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Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in '72

Fear & Loathing in the Past . . . Present . . . Future . . . The Meaning, as it Were, of McGovern . . . & Where Do We Go From Here?

Hunter S. Thompson
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages
July 5, 1973

"Those who fail to learn from the brutal stompings visited on them in the past are doomed to be brutally stomped in the future."

– Raoul Duke, Christmas Eve 1972

The following disconnected excerpts from Dr. Thompson's political book 'Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail' were selected more or less at random from the massive text of his book on the 1972 presidential campaign. The author assumes no final responsibility for whatever follows.

January '73

Dawn is coming up in San Francisco now: 6:09 AM. I can hear the rumble of early morning buses under my window at the Seal Rock Inn . . . out here at the far end of Geary Street: This is the end of the line, for buses and everything else, the western edge of America. From my desk I can see the dark jagged hump of "Seal Rock" looming out of the ocean in the grey morning light. About 200 seals have been barking out there most of the night. Staying in this place with the windows open is like living next to a dog pound.

One afternoon about three days ago the Editorial Enforcement Detail from the Rolling Stone office showed up at my door, with no warning, and loaded about 40 pounds of supplies into the room: two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls. There was also a big Selectric typewriter, two reams of paper, a face-cord of oak firewood and three tape recorders – in case the situation got so desperate that I might finally have to resort to verbal composition.

There is a comfortable kind of consistency in this kind of finish, because that's the way all the rest of my presidential campaign coverage was written. From December '71 to January '73 – in airport bars, all-nite coffee shops and dreary hotel rooms all over the country – there is hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga that wasn't produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy. There was never enough time. Every deadline was a crisis. All around me were experienced professional journalists meeting deadlines far more frequent than mine, but I was never able to learn from their example. Reporters like Bill Greider from the Washington Post and Jim Naughton of the New York Times, for instance, had to file long, detailed, and relatively complex stories every day – while my own deadline fell every two weeks – but neither one of them ever seemed in a hurry about getting their work done, and from time to time they would try to console me about the terrible pressure I always seemed to be laboring under.

Any $100-an-hour psychiatrist could probably explain this problem to me, in 13 or 14 sessions, but I don't have time for that. No doubt it has something to do with a deep-seated personality defect, or maybe a kink in whatever blood vessel leads into the pineal gland . . . On the other hand, it might easily be something as simple & basically perverse as whatever instinct it is that causes a jackrabbit to wait until the last possible second to dart across the road in front of a speeding car.

People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jackrabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now & then . . .No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenaline rush in crouching by the side of a road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.

Why not? Anything that gets the adrenaline moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol . . . but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time-span has the same bad effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: After a while you start burning out the circuits . . .

Some of the scenes in this twisted saga will not make much sense to anybody except the people who were involved in them. Politics has its own language, which is often so complex that it borders on being a code, and the main trick in political journalism is learning how to translate – to make sense of the partisan bullshit that even your friends will lay on you – without crippling your access to the kind of information that allows you to keep functioning. Covering a presidential campaign is not a hell of a lot different from getting a long-term assignment to cover a newly elected district attorney who made a campaign promise to "crack down on Organized Crime." In both cases, you find unexpected friends on both sides, and in order to protect them – and to keep them as sources of private information – you wind up knowing a lot of things you can't print, or which you can only say without even hinting at where they came from.

This was one of the traditional barriers I tried to ignore when I moved to Washington and began covering the '72 presidential campaign. As far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as "off the record." The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists – in Washington or anywhere else where they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in... especially not for "minor infractions" of rules that neither side takes seriously; and on the rare occasions when Minor infractions suddenly become Major, there is panic on both ends.

And so much for all that. The point I meant to make here – before we wandered off on that tangent about jack-rabbits – is that everything was written under savage deadline pressure in the traveling vortex of a campaign so confusing and unpredictable that not even the participants claimed to know what was happening.

