The death of gonzo

February 23, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - From the moment I first met my friend Hunter Thompson 33 years ago - or, as he preferred, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson of the National Affairs Desk of Rolling Stone magazine - I always felt he would come to a violent end, as he did the other day in Aspen, Colo.

But I never thought he would shoot himself in the fashion of that other famous Rocky Mountain writer, Ernest Hemingway. Considering his freewheeling lifestyle, I thought he more likely would wind up in a bad car accident. Or in a fire he might have set himself, like the time in 1976 he tried to burn the motel room of Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's campaign manager.

Mr. Jordan had promised Hunter an interview with Mr. Carter on a flight from Florida to Chicago. When Mr. Carter reneged, Hunter caught a return flight to Florida and set Mr. Jordan's door ablaze with lighter fluid and lighter. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

The Hunter I first knew on the presidential campaign trail of 1972 and intermittently thereafter was a reckless, irreverent, funny, incandescent candle, constantly burning at both ends with love of life and hate of hypocrisy. He always seemed to me too engaged in the act of living fully to take his own life at 67.

No everyday reporter, Hunter was a perceptive, whimsical, often vicious assessor of human character, foibles, weakness and injustice who never bothered to stay within the lines of the coloring book of so-called objective journalism.

To say that Hunter was given to hyperbole, exaggeration, fantasy and sheer invention to describe the antics of a politician in heat was like criticizing a scat singer of jazz for not riffing in complete sentences.

It was always astonishing to me how some readers had the notion they could find literal as opposed to metaphorical truth in what the self-styled practitioner of "gonzo journalism" committed to paper.

Some of the scenes in his best-known campaign book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, were obviously the product of his abundant creativity. They included such flights of fancy as super-straight arrow Sen. Edmund S. Muskie being stoned on hallucinatory drugs and himself being physically ambushed by a George McGovern campaign aide.

At the same time, Hunter accurately reported many revealing scenes of strategy and confusion within the competing campaigns and the frenetic atmosphere on the press planes and buses that he enlivened in that election.

Years later, I encountered him at a day-long retrospective of the McGovern campaign at the National Archives here. He was to take part in a panel of reporters who had covered the campaign, but he arrived late. The discussion panel was under way, offering a serious assessment of the candidate and what he represented in that period of heavy dissent against the Vietnam War.

When Hunter strode in waving his trademark cigarette holder, amid cheers and applause from the audience, he bounded onto the stage, took a seat and proceeded merrily to disrupt the panel totally with venom-laced observations that brought much laughter while being mostly incomprehensible and often incoherent.

Some who had organized the affair seemed appalled. But to others, it was an appropriate throwback to the Hunter of the 1970s - a bull in a china shop who ran roughshod over the normal standards of journalistic behavior to make his own statements in his own way about politicians and war.

Today, when much of American journalism has an unimpressive record of challenging spoon-fed justifications for other politicians and another war, it sure could use another Hunter S. Thompson.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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