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Encountering Hunter Thompson

by Jim Charles

3/6/05

When Hunter S. Thompson -- writer, journalist, cartoon inspiration, raconteur and self-proclaimed druggie -- committed suicide the last week of February, I felt ancient. I don’t know why he killed himself; the Pitkin County, Colorado sheriff’s office only said he died from a “single, self-inflicted, gunshot wound to the head,” as if someone shooting themselves in the head could pull the trigger two or three times. He should have died decades ago. The quantity of alcohol and drugs Thompson claimed to have swallowed over the years was more than a whole neighbourhood of boozy crackheads could consume in 10 lifetimes.

News of his death made me feel old because it reminded me that I met Thompson once, a few dozen lifetimes after I stopped pretending to be a journalist and his salad years were well behind him. But I worked in newsrooms when Thompson’s gonzo journalism was at its peak, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were riding high. Each looked at and wrote about the world very differently than other reporters at the time. The fresh eyes of Thompson, Woodward and Bernstein affected -- or afflicted, depending on your perspective -- many in my generation whether they ended up as journalists or janitors. He was as seminal a writer for many baby boomers as J.D. Salinger.

Woodward and Bernstein taught me, and many other journalists, about the venal deceitfulness of politicians, and the world has changed little since “Woodstein” helped boot Richard Nixon out of the White House. George H. W. Bush is just a sunnier and better-handled version of Nixon without the five o’clock shadow. To be fair, much can probably be said about most politicians: Even sanitary Canada, where I now live, has its own share of spinmeisters and tale weavers, and the same probably is true in every country whether democratic or totalitarian.

Hunter Thompson taught me that it is all right to colour outside of the lines.

Battling the “Mojo Wire”

I first encountered Thompson in Rolling Stone and remember being as astounded at his fluid writing as I was impressed with his keen reporting and analysis. Before he appeared, I'd never read a first person news story, let alone one that inserted invective directed at his editors in between relating what happened at a campaign rally, or the minutiae of battling with a contraption that Thompson called the “mojo wire” that he used to dispatch articles while stoned on whatever. His reporting and writing style was everything that journalism professors taught -- admonished -- fledgling reporters not to do; journalists were to be a kind of Archangel, floating above the fracas and telling readers or viewers in a dispassionate, third person voice what the proles being covered were doing.

My first news director -- a wiry, sandy haired, slouch-shouldered, soft-spoken, local news pioneer named Joe Bartelme at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis -- would have become apoplectic if any of his reporters ever did a news package that even hinted they were somehow involved personally in the story. In those days, other than in the mandatory standup closing or cutaways used to cover an edit, it was verboten for TV reporters to appear as part of the story as they do frequently today. Print reporters were even more hidden; far fewer articles had by-lines so not only was the journalist invisible, readers often had no idea who wrote the story. Time and Newsweek carried no by-lines whatsoever. Yet Thompson’s articles broke all of the rules and, as a result, they were fascinating, captivating, and drew me into not just the story but also his world -- or at least the world as Thompson saw it through the haze of whatever drugs he was on at the time.

The amazing thing about him is that, in a way, he forced journalism to change its rules, not always for the better. Still, few people realize that, in many ways, a lot of what passes today for news writing, reporting and broadcasting is simply Hunter Thompson on Ritalin.

I devoured and loved both of his Fear and Loathing books, especially Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trai ‘72. Many years later, one of Hubert Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign honchos told me that Thompson’s account of life on the campaign road in was dead-eye accurate, calling it as good as any of the Making of the President books that historian Theodore H. White wrote -- high praise given the vitriol Thompson directed at Humphrey in the book. Tom MacMillan, now a PR heavyweight in Toronto but who once toiled as a “senior government spokesman” in Canadian politics, told me after Hunter died that Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 is a must-read for anyone doing political advance work, regardless of party or country.

I met Thompson on an airplane through serendipity: The computer assigned us adjacent seats. I seem to be blessed with a peculiar kind of karma with airlines; flights are usually late and the service minimalist, but computers keep plunking me next to wonderful writers. Besides Thompson, over the years I’ve sat next to David Cornwall -- John le Carre -- on a flight from London to Paris, Jimmy Breslin on the Boston-New York shuttle and Margaret Atwood from Toronto to somewhere, among others. All were engaging travel companions. Of course, sometimes it works the other way: On a dreadfully long, non-stop flight to Tokyo from Toronto, I endured 14 hours next to an ageing academic who had the pungent aroma of strong cheddar cheese and old mothballs about him. He had just published an article on Nietzsche. The premise, he explained in excruciating detail as we crossed the Pacific, was that the brooding, ominous German philosopher’s ideas still can be found underlying many mainstream political theories today. Oh, good: The Boys From Brazil are alive and well and having fun in capitals everywhere.

Duke Created Slick Willy?

