Most of the legend of Hunter S. Thompson, who killed himself on Feb. 20, came from his “gonzo” journalism, his getting wasted and writing about whatever warped encounters and hallucinations crossed his perceptions. Thompson certainly earned that reputation: His book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas grew out of a 1971 Rolling Stone article about going to a narcotics agents’ convention in Las Vegas while obnoxiously blasted on a mix of mescaline, tequila and ether.
Yet Thompson would not have been so celebrated and mourned if all he’d produced was stoned-out babble incomprehensible and worthless to the sober. Describing himself as a “drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate,” he dissected the vileness of powerful men, denouncing “greedheads” with vitriolic, righteous wit and almost Biblical power. (Though not religious, he said he liked to steal from the Book of Revelations because “I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.”) He had deep roots as a reporter, trekking through South America as a politics and travel-story stringer in the early ‘60s, riding alongside the Hell’s Angels outlaw-biker gang for the Nation story that got him his first book (Hell’s Angels) and a stomping from several of its subjects, and covering the 1971 riots in East Los Angeles after the police murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar.
Thompson’s best work was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972, based on his Rolling Stone election coverage. Richard Nixon, he wrote, “represents the dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise…. He speaks for the Werewolf in us, the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon draws too close.” Thompson, observed Timothy Crouse in The Boys on the Bus, wrote the unmentionable truth that the rules of conventional journalism denied, “that some of the candidates were shams and liars, that the process was unjust and anachronistic.” That campaign took its toll on Thompson emotionally. In October 1972, when it was obvious that Nixon was going to win re-election, he filed a dolorously truncated piece, saying, “words are no longer important at this stage of the campaign.”
His later years found him in decline. His moral outrage remained intact and he could still sling invective with the best, but he often repeated the same riffs, and he just didn’t do the legwork. If he’d done pioneering work in 1972 by going out on the campaign trail and speaking the truth that mainstream reporters wished they could tell, he spent most of the 1992 campaign at home, firing off rants through his fax machine.
The Bush era must have been painful for Thompson. If Americans’ failure to recognize Richard Nixon’s foulness sent him into despair, how was he handling the reign of George W. Bush, whose regime revels in putting lies over on the “liberal media,” tauntingly flaunting its abuse of power – while more Americans know the name of Scott Peterson’s mistress than the number of Iraqi civilians killed? How did his soul cope after 30 years of screaming at a wall, while it inhabited a body full of collapsing bones and a liquor-ravaged liver? Coming in the wake of the December suicide of crack reporter Gary Webb, Hunter Thompson’s death calls up a twist on Bob Marley: How long will our prophets kill themselves while we stand aside and look?