muskie's legs as he spoke from the rear of the train. Some Muskie aides reportedly concluded that the incident was part of a Thompson conspiracy to discredit their man.

Maybe so, but it seems far more logical to conclude that Hunter Thompson has a secret streak of Holden Caulfield running through his spaced-out psyche. Like J.D. Salinger's fictional adolescent, everything that Thompson observes seems to buttress his conviction that the power structure teems with phonies and "swine" (his favorite perjorative). The Capital's social life has also confirmed his most dismal expectations. "Getting it on in Washington," he writes, "means killing a pint of Four Roses and then arguing about foreign aid, over chicken wings, with somebody's drunken congressman. The place is totally degrading to my lifestyle."

Although he says he is off hard drugs, Thompson's lifestyle is not one calculated to endear him to the cautious men who sit atop the Washington power structure. Reminiscing about the 1968 Nixon campaign, which he covered as a free-lance, Thompson likes to boast that he was one of two reporters who smoked marijuana on the GOP candidate's press bus. Despite that, Thompson received the unexpected honor of being invited to ride inside Mr. Nixon's limousine for a private, one hour chat during one of the President's trips through New Hampshire. "Whatever else might be said about Nixon," he wrote with uncharacteristic generosity, "he is a goddamn stone fanatic about every aspect of pro football."

Although Thompson plans to pack up his wife, his 8-year-old son, his two Doberman pinschers and his mynah bird and flee back to his home in Woody Creek, Colo., this June, he at least feels enough interest in national politics to take a swipe at how it is presently covered. "Guys write down what a candidate says and report it when they know damn well he's lying," he told Newsweek's Thomas M. Defrank, "Half the conversation on a press bus is about who lied to whom today, but nobody ever prints the fact that they're goddamn liars." Holden Caulfield would have liked that.