What would the “Sage of Woody Creek” make of this year’s election? Would his words have resonance in this blog-besotted age? What, ultimately, is Thompson’s legacy? Who, if anyone, could take up his mantle? And what could a hypothetical young and hungry Hunter S. Thompson achieve in this corporatized, consolidated-media climate, anyway? Contemplating these questions, all McKeen can say is, “It’s very difficult to get through an election year without him.”
On November 22, 1963, a 26-year-old Thompson pounded out a letter to his friend William J. Kennedy (no relation to the president). That day’s events had struck him dumb. “I have become like a psychotic sphinx — I want to kill because I can’t talk.”
But he could write. “Fiction is dead,” he declared. “The only hope now is to swing hard with the right hand, while hanging onto sanity with the left. Politics will become a cockfight, and reason will go by the boards.”
For the next four decades, Thompson wrote about politicians with words and wit the world had seldom seen.
• In 1964, he wrote to the new president to ask for a job: “Dear Lyndon, It is with great pleasure and a sense of impending achievement that I make myself available at this time for the governorship of American Samoa.”
• He described Hubert Humphrey, who stepped into the void left by Johnson in ’68, as “a rat in heat . . . [a] shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack” who “should be castrated.”
• Nixon, Thompson’s career-long bête noire, was “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream . . . a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”
• Gerald Ford barely merited mention. “The problem with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was that they were not loathsome,” writes McKeen. Carter he actually liked. “He is one of the most intelligent politicians I’ve ever met,” noted Thompson. “And also one of the strangest.”
• Reagan? “I had a soft spot in my heart for Ronald Reagan, if only because he was a sportswriter in his youth, and also because his wife gave the best head in Hollywood.”
• Bill Clinton “never impressed me,” Thompson wrote, likening the ’92 election to “a choice between a Leech and a Gila Monster, a no-win situation.”
At least that election ended a dozen years of Republican rule. But it’s to our eternal chagrin that Thompson was only half right when he described George H. W. Bush as “a dying yellow dog with broken teeth and slits for eyes and nothing else to say . . . doomed, along with all the rest of his rotten, degraded family.”
Because even Thompson wasn’t prepared for a perniciously cretinous creature like George W. Bush. Indeed, it’s saying something that a man whose fear and loathing of Nixon was inscribed upon his DNA could actually find himself longing for halcyon Watergate days. “Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush,” Thompson wrote in 2004. “Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?”
Vote for change
Now, with roughly 180 days until, one way or another, the Bush presidency limps to its merciful end, one wishes Thompson was here to see it — if only to get his thoughts on the potential replacements.