When Hunter S. Thompson killed himself, eulogies erupted, full of wild stories and ringing praise. But it was hard to separate the memory of his work from the cinematic image of Johnny Depp stumbling around Las Vegas in fear of giant snakes, or to be certain—30 years later—just what it was all about. A few writers doubted Thompson’s significance. Some found his act tired even when it was new.
“To me, Thompson was kind of a one-line joke—he’s being addled and indignant,” Columbia J-school professor Sam Freedman tells the Voice. “That gets old fast. Even in the ’70s, I could see a sameness to everything he did.” Cramming on Thompson’s writing this week, I can see what Freedman means. But it’s also apparent that where Thompson’s work repeats itself, so does the story he’s covering: the corruption of power and the cheapening of American life.
It’s not hard to make the case that those trends endure. So where are the gonzo journalists to say so? It’s easy to point to descendants of Breslin, Newfield, Woodward, and Bernstein. Where are Daddy Gonzo’s children?
Gonzo wasn’t merely the art of employing a dazzling assortment of narcotics as a reporting tool, despite Thompson’s reputation to that effect. What distinguishes gonzo journalism is not a booze- or mescaline-induced haze, but a singular, razor-sharp clarity. As David Halberstam wrote in a recent volume of Thompson’s letters, “Hunter’s truths seem like laser beams cutting through the fog.”
Take Thompson’s reporting on the ’72 presidential campaign: Richard Nixon “represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.” Of Hubert Humphrey, he asked, “What will [he] do with himself this year? Is there no room at the top for a totally dishonest person?” As the campaign wound toward George McGovern’s obliteration, Thompson wondered, “How low do you have to stoop in this country to become president?” Politicians weren’t the only targets: So was Jean-Claude Killy, a ski champ turned GM spokesman who had fallen from the heights of athletic glory to end up “down on the killing floor with the rest of us.” From the Kentucky Derby to the Super Bowl to the martyr status of a Chicano leader in Los Angeles, little was sacred, everything was personal, and nothing was objective.
“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point,” Thompson wrote in his scorching 1994 obituary of President Dick. “It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.”
The blind spots lull some journalists (including me) into tiptoeing around true words—as in the polite avoidance of the term torture to describe the interrogations at Abu Ghraib—and parroting what the powerful say, regardless of its mendacity, like the national TV correspondent slapping a bar in New Hampshire last year, telling a colleague, “He lied about the weapons, and we let him get away with it. We let him get away with it!”
Great creeping Jesus! (As Thompson might say.) The correspondent’s view did not make it to the air because, although having a basis in fact, it’s something for media types to know and the public to guess. Thompson shredded that filter. “He was going to have as little as possible between our skull and his skull and cut out all the crapola that modern journalists have to do,” says biographer William McKeen, a University of Florida professor.
This wasn’t an innovation; if anything, it was nostalgia. The tricks and etiquette of journalism that Thompson discarded had developed only as the newspaper trade changed from a craft to a profession, becoming commercial and a little stale. “He really went backward through the jungle of corporate journalism, which is overgrown with corporations and sub-editors and lawyers,” to a time of shoot-from-the-hip, belly-to-the-bar reporting, says onetime Thompson editor Warren Hinckle. “This is a great tradition of theatrical truth-telling journalism and if he did anything he brought it back to life in a way that nobody’s had the balls to do.”
Of course, some of that journalism of yore was dangerous fabrication, like William Randolph Hearst’s crusade for a war with Spain. Thompson also incorporated fictions, but, says McKeen, “Maybe you had to play at the facts a little bit to get to the truth.”
Maybe. McKeen’s contention gets into esoteric territory about the meaning or existence of truth. Are The Weekly Standard and The Nation both describing the same truth? Was Thompson uncovering an absolute truth, or just his own? Modern “objective” journalism usually treats the truth as negotiable, lying somewhere between the soundbites that the leaders utter.
Where have you gone, gonzo journalism? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
I asked several editors and writers to name people who have taken Gonzo’s mantle, and while they named many practitioners of good journalism, none has fully adopted Thompson’s method. At least not in print: Hinckle thinks blogging is the natural vehicle for modern gonzo. After all, Thompson wasn’t writing for Time magazine, but for niche publications that later died and the fledgling Rolling Stone. “The real innovations are always going to occur at the frontiers,” notes McKeen.
The frontiers have moved. Thompson’s quixotic mocking of the mainstream is now an institution, for instance in alternative newspapers like this one and on The Daily Show. The difference is that Thompson’s attack was nonpartisan (“It’s clear to me,” he once said, “that most people are bastards, thieves, and yes, even pigfuckers”) and, beneath the humor, very serious.
It’s a hard act to follow. “Huge quantities of drugs ain’t necessary to write quality gonzo,” writes political journalist Doug Ireland, “but wit—which cannot be taught—is, as are imagination and talent, both of which Hunter had in abnormal quantities.”