My Thompson encounter was much more pleasant, and it occurred on a mid-morning flight to Dallas of all places. He said he was into his third beer of the day as he declined the Mimosa a flight attendant offered, ordering a Bud instead. But beer for Thompson was as docile a morning pick-me-up as orange juice is for me, and he was coherent, amiable and chatty. We talked about politics, writing, reporting, buying groceries, getting stoned and, mostly, Thompson. He spoke as he wrote: Stream of conscious, totally random thoughts, laced with invective and obscenities spewed with equal vigour at politicians and the man who owned the grocery store near his ranch in Colorado.

“How hard can it be?” I recall Thompson asking me for no particular reason; I’m deleting his expletives. “When I eat something, I toss the empty package in a box. When the box is filled, I take it to the grocery store and tell (him) to replace the empties. Bastard never gets it right.”

But, mostly, he talked about politics.

At the time, Bill Clinton was in the early days of his first term. Clinton fascinated Thompson, and he said he wanted to write a book about him. He’d covered Clinton for Rolling Stone during the primaries and was one of the first national reporters to grasp that Clinton was for real. He thought “slick Willy” -- a term he told me took credit for creating but, like many Thompson claims, it’s open to question -- was an intriguing, complicated character to cover but told me that he was having trouble getting White House press credentials even though he knew Clinton had read his books. Thompson thought that if he could somehow bypass the press office and get to Clinton, he would be able to spread “happiness, alcohol and drugs” freely around the press room although, I recollect Thompson added, the White House press corps had become so uptight that he doubted anyone covering the president ever so much as smoked joint even if they didn’t inhale.

“The trouble is,” I remember him saying in more colourful, Thompsonesque language, “reporters like being camp followers. They salivate, drool all over themselves, bow and scrape, they’ll drop their pants and bend over for the press secretary, just for a chance to fly on Air Force One.”

“Anyway, the presidency has become one enormous campaign machine. To keep the campaign gears grinding the White House has to keep screwing reporters without even kissing ‘em.” Time out for a trip to the wash room; on the way back, he stuck his head in the galley to order another beer, which went down in three swallows. When he settled back in his seat, he resumed without missing a beat.

“The Trickster” -- he meant Nixon, who was still alive – “must fart out loud, with Pat and Tricia and that whole damned cardboard cut-out family gasping for air when he sees how flaccid the press corps has become. Poor Ziegler (Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary), he had to stand up and defend that lying bastard every day.”

“Nobody challenges presidents anymore, and presidents toy with reporters, Congress, the country,” I remember him stating as he switched from beer to Bloody Mary’s when a flight attendant passed. He ordered two at once before grumbling, “Reporters are lap dogs.”

Prescient

Thompson had no idea how prescient he was.

Much of the White House press corps does seem to be administration lap dogs, but I think that it's true of much of what passes for journalism generally, and not just in the haze-filtered world of Sinclairland television. Long before Dan Rather’s current problems, when he was in his heyday as CBS News’ White House correspondent during Watergate, Rather rode Nixon like a rodeo cowboy on a bucking steer. Today, instead of Rather and “Woodstein”, we have Armstrong Williams writing fake think pieces. A real reporter, The New York Times’ Judith Miller, writes fake news served up by an army of fake authorities like Ahmed Chalabi, and the best fake reporter of all, “Jeff Gannon,” managed to sneak into the White House to cover a fake president. Meanwhile, White House apparatchiks distribute fake news to compliant and unquestioning fake producers and editors.

We are truly into the post-realist era so coveted by the administration, where facts are replaced by perceptions, and we’re all being shoved blithely through the looking glass. No wonder Fox News has so many viewers and The Washington Times is profitable: They cover a real world with fake statistics, bogus sources and long-disproved facts, using them to write fake stories. “We Fake. You Decide.”

On a dark Sunday afternoon in February, I watched a Peabody Awards show honoring America’s top broadcast reporters that a PBS station aired -- in a sad, ironical touch, at about the same time as Thompson was pointing the shotgun at his head. I was astounded at how few awards went to networks. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised; the days of tough-minded, independent, network news organizations are fading into memory. News divisions have always given a bad case of the itches along mahogany row. It’s just that Bill Paley and Robert Sarnoff, the men who created television news as a credible source of information, knew the value of protecting their reporters who were probing the soft underbelly of Washington. Today, network mandarins are accountants who know how to read balance sheets but not tear sheets from the wires, and the days of tough-minded, independent, network news organizations are fading into memory. No one running a major network has any background in news, but they’ve been swell number crunchers so they get promoted and think they are geniuses equally capable of picking programs and headlines.

When a network news show sneaks in a bit serious investigative reporting, the phalanxes of vice presidents must grab the Calamine lotion and pour it wholesale over their body as their reporters are hounded by the feds. Bill Paley and Edward R. Murrow relished turning down requests from a petulant president who asked them not to air something; now, news executives live in fear and loathing of being singled out for attention.

Just ask ABC News. Look what happened when it hit the streets running, hard and fast.

