5 Lessons From Hunter S. Thompson

5 Lessons From Hunter S. Thompson

Wisdom from the godfather of gonzo.


Fifty years ago, Rolling Stone asked Hunter S. Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. In some ways, the assignment made perfect sense. Already a seasoned journalist, Thompson was basking in the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which the magazine had run the previous month. When Random House published the book version to enthusiastic reviews in 1972, Thompson consolidated his position as the magazine’s most popular writer.

The campaign assignment was also timely. For the first time, 18-year-olds could vote for president. What better outlet than Rolling Stone to reach them? Founded in 1967, it was known for its music coverage, but it had always been more than a rock magazine. In 1970, it won its first two National Magazine Awards, for stories about life in the Manson Family and the disastrous rock concert at Altamont.

For Thompson, the new position was plum. Less than a decade earlier, he’d considered politics a dead end and was specializing in exotic California subcultures. His Nation article about the Hell’s Angels, which appeared in 1965, was the basis for his first best-selling book. But as Richard Nixon geared up for reelection in 1972, Thompson was spoiling for opportunities to write about the campaign. He also planned to repackage his dispatches as a book, perhaps even another best seller.

Yet Thompson’s assignment was also daunting. Reporting full-time from the campaign trail was arduous, and he was surrounded by seasoned reporters from major news organizations. The candidates often complained about those outlets, but they cared deeply about how they were covered by them. A fledgling rock magazine was another matter. Thompson knew that he lacked the experience, access, resources, leverage, and status that his colleagues enjoyed.

Amazingly, Thompson overcame those challenges—and managed to produce a classic of US political journalism. Democratic strategist Frank Mankiewicz famously hailed Thompson’s coverage as the least factual and most accurate description of the campaign. Thompson quickly converted his “jangled campaign diary” into book form, which was another commercial and critical success. Forty years later, Matt Taibbi claimed that “no book meant more to a single professional audience than Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 meant to American political journalists.” Much of that success can be traced to Thompson’s durable insights—not only about politics, but also about the media. Here are his five most relevant lessons for journalists today.

1. Turn weaknesses into strengths. Thompson’s colleagues spent years cultivating inside sources, but he saw no need to play the long game. As he explained in his book, that freed him to tell the truth as he understood it:

Unlike most other correspondents, I could afford to burn all my bridges behind me—because I was only there for a year, and the last thing I cared about was establishing long-term connections on Capitol Hill. I went for two reasons: (1) to learn as much as possible about the mechanics and realities of a presidential campaign, and (2) to write about it the same way I’d write about anything else—as close to the bone as I could get, and to hell with the consequences.

This take-no-prisoners approach came naturally to Thompson, but it also meshed with Rolling Stone’s marginal status to create a unique opportunity.

Thompson turned his inexperience to advantage. Pollster Pat Caddell confirmed Thompson’s determination to master the inner workings of the campaigns:

He didn’t know about politics, so he insisted that you explain every detail, and he would pick it up like that. That’s why he was so much better informed than most of the political reporters traveling on the campaign, because they were covering it by the book—and Hunter didn’t have the book. He was making one up.

Again, Thompson converted a liability into an asset. By working harder to understand the campaigns, he was better positioned to describe them in layman’s terms.

2. Hold objectivity lightly. Thompson knew that his colleagues were constrained by the so-called rules of objective journalism. Happy to swap insights behind the scenes, reporters found many of their ideas difficult to express in the narrow, hard-news stories that editors demanded. As a result, reporters often got all the facts right but failed to communicate plain truths about the candidates. In that spirit, Thompson once wrote to an editor, “Facts are lies when they’re added up.”

The Nixon campaign, of course, understood the rules very well. Staffers favored reporters who served as stenographers, and they rarely allowed direct access to the president. Covering Nixon was like traveling with the pope, Thompson said, whereas the George McGovern campaign resembled a Grateful Dead tour. Nixon staffers gave reporters almost nothing to work with, while the relatively transparent McGovern campaign generated plenty of stories, some of them damaging.

Thompson happily declared his preference for McGovern well before the senator received his party’s nomination. He also targeted Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey before turning his sights on Nixon, whom he openly despised. Even so, he never hesitated to criticize McGovern for his shortcomings and blunders. In this way, Thompson offered his readers a unique value proposition. They would receive the unvarnished truth as he understood it—about the campaigns, but also about the media.

