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Hunter S. Thompson forever changed the campaign coverage

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It was presidential campaign reporting unlike anything previously seen. The reporter made it clear: He had no desire to join Washington’s permanent press corps or ever cover politics full time, and in fact he never did. He despised Democratic centrists and was rude to the depravity of a sitting Republican president, saying it in prose that sounded like a punch-drunk HL Mencken spoiling for a bar fight. (“A treacherous, gut-wrenching old guard who should be put in a damned place bottle and sent out with the Japanese current, ”he said of Dems presidential aspirant Hubert Humphrey. And the one sitting in the White House? “A drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and the head of a giant hyena … the dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise.”)

This is the unmistakable prose of the late Hunter S. Thompson, who had high hopes that a one-time appearance that covered national politics 50 years ago – truly a nonsense from his editor at a music magazine – could help him go from journalist to novelist. He already had two non-fiction bestsellers under his belt, one of which he had reported over the years as an embedding, covering an outfit that is at least as amoral as anything else in Washington: Hell’s Angels.

But if the political establishment in Washington, including the press, thought the task would only deserve a few magazines, they had another thing on the way. Thompson influenced a new generation of political correspondents, says Peter Richardson, author of the newly published “Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo,” a consideration of Thompson’s literary influences and influence.

The 1972 campaign was remarkable not only for investigative reporting but also for political and media coverage. That Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein deservedly are leafy and still wearing school leathers and broken scoops 50 years later only reminds us of Watergate’s watershed status. But it was not the only journalistic foundations in 1972 that were shaken and remained shaken. Another duo also sparked journalistic revolutions that year.

Thompson, whose Rolling Stone broadcasts were recapitulated in “Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72”, forever freed campaign journalism from reverent conventions and commitments to objectivity, and Thompson’s apparent assistant Timothy Crouse’s Rolling Stone, who reported on the campaign’s press corps, as collected in “The boys on the buswas the zero point for modern media reporting.

“Thompson sees the overall problem with politics; Crouse reports on and analyzes the press as part of the problem in depth, ”said Richardson, also a lecturer at San Francisco State University. “Thompson should have Crouse as an assistant, but treat him like a teammate who goes back to the room every night and reviews what they’ve learned during the day. Thompson does not feel respected by Washington’s press corps and tells Crouse, ‘You know, maybe to should be the focus of your work: See these people, low them the story.’ Out of this, they produce both reports and two very different kinds of books that completely change journalism forever. “

Thompson, he says, rightly towers to ruin the idea that coverage of a campaign should be objective day to day, or with the winner automatically cast as the hero a la Theodore White’s “The Making of the President” books. Along with rude drug use, scams to other journalists, and the refinement of a cultured but nonetheless truly threatening edge, Thompson quickly understood the fact and the benefit of being avoided by the heavyweights of the press corps. “Thompson is determined to commit to assets: ‘I do not want to do what everyone else does. I want to write about what I see, present the unvarnished truth as I understand it,'” Richardson said. That truth still resonates, he explains, and is perhaps best summed up in this one from Thompson’s 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon in Rolling Stone:

“Some people will say that words like afskum and rot are wrong for objective journalism – which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the lens’ rules and dogmas that allowed Nixon to slip into the White House in the first place. “You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

That Thompson’s Rolling Stone broadcasts were a deterrent to older campaign reporters, but resonated with younger ones, sometimes to a point of reverence, also signaled that generational change was beginning to affect assumptions and standards. Thompson caused such ripples while inspiring so much awe for his drug and alcohol consumption, making it a particularly fun year to decide to report on the press corps, recalls Crouse, who was long out of journalism but still reveled in memories .

“There were a lot of younger press people in the mainstream press who became our friends, and we smoked dope with them, but Hunter. ‘ he wanted to be and I was notit was just not something I was able to do, ”Crouse, 75, told me. “But he was such a mentor in such a natural way. If you were a writer – if you were serious about the craft – he considered you a brother.”

“Thompson was one of the great satirists in American literature,” Jeff Sartain, editor-in-chief of the Academic American Book Review and a modern literary scholar, told me by e-mail. “In Thompson’s writing, truth is often revealed through the tools of fiction, things like hyperbole, imagery and subjective perspective. His language, especially when cursing, has an almost poetic sense of sound and timing that suits his sharp wit.

Crouse says he and Thompson were delighted with the drip-drip-drip of The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting, but that unfortunately there was never a four-way sit-down between The Post and Rolling Stone partners. Strange as it may seem, however, there may be an alternative reality out there where Thompson may have shared The Post’s pages with Woodstein.

Thompson’s archives are in the hands of a private consortium led by Thompson fan and friend Johnny Depp, so for his book Richardson was necessarily dependent on historian Douglas Brinkley’s authorized set of two volumes of Thompson’s letters. Among Richardson’s excavations: correspondence in 1963 between a 26-year-old Thompson and the legendary Washington Post and Newsweek publisher Philip Graham, in which Graham showed signs of guiding Thompson to a job.

Perhaps even more astonishing: Thompson’s first note to Graham is a case study in slander. “He’s clearly looking for a job that covers Latin America, and he does so not only by criticizing Newsweek’s coverage, calling it an ‘abomination’ and a ‘scam,’ but Graham himself and personally calling him a ‘fake’ who is ‘overpaid.’

Still, Graham clearly found the approach, if not charming, at least engaging enough to ask Thompson for a “somewhat less breathless letter in which you tell me about yourself.” And, he added, “do not do more than two pages of single spaces – meaning a third draft and not a first draft.”

Had Graham been alive, perhaps Thompson would have ended up working for The Post? Unlikely, Richardson says. “He lost every single job he ever managed to get.”

Jason West lives in California.

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