Intimidating Reporters

A while back, it did a story to test the Dept. of Homeland Security’s claims that cargo entering the United States was safe. ABC sent a shipment of spent, or harmless, nuclear fuel plainly marked in a box (but not on the manifest) hidden in a suitcase on a cargo ship to Los Angeles from Jakarta. A label on the box said in large letters “Spent nuclear fuel. If found or opened call ABC News Los Angeles collect” with a 24 hour phone number. They tracked it on board a container ship which also stopped in Singapore and Hong Kong, where the US has customs inspectors as a first line of defense against terrorists sneaking horrible weapons into America. ABC found the nuclear material went unchallenged and uninspected at each port, cleared the LA harbor and was delivered to ABC’s door.

When the network told Homeland Security what it did, agents swooped down on the entire crew doing the story -- correspondent, producer, videographers, helicopter pilots and even the story’s science advisor -- questioning them because, deputy secretary Ava Hutchinson said on camera, “We wanted to see if the shipment was going to Al Qaida operatives.” What utter nonsense: When challenged, he admitted that he didn’t believe that the correspondent -- a well-known name with a readily recognizable face -- was a terrorist operative. That’s when Hutchinson changed tacks and said the department’s investigation was to learn who was trying to perpetrate a hoax on the government. But Homeland Security’s real purpose was clear: The government was trying to intimidate ABC News, and send a message to the rest of the media not to investigate stories challenging the administration’s fabricated or exaggerated claims. To ABC’s credit, it not only challenged Hutchinson’s patently absurd statements but aired the story and won a Peabody Award for the effort.

That courage is in short supply in the brave new, post-realist world of journalism as defined by the Bush White House. After all, it’s appearances that matter and ABC was muddying the waters with facts.

In fairness, the print media doesn’t come up smelling like roses, either these days. Other than a handful of dailies, local papers across North America seem content to rehash government press releases, cover news conferences and “photo ops” and do an occasional piece of quasi-investigative reporting. The White House knows this, so on those carefully scripted “town hall” road trips, it often arranges the schedule to grant a few privileged local reporters a chance to ask The Man Himself a few easy questions. I almost feel sorry for those poor schleps, a year or two out of university working at the Podunk Cupcake, wide-eyed, in over their heads, impressionable and easily impressed at their good fortune as they pass through the metal detectors, Secret Service stares and the pat-downs before being ushered into His Presence. They don’t stand a chance when the Texas BBQ sauce gets ladled all over them. Even the best of the bunch, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have admitted publicly that they were buffaloed by sources in the administration as well as by their own putative reporters.

Lap Dogs

“Reporters are lap dogs.” Thompson’s dismissal echoes in my ears.

Thompson lived through the entire first Bush term, and I wonder what he thought about Iraq and coverage both of the war and the president directing it. For the second time in his professional life, he witnessed the unfolding saga of The White House using flimsy if outright false evidence to launch another ill-conceived war in a far-off land against an often-hostile population. What did Thompson think listening to the building crescendo of drumbeats for Little Georgie's Great Adventure? So far, it has killed around 1,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, wounded more than 14,000 young American men and women, half of whom suffered injuries that will impair the rest of their life, and has yet to have its purpose clearly defined except by what the White House thinks might sell at the moment. Lyndon Johnson created the fictional but relatively tame Gulf of Tonkin incident to go to war, and then stuck to the line that he was fighting Godless Commies. Bush created the much more menacing weapons of mass destruction. Whoops, there weren’t any. Alright, we fought to get rid of a nasty dictator. Don’t quite buy that one? Fine, let’s try this: We went to war to bring democracy and freedom to an oppressed people including, I suppose, the ones sodomized by broom sticks while in American captivity. But by the time Bush and his praetorian guard of neo-con advisors wheeled out Justification No. 3, the country was starting to smell the same foul stench of fakery that “old Europe” had whiffed before the March 2003 invasion.

Yet the reporters sitting through the daily White House press briefings never once stood up to demand that the mouthpieces stop creating different fake reasons for the war. Or that they give real news. Instead, they let “Jeff Gannon” lob batting practice pitches at Bush who, like the ballplayer he once was, hit them over the fence.

Maybe “Uncle Duke” -- the Doonesbury character Thompson inspired -- thought nothing about Bush and Iraq; maybe by 2005, he was spent and, when he realised it, he could envision no future for himself other than death. Thinking back on it, the three-hour conversation I had with Thompson that clear morning more than 10 years ago, flying high above the fertile, endless sea of yet-to-be-dubbed Red States en route to Texas, had a wistful sense of “in my day”. Sometimes, he slipped from obscenity-laced rants to the far-away tone elders reserve for telling their grandchildren how good the old days were. In a way, Thompson may have been acknowledging, however reluctantly, that the gonzo journalist for a gonzo generation was, like his readers, seeing his prime receding in the rear view mirror.

It seemed a bit sad coming from a man who once began a book, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

An American by birth, James Charles now lives in Toronto. His next book is “Life In The Dominion,” a mostly-affectionate look at living in Canada,
and he is starting work on “Right Face!” about America’s turn away from its small ‘l’ liberal heritage.


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