In case you weren’t aware, Thompson was a man with many bad habits — not least when it came to his work routine. It may have been true, once upon a time, that “he was a tireless round-the-clock worker; no lead was too small to follow up, drunk or sober,” as Thompson’s partner in crime, illustrator Ralph Steadman, writes in his memoir, The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me (Harvest, recently out in paperback).
It’s also true, Thompson confessed, that “I am not an easy person to work with, in terms of deadlines.” During the ’72 campaign, he marveled at other reporters filing stories daily, with ease. For him, each two-week deadline was an ordeal: “There is hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga that wasn’t produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy,” he wrote in Campaign Trail ’72 — “the bloody product of fifty-five consecutive hours of sleepless, foodless, high-speed editing.”
While the lucrative Gonzo brand may have been incentive for some editors to deal with his act back then, it’s hard to imagine many today who’d put up with a similarly inclined young writer.
That’s to say nothing of his other habits. Can you imagine, say, Anderson Cooper climbing aboard the Straight Talk Express, dragging a half-drunk six-pack as his carry-on luggage? Would the Globe outfit one of its political reporters’ expensed motel rooms — acquiescing to an aversion to office cubicles — with “two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls,” as Thompson alleges Rolling Stone provided in ’72? These days, you can’t even smoke cigarettes inside.
More to the point, which political reporter today can you imagine staying as an overnight guest of someone like Carter, as Thompson did, talking into the night about the Allman Brothers and stock-car racing? Or sharing a limousine with Nixon, talking football, just the two of them? (“I don’t know,” Thompson deadpanned in a 2003 interview. “I don’t think Bush would want to talk to me.”)
“Could a reporter ever piss next to a presidential candidate again?” asks McKeen. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen. Politics has isolated itself so much from the people and the press.”
Of course, well before the end, Thompson had also isolated himself pretty thoroughly from politicians. Ensconced in Owl Farm, his “fortified compound” outside Aspen, he hewed more toward sports and polemics than reported pieces.
But right up until he signed off — “So long and Mahalo” — on his last espn.com column, his voice was vital. (Naturally, there will always be dissenters. As one commenter at that august institution of American letters, gawker.com, put it, Gonzo is nothing more than “Sex and the City: The Movie for fans of mentally ill over-rated self-indulgent writers.”)
Three years on, would Thompson’s writing still have the same heft? Especially online, among the deafening bruit of the blogosphere? Thompson may have once been “the most popular writer in the United States,” but that was before mass media was a concept empowered to truly live up to its name.