Norman Mailer had the best take on Hunter Thompson’s passing.
“He had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W. Bush can ever tell us about what is right,” mused Mailer upon learning of Thompson’s suicide.
Anyone who read Thompson knew that the so-called “gonzo journalist” was about a lot more than sex, drugs and rock-and-roll — although it is Thompson who gets credit for introducing all three of those precious commodities to the mainstream of American journalism. The gun-toting, mescaline-downing wildman that showed up in Doonesbury as “Uncle Duke” was merely the cartoon version of an often serious, and always important, political commentator who once said that his beat was the death of the American dream. Thompson was to the political class of the United States in the latter part of the 20th century what William Hazlitt was to the English poets of the early 19th century: a critic who was so astute, so engaged and so unyielding in his idealism that he ultimately added more to the historical canon than did many of his subjects.
Thompson taught me how to look at politics — his book on the 1972 presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, remains the one necessary campaign journal of the era — and I cherished him for that. (When I was writing a book on the Florida recount fight of 2000, I wanted to pay homage to Thompson, so I asked him if we could use one of his brilliant “Hey Rube” columns to remind readers that no crime was beyond the imagination of the Bush brain trust. Thompson, who referred to George W. Bush as “the goofy Child President” and saw the Bush family as a recurring cancer that plagued the American body politic, leapt at the chance to be part of the project. He continued to delight in Bush-bashing, titling a column published at the time of the 43rd president’s first inaugural: “Abandon All Hope.”)
But Thompson also taught me how to do politics. Thompson was a journalist in the traditional sense of the craft and, as such, he was entirely unwilling to merely observe the wrongdoings of the political class. He wanted to create a newer, better politics — or, at the very least, to so screw up the current machinery that it would no longer work for the people who he referred to as “these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today.”
In 1970, fresh from covering the assassinations, police riots and related disappointments of the 1968 presidential campaign, Thompson waded into the fight himself as a “pro-hippie, anti-development” candidate for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, which included the ski town of Aspen. Thompson wanted to win in order to save what was still a rural, live-and-let-live county from the influx of Hollywood stars, corporate hoteliers and the rest of the elite entourage that would make it the nation’s premier ski resort. But he also wanted to teach a lesson about politics that would have meaning far beyond Colorado.