Reviewing HST and the 2016 and 1972 campaign trails

Freak power, or something.
Freak power, or something.

For years Hunter S. Thompson fans have told me how great “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” is. With the presidential campaign in full swing I figured it would be a great read, but after finally finishing it, I am totally disappointed.

I’ve never been “heavily” into politics, but I assumed by picking up the book maybe I’d get a better sense for the topic. Maybe I’d get a better sense of HST himself. Maybe I got both. But in any case, the book was a total snooze, which sucks because I love HST.

I actually bought the book in 2010 while in Iraq. When I wasn’t bumping down a dirt road in Salah al-Din province I was reading packages of books that I purchased on Amazon. Since then I had been pulling “Campaign Trail” off the shelf, reading the opening chapter’s description of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and thumbing through Ralph Steadman’s erratic illustrations, only to tuck the book back on the shelf again.

This is a frequent issue for books I’m told I need to read, but have no serious interest in. (It took me years before I had the guts to finish “Lord Jim.”)

The bottom line is that the energy in “Campaign Trail” is not the same as in HST’s other books. On top of that, the book gets bogged down with interview transcriptions (which are probably imaginary) and way too many boring details that I don’t care to remember. It is essentially a compilation of recaps during each month of the 1972 presidential campaign. Perhaps I should have taken him more seriously when he wrote in the introduction “Some of the scenes in this book will not make much sense to anybody except the people who were involved in them.” If I had to rate it I’d give it a 6/10, which might be generous, considering the other stuff I could have been reading.

There isn’t much about the book that has relevance to journalism and politics today. But in retrospect, maybe that is the lesson to learn from ‘72. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2016, 2012 or 1796, for that matter. Every campaign season is different.

In the book’s remaining few pages you see HST revert back to his usual prose, which is sort of worth it after 490 pages of mostly static. Writing about politics isn’t actually much fun, he says:

“The High is in the participation, and particularly if you identify with one candidate… I don’t think that I could do it if I didn’t care who won. It’s the difference between watching a football game between two teams you don’t care about, and watching a game where you have some kind of personal identity with one of the teams even if only a huge bet.”

And there’s that familiar radical journalistic prophecy: Objectivity = bullshit.


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