Turn Off Your TV, Read Hunter S. Thompson

American politics got you down, angry, stressed? Then turn off your television set and read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. You may never go back to TV “news” after reading author Hunter S. Thompson’s unparalleled examination of the American democratic process.

The book, serialized in Rolling Stone, may not make you more optimistic about how things work, but Thompson’s honest, witty, and insightful perspective entertains and informs like no other journalist has ever done. He founded the gonzo journalism movement, in which he thrust himself into stories as a player and came out with truths that “objective” news people missed.

Fear and Loathing begins with the Democratic Party race in 1971 and transports readers through the primaries, both parties’ conventions, the 1972 general election campaign, and post-campaign analysis. But hold onto your seat. Thompson’s writing, like his life, is a wild ride, full of emotion, booze, drugs, and cigarettes mixed with his hard-earned access to the powerful.

Like many of the current crop of media personalities, Thompson was opinionated. He called President Richard Nixon a “swine” and wrote that Nixon exemplified the “dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character.” He supports the eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern, but when the South Dakota senator fumbles his nomination of running mate Thomas Eagleton, Thompson dissects how McGovern and his campaign screwed up.

Fear and Loathing will put you in the passenger seat as Thompson steers you through the McGovern campaign’s precocious strategy at the Democratic convention during a critical vote just before McGovern won the nomination. Then, at the Republican convention, the gonzo journalist, wearing a Nixon hat and a large McGovern button, joined hundreds of Young Republicans as they paraded onto the convention floor. Why did he do it? I’ll let you find out for yourself.

Thompson’s analysis of why McGovern lost the election to Nixon in a landslide offers perspectives that the Democratic Party’s campaign missed. His post-election interview with McGovern rewards readers toward the end of the 500-plus page book.

Perhaps Thompson’s calling was to be a campaign strategist. Or maybe a candidate. He did run for sheriff of Pilkin County, Colorado on the Freak Power ticket and lost a close vote.

Thompson was an enigma, as mysterious as he was direct. His novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, illustrates how the 1960s counterculture movement failed. This by a man who served in the Air Force and had a lifelong interest in guns. He spent a year living and riding with the Hell’s Angels, then wrote a book named after the group.

Consider these words from Thompson: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘What a ride!’ “

In 2005, Hunter S. Thompson died by a self-inflicted gunshot. As he wished, his ashes were fired by a cannon in a $3 million funeral financed by his close friend, Johnny Depp.

The 1972 election was my first vote, thanks to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. As a college political science major who came of age during the 1960s, the election left me dispirited about American politics. As dark as Hunter S. Thompson’s words can be, his analysis offers hope if new blood excites the electorate enough to throw out the old guard and the old ways.

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