Q&A: Matt Taibbi on the 40th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Hunter S. Thompson's influence, and Why Barack Obama Isn't a Great Shark
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.
You've admitted in past interviews to writing in a hyperbolic manner about something you hoped people would pay more attention to. Do you think Thompson did the same? That he was aware of his intense voice on the page?
He's definitely hyperbolic. There's no question about it. He likes to use maximalist expressions, like [the enemy] is the "most disgusting, depraved, corrupt," you know? Every villain is the worst villain of all time. But [Thompson makes them] live up to it. He sets a bar somewhere, where he says this person is this, but then he makes the case. Within the internal logic of the story, it's true. Even if it's not factually true, it's psychologically, artistically true. It all fits. Again, I don't look at his books as historical works. I look at them more as novels. They're like novels where everything fits and nothing is overstated.
In your own writing, what's more important to you? Creating something that is factual or something that will resonant with the reader--like stretching the truth in order to tell a greater truth?
Well, I'm a little different than Hunter. I think he can get away--well, it's not that he's getting away, he's just doing something different than I am. He's an artist. Again, I think of his books as being more novels, whereas what I'm doing is more classic, straightforward journalism and editorial commentary. I have to stick to the facts. Also, we're in a different era, and my career just evolved into the direction where I am sticking to the actual factual truth. He didn't do that, but it worked for him. If I tried that, it wouldn't work.
If Campaign Trail were published today, would it have the same effect?
Oh, yeah. I tried to say this in the introduction, but I don't think that was really just a story about 1972 and those people. It's a very personal, timeless story about a person who is trying to believe, and he's thrust into this environment where everything is fake and disappointing, and he's still trying to find that meaning in it. That's a timeless story. That could've existed anywhere. The format would've been different now, because nowadays, it's just so much harder to make that good versus evil story out of a Democrat-versus-Republican timeline. I just think it wouldn't be believable. But he'd find some way to do it.
What do you think he'd say about the current political climate?
This era has a lot in common with the early '60s. We had a very long period of relative stability, relative cultural conservatism, and it's kind of coming apart at the seams as people are seeing the hidden fractures and discrepancies and the way our economy has been set up, and all of this is coming out in Occupy. That, to me, is a little bit like the early '60s. And that was a time that Hunter really liked. He loved that whole era, and it really comes out in the other book, the Las Vegas book, that he really fell in love with that whole time period. And what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was about was that whole era rolling back, and all the great hopes of that era coming to an end. Right now, we're at a beginning stage. I'm sure eventually it'll turn into disillusionment, but we're not there yet. I think he would enjoy this time period.
How do you feel about the comparisons that are often made about you and him?
I'm definitely embarrassed by it, if that's what you're asking. I've said this always: What he does and what I do are very different things. I think his writing is a lot more ambitious than mine is. There was a time in my life when I was really young and [Hunter Thompson] was what I wanted to be when I grew up. I disabused myself of that notion a long time ago. Again, what I do is more classical editorializing. What he does is this weird, four-dimensional kind of writing that's once a generation. I understand where those comparisons come from, because I have his job. I'm writing in the first person. I have a drug problem--well, I had a drug problem.
Also, there's another factor with Hunter Thompson that sets him apart from other writers. Physically, the guy was just a force of nature. The scale of everything. The indulgence. All these adventures, they were so enormous in scope, and I don't think any of us have done that. He definitely lived up to his own cliche.
You wrote in the introduction that people who call Hunter S. Thompson a cynic don't really know him, and that he was always searching for the "Great Shark" to come save American politics. With the end of his life being so tragic, do you think he felt this way his entire life?
I think what people really connected with during those years that he was really, really on fire--which was, you know, mid to late '60s to mid to late '70s, his most productive time--it wasn't all the flamboyant writing. It was the earnestness, the passion, the drive, the sincerity, it all boomed through all of his books. I do think at the end of his life, or in his later years, he had some trouble recapturing that. I think there were some times when he got older where he was having trouble recreating his own style. He drifted into self-plagiarism a little bit, where what he was doing was trying to sound like Hunter Thompson rather than saying what he felt. I think he just got confused and a little lost. But that happens to every writer.
You wrote that Hunter reminded the American public that we are supposed to have high expectations for our leaders, maybe even impossibly high expectations. Do you think the American public, today, views their leaders in that way?
I think there is a lot of idealism. I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the "Great Shark" who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that's why they're all out on the streets right now. There's a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don't think they have any obligation to be truly honest. They think that everything is a compromise. They've lost touch with what people actually want. And they really do want somebody who is idealistic.
That's how Obama seemed to win the last election.
Exactly. People have this image of him as somebody who had beliefs and, more than anything, stood for a certain kind of decency and intellectual sincerity, and it turned out that he mostly wasn't that. I think that's a lot of what prompted Occupy. That, and the continuing corruption and financial mess. But more than anything, it was that. Because a lot of those same people were out there in 2008, you see the same faces now.
Is there anyone today that's writing who could be viewed in the same way as he was?
No. Forget about journalism, we just haven't even had a writer like that. When was the last time everybody in this country was talking about a novel? I think his books were the last books like that. Even going back to before then, the '30s and '40s and '50s, there was always something that captured the public imagination, whether it was Catch 22 or Catcher in the Rye, we just sort've stopped having that. I think his books were among the last that seized the public imagination and became the focal point of the debate. Part of that is because people don't read as much, people have shorter attention spans, and television is so dominant. But, it's also, we just don't have that type of writer.
Do you think it's more a product of the culture we live in, or not having that writer?
I think it's both. I think if that writer existed, he'd have an audience. But we don't.
What do you think Thompson would say about Obama?
I think he'd be disappointed. I think he would've liked him at first. I think he would've wanted to believe in him. Obama would've been his McGovern in '08. And I think he would've been disappointed afterwards. I hope. That's my impression. He went through that cycle with a number of politicians, I guess Carter comes to mind. He really liked Carter at first, but then he got turned off to Carter over time. His tendency was to fall in love with politicians and then fall out of love after he got a good look at them.
That's what happens with everyone, it seems. We love 'em all, but then...
Right. That's the trick, though. You have to hold up under scrutiny. What's been so disappointing about these guys is that they don't even try. It's one thing to fail, but they didn't particularly try very hard. Somebody like Obama who had such an incredible opportunity to be that person, and he wasn't him.
Does that fall more on Obama or the political climate?
Ah, well, it's probably both. But I just always think about things where people say, on the finance front, "Oh, he doesn't understand this material. He has to trust his advisors. So that's why he's doing this and that." On the other hand, he's a constitutional lawyer and, with the Guantanamo Bay stuff, the rendition policies, drone attacks, all those things, he knows the difference between what's legal and what's not legal, what's constitutional and what's not constitutional, and he never put up a fight about it and he expressly said he would when he was campaigning. It's not like, you know, he tried to fight the good fight and he couldn't overcome the bureaucracy in Washington. There just was never a fight. He never tried. That's got to be on him.
If he wins, do you think he'll be tougher?
People always say that, but I don't know. I'm not going to hold my breath for that. If he didn't do it his first term... I mean, I just don't see it as a manner of strategy. These are moral absolutes. It's not right to assassinate innocent people. It's not right to jail people without due process. And he just did it. Whether it's good strategy or not, whether he has political reason to do it or not, he did it.
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