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Matt Taibbi, like many journalists, grew up idolizing Hunter S. Thompson. But Taibbi, unlike many journalists, got Hunter S. Thompson's job.
The similarities between the two Rolling Stone scribes do not stop there, even though Taibbi himself argues he's nothing like Thompson. Both made their name pointing out hypocrisies and flaws in the U.S. government. Both thrived (one still is) at a time of turmoil in our country's history. Both even managed to love the same sport, the game of football. And now both have their name on the cover of the same book. Taibbi was given the responsibility of writing a new introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition of one of Thompson's seminal works, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, which releases today.
In his introduction, Taibbi highlights the importance of Thompson's writing, calling him the "most instantly trustworthy" American narrator since Mark Twain, and argues that the book still continues to define the way we think about the dramas of politics. Taibbi stopped by The Village Voice office (where he was a summer intern in 1987) to chat about Thompson's influence, how Thompson lives up to his own cliche, and why Obama would disappoint Thompson, were Thompson still alive.
When did you first read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72?
I remember my father [Emmy-winning journalist Mike Taibbi] telling me about when Thompson was writing the pieces in Rolling Stone at the time--not the book, but the monthly dispatches. It was such a unique thing because everybody was waiting for it at the end of every month. I didn't read the book till I was pretty old. I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was in high school, and I probably read this when I was a senior in college.
Did you ever meet him?
No, but I talked to him on the phone once. That was close as I came. I was going to be hired by a publishing company to edit a compilation of gonzo journalism, and I was really broke at the time. So I sat down to really think about this project, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that gonzo journalism just means Hunter Thompson. There aren't other examples of gonzo journalism. I tried to put something together, but then I called Thompson up and basically explained the dilemma: "I got stuck with this assignment, and what do you think of it, because if you're not into it, I'm probably not into it." And he goes [adopting a deep, gravelly voice], "That's a shitty assignment. How badly do you need the money?" And I said, "Pretty badly." And he said, "Well, I don't envy you." And that's how he left it, so I decided not to do it.
You wrote in the introduction that Campaign Trail has become the bible for political reporting. Do you think it was the writing, the campaign itself, or did the stars just align?
I think it's a lot of different reasons. Obviously, the writing has something to do with it, but as I talk about in the introduction, he created these archetypal characters that everyone has sort've used since as templates to compare each new slate of candidates and characters to. Almost every campaign has the bad guy, the hopeless do-gooding ideologue. I caught myself doing it when I covered the 2004 campaign, when Dennis Kucinich became my McGovern character. No writer wants to be caught copying another writer, but it just bleeds into your consciousness because we've all read that book so many times. There have been some other campaign books, like The Boys on the Bus, The Selling of the President, and all that, but none of them really, none of them really...
None of them start with a guy driving down a highway with a gun.
Right, exactly. It just made the whole thing accessible to people who don't even care about politics. It's iconic.
In the intro, you say Thompson is the most trustworthy American narrator since Mark Twain. What is it about his prose that gives you that feeling? I think many people feel that way, yet everyone always wonders if he's making some stuff up.
Oh, he's definitely embellishing. That's not what you care about. I have no doubt that a lot of the things in that book didn't happen that way. Writing is all about feeling your audience and maintaining a connection with them, and being able to anticipate what they're going to respond to, what they're going to think is funny, what they're going to find sympathetic, what they're going to find unsympathetic. Hunter just had this unbelievable innate ability--like a lot of great public speakers do. If you've ever seen somebody who's a great public speaker, they can feel the crowd and they know exactly how to move people this way or that way. And he's kind of like that. He had this ability to grab his whole audience, drag them through this story, and you never really find yourself stepping back and saying, "Eh, well." Once you're in, you're in the whole way through with him.