I had never covered a presidential campaign before I got into this one, but I quickly got so hooked on it that I began betting on the outcome of each primary – and, by combining aggressive ignorance with a natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom, I managed to win all but two of the 50 or 60 bets I made between February and November. My first loss came in New Hampshire, where I felt guilty for taking advantage of one of McGovern's staffers who wanted to bet that George would get more than 35% of the vote; and I lost when he wound up with 37.5%. But from that point on, I won steadily – until November 7th, when I made the invariably fatal mistake of betting my emotions instead of my instinct.

The final result was embarrassing, but what the hell? I blew that one, along with a lot of other people who should have known better, and since I haven't changed anything else in the mass of first-draft screeds that I wrote during the campaign, I can't find any excuse for changing my final prediction. Any re-writing now would cheat the basic concept of the book, which – in addition to the publisher's desperate idea that it might sell enough copies to cover the fantastic expense bills I ran up in the course of those 12 frantic months – was to lash the whole thing together and essentially record the reality of an incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening.

Meanwhile, my room at the Seal Rock Inn is filling up with people who seem on the verge of hysteria at the sight of me still sitting here wasting time on a rambling introduction, with the final chapter still unwritten and the presses scheduled to start rolling in 24 hours... but unless somebody shows up pretty soon with extremely powerful speed, there might not be any Final Chapter. About four fingers of king-hell Crank would do the trick, but I am not optimistic. There is a definite scarcity of genuine, high-voltage Crank on the market these days – and according to recent statements by official spokesmen for the Justice Department in Washington, that's solid evidence of progress in Our War Against Dangerous Drugs.

Well... thank Jesus for that. I was beginning to think we were never going to put the arm on that crowd. But the people in Washington say we're finally making progress. And if anybody should know, it's them. So maybe this country's about to get back on the Right Track.

– HST
Sunday, January 28, 1973 San Francisco, Seal Rock Inn

* * *

"There's only one real game in this country – and that's politics. All the others are kids' games."
– Edward Bennet Williams, talking loosely on a flight from Washington to San Francisco, Christmas Day, 1971

It was dark when we took off from Long Beach. I was standing in the cockpit with a joint in one hand and a glass of Jack Daniel's in the other as we boomed off the runway and up... up... up... into the cold black emptiness of a Monday night sky three miles above Southern California. "That's San Diego, off there to the right," said the pilot. We were leaning left now, heading east, and I hooked an elbow in the cockpit doorway to keep from falling... looking down on the beach cities – Newport, Laguna, San Clemente – and a thin, sharp white line along the coast that was either US 101 or the Pacific Ocean surf.

"Yeah, that has to be the surf line," I muttered.

"Baja California," the person beside me replied.

I couldn't see who it was. There were five or six of us crowded into the cockpit, along with the three-man crew. "Here, take this," I said, handing him the joint. "I have to get a grip on something." I seized the back of the navigator's chair as we kept rolling left/east, and still climbing. Behind us, in the bright belly of the United Airlines 727 Whisper Jet – or whatever they call those big three-engine buggers with the D.B. Cooper door that drops down from the tail – 50 or 60 drunken journalists were lurching around in the aisles, spilling drinks on each other and rolling spools of raw TV film towards the rear of the plane where two smiling stewardesses were strapped down by their safety belts, according to regulations.

The Fasten Seat Belts sign was still on, above every seat, along with the No Smoking sign – but the plane was full of smoke and almost nobody was sitting down. Both flight kitchens had long since been converted to bars, stocked with hundreds of those little one-and-a-half ounce flight-size whiskey bottles. We had left New York that morning, with a stop in Philadelphia, and by the time we got to Wichita the scene in the Zoo Plane was like the clubhouse at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day... and now, flying back from L.A. to Sioux Falls, it was beginning to look more and more like the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.

