Norman Mailer had the best take on Hunter Thompson's passing.
"He had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W. Bush can ever tell us about what is right," mused Mailer upon learning of Thompson's suicide.
Anyone who read Thompson knew that the so-called "gonzo journalist" was about a lot more than sex, drugs and rock-and-roll -- although it is Thompson who gets credit for introducing all three of those precious commodities to the mainstream of American journalism. The gun-toting, mescaline-downing wildman that showed up in Doonesbury as "Uncle Duke" was merely the cartoon version of an often serious, and always important, political commentator who once said that his beat was the death of the American dream. Thompson was to the political class of the United States in the latter part of the 20th century what William Hazlitt was to the English poets of the early 19th century: a critic who was so astute, so engaged and so unyielding in his idealism that he ultimately added more to the historical canon than did many of his subjects.
Thompson taught me how to look at politics -- his book on the 1972 presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, remains the one necessary campaign journal of the era -- and I cherished him for that. (When I was writing a book on the Florida recount fight of 2000, I wanted to pay homage to Thompson so I asked him if we could use one of his brilliant "Hey Rube" columns to remind readers that no crime was beyond the imagination of the Bush brain trust. Thompson, who referred to George W. Bush as "the goofy Child President" and saw the Bush family as a recurring cancer that plagued the American body politic, leapt at the chance to be part of the project. He continued to delight in Bush bashing, titling a column published at the time of the 43rd president's first inaugural: "Abandon All Hope.")
But Thompson also taught me how to do politics. Thompson was a journalist in the traditional sense of the craft and, as such, he was entirely unwilling to merely observe the wrongdoings of the political class. He wanted to create a newer, better politics -- or, at the very least, to so screw up the current machinery that it would no longer work for the people who he referred to as "these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today."
In 1970, fresh from covering the assassinations, police riots and related disappointments of the 1968 presidential campaign, Thompson waded into the fight himself as a "pro-hippie, anti-development" candidate for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, which included the ski town of Aspen. Thompson wanted to win, in order to save what was still a rural, live-and-let-live county from the influx of Hollywood stars, corporate hoteliers and the rest of the elite entourage that would make it nation's premier ski resort. But he also wanted to teach a lesson about politics that would have meaning far beyond Colorado.
Thompson ran on what he and his backers dubbed the "Freak Power" ticket, declaring in an advertisement in the Aspen Times that, "(In) 1970 Amerika a lot of people are beginning to understand that to be a freak is an honorable way to go. This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all - not in the literal sense -- but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition -- but nothing changes. So now, with the rest of the nation erupting in a firestorm of bombings and political killings, a handful of "freaks" are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment with the idea of forcing change by voting..."
At a time when many of his contemporaries were disappearing into a drug haze, or shouting silly "Smash-the-State" slogans, Thompson was exploring a more radical prospect. He wanted to combine "Woodstock vibrations, New Left activism, and basic Jeffersonian Democracy with strong echoes of the Boston Tea Party ethic" into what the writer-candidate referred to as "a blueprint for stomping the (conservative Vice President Spiro) Agnew mentality by its own rules -- with the vote, instead of the bomb; by seizing the power machinery and using it, instead of merely destroying it."
The experiment was not an immediate success. But Thompson did win the city of Aspen and took 44 percent of the vote county wide. In fact, only a last-minute deal between the Democratic and Republican parties pulled together enough votes for the incumbent sheriff to beat the "Freak Power" candidate. But, as Thompson noted, "the Aspen campaign suddenly assumed national importance as a sort of accidental trial balloon that might, if it worked, be tremendously significant."
As it happened, even in defeat, the campaign proved significant. Because of all the national attention accorded Thompson's campaign, the blueprint was noted by "new politics" candidates and activists around the country. They won power in college towns such as Berkeley and Madison and Ann Arbor, and eventually in communities that were threatened by commercial and real estate pressures similar to those that were the target of Thompson's Aspen campaign. Indeed, even in Aspen, Thompson's politics would eventually win out -- in the mid-1990s, he organized a campaign that successfully blocked a plan by the Aspen Ski Company to expand the local airport to accommodate jetliners that were designed for "industrial tourism."
Hunter Thompson once said that, "Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why." And, when all the rumination about his adventurous approach to drugs and guns is done, there will remain the blueprint for that better politics that Thompson was wise enough and idealistic enough to believe might yet redeem the American dream.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30
© 2005 The Nation