3. Resist the urge to novelize. Like many journalists, Thompson dreamed about writing novels. Early on, however, he had more success with New Journalism, which imported the techniques of fiction without abandoning the veracity of nonfiction. By the time Thompson covered the 1972 campaign, he also had pioneered gonzo journalism, which vigorously worked the crease between journalism and fiction. In Thompson’s view, both of those modes accessed and expressed important truths, and he saw no need to renounce either. Indeed, he blended them whenever he thought the story required it.

Yet Thompson rejected the most successful literary innovation in campaign journalism. That technique was pioneered by Theodore White in The Making of the President 1960, which won the Pulitzer Prize and launched a franchise. The author of two novels, White decided to tap that genre to describe the 1960 race.

It would be written as a novel is written, with anticipated surprises as, one by one, early candidates vanish in the primaries until only two final jousters struggle for the prize. Moreover, it would be written as a story of a man in trouble, of the leader under the pressure of circumstances.

White downplayed material that did not support the work’s main theme. “A book, to be a great book,” he once told a friend, “must have a unity, a dramatic unfolding from a single central theme so that the reader comes away from the book as if he had participated himself in the development of a wonder.”

White’s stylized approach was an important breakthrough, but it created a grandiose image of the president and reinforced a particular conception of American power at the height of the Cold War. In that contest, the United States was also struggling with another jouster for the prize—not the presidency, but global dominance.

Thompson had no plans to present the campaign as a seamless novel, much less to glorify the candidates. Instead, his goal was to record the volatile campaign in real time. Even after the election, he renounced what he called “the luxury of hindsight” and resisted the urge to fashion a tidy narrative. In his own pre-theoretical way, Thompson understood what historian Hayden White later called the content of the form—that is, the meanings that narrative conventions create above and beyond the particulars of any story. In his discipline, White claimed, those conventions were linked to the maintenance of legitimate authority. Likewise, the norms of traditional journalism tended to reinforce the status quo. Thompson’s critique of objective journalism revealed its limitations, but his style also challenged the social and political arrangements that mainstream journalism supported as a matter of course.

4. Embrace hyperbole. Thompson’s gift for satire and invective distinguished him from his colleagues on the campaign trail. He compared Edmund Muskie to “a vicious 200-pound water rat,” described Nixon as a werewolf, and claimed that Hubert Humphrey was “a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current.”

Thompson’s hyperbolic style was part of his appeal, but it also served another purpose. By 1972, a measured assessment of America’s shortcomings seemed pointless. After years of official mendacity and slaughter in Vietnam, public officials had exhausted their credibility, especially among young people. Violence had taken the lives of a charismatic president and the most visible symbols of the civil rights movement. Little more could be said dispassionately about Richard Nixon, his policies in Southeast Asia, or his drug war.

At these moments, literary critic Richard Klein pointed out in a different context, another rhetorical strategy is required.

In these circumstances, hyperbole is called for, for it raises its objects up, excessively, way above their actual merit: It is not to deceive by exaggeration that one overshoots the mark but to allow the true value, the truth of what is insufficiently valued, to appear. The validity of hyperbole, the truth that exaggeration may often convey, depends on a principle well recognized by marksmen: There are times when aiming to overshoot the mark is the condition of hitting it.

That form of marksmanship was Thompson’s specialty. By exaggerating the deficiencies of McGovern’s opponents, Thompson highlighted an undervalued truth—that McGovern was the only major candidate who condemned the US role in Vietnam.

5. Show some emotion. Thompson’s gonzo persona and scathing style led some readers to dismiss him as a party animal and put-down artist. According to Taibbi, however, the campaign book’s influence didn’t spring from Thompson’s extravagant style; rather, it can be traced to his idealism, outrage, and passionate search for the truth. Whereas most journalists tried to impress others with their hardboiled realism, Thompson “laid out his fragile hopes and awesome disappointments for everyone to see.” It was an important and surprising point, for it suggests that Thompson’s sincerity, vulnerability, and humanity distinguished his campaign book from earlier ones and influenced later ones.

To these five lessons I would add one warning: Imitating Thompson is a recipe for failure. He was, after all, one of the most distinctive American voices in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, many writers do wonderful work without resorting to pyrotechnics. But Thompson’s achievement, and what we can take from it today, reminds us that the media ecology isn’t a monoculture, that outsider status isn’t a deal breaker, and that strong, original writing will find an audience.

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