Ah, Jesus... here we go again: Another flashback... the doctors say there's no cure for them; totally unpredictable, like summer lightning in the Rockies or sharks on the Jersey Shore... unreeling across your brain like a jumble of half-remembered movies all rolling at once. Yesterday I was sitting on my porch in Woody Creek, reading the sports section of the Denver Post and wondering how many points to give on the Rams-49ers game, sipping a beer and looking out on the snow-covered fields from time to time... when suddenly my head rolled back and my eyes glazed over and I felt myself sucked into an irresistible time-warp:

I was standing at the bar in the clubhouse at Churchill Downs on Derby Day with Ralph Steadman, and we were drinking Mint Juleps at a pretty good pace, watching the cream of Bluegrass Society getting drunker and drunker out in front of us... It was between races, as I recall: Ralph was sketching and I was making notes ("3:45 Derby Day, standing at clubhouse bar now, just returned from Mens Room/terrible scene/whole place full of Kentucky Colonels vomiting into urinals & drooling bile down their seersucker pants-legs/Remind Ralph to watch for 'distinguished-looking' men in pari-mutual lines wearing white-polished shoes with fresh vomit stains on the toes..."

Right. We were feeling very much on top of that boozy, back-slapping scene... when I suddenly glanced up from my notes & saw Frank Mankiewicz and Sonny Barger across the room, both of them wearing Hell's Angels costumes and both holding heavy chrome chain-whips... and yes, it was clear that they'd spotted us. Barger stared, not blinking, but Mankiewicz smiled his cold lizard's smile and they moved slowly through the drunken crowd to put themselves between us and the doorway.

Ralph was still sketching, muttering to himself in some kind of harsh Gaelic singsong & blissfully unaware of the violence about to come down. I nudged him. "Say... ah... Ralph, I think maybe you should finish your drink and get that camera strap off your neck real fast."

"What?"

"Don't act nervous, Ralph. Just get that strap off your neck and be ready to run like a bastard when I throw this glass at the mirror."

He stared at me, sensing trouble but not understanding. Over his shoulder I could see Frank and Sonny coming towards us, moying slowly down the length of the long whiskey-wet oaken bar, trying to seem casual as they shoved through the crowd of booze-bent Southern Gentlemen who were crowding the aisle... and when I scanned the room I saw others: Tiny, Zorro, Frenchy, Fred Dutton, Terry the Tramp, Miles Rubin, Dick Dougherty, Freddy the Torch... they had us in a bag, and I figured the only way was a sudden screaming sprint through the clubhouse and up the ramp to the Governor's Box, directly across from the Finish Line & surrounded at all times by State Troopers.

Their reaction to a horde of thugs charging through the crowd towards the Governor's Box would be safely predictable, I felt. They would club the bleeding shit out of anybody who looked even halfway weird, and then make mass arrests.... Many innocent people would suffer; the drunk tank of the Jefferson County Jail would be boiling that night with dozens of drink-maddened Bluebloods who got caught in the Sweep; beaten stupid with truncheons and then hauled off in paddy wagons for no reason at all...

But what the hell? This was certainly acceptable, I felt, and preferable beyond any doubt to the horror of being lashed into hamburger with chain-whips by Mankiewicz and Barger in the Clubhouse Bar...

Indeed, I have spent some time in the Jefferson County Jail, and on balance it's not a bad place – at least not until your nerves go, but when that happens it doesn't really matter which jail you're in. All blood feels the same in the dark – or back in the shower cell, where the guards can't see.

Editor's Note

At this point Dr. Thompson suffered a series of nervous seizures in his suite at the Seal Rock Inn. It became obvious both by the bizarre quality of his first-draft work and his extremely disorganized lifestyle that the only way this tale could be completed was by means of compulsory verbal composition. Despite repeated warnings from Dr. Thompson's personal physician we determined that for esthetic, historical, and contractual reasons The Work would have to be finished at all costs.

What follows, then, is a transcription of the conversations we had as Dr. Thompson paced about his room – at the end of an 18-foot microphone cord – describing the final days of the doomed McGovern campaign.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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