On some days you wonder what it all means. And on some days you find out. It’s like suddenly seeing a huge black pig in your headlights when you’re running 80 miles an hour on ice. Boom. Total clarity. No more gray area.One of the classic accounts of American politics, not quite as remarkable as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 because the election of 1992 was much less remarkable, and also frankly because Thompson's own style was becoming much more self-indulgent. Thompson's drug-fuelled raging stream of consciousness writing comes over now as rather white and male. He picks up on the importance of Hillary Clinton, but fails to really interview her. The one African-American who is mentioned in passing is Roosevelt Grier, who he utterly unfairly blames for the death of Robert F. Kennedy. He fumes about the fundamental evil of George H.W. Bush without really proving the case.
And yet there are moments of sheer genius. It starts with a flashback to the failed McGovern campaign which is basically the set-up for a punchline:
Another thing I still remember from that horrible day in November of ’72 was that some dingbat named Clinton was said to be almost single-handedly responsible for losing 222 counties in Texas—including Waco, where he was McGovern’s regional coordinator—and was “terminated without pay, with prejudice,” and sent back home to Arkansas “with his tail between his legs,” as an aide put it.A passing reference brought me to H.L. Mencken's obituary of William Jennings Bryan, which makes it clear how much Thompson's style owed to Mencken's writing:
“We’ll never see that stupid bastard again,” one McGovern aide muttered. “Clinton—Bill Clinton. Yeah. Let’s remember that name. He’ll never work again, not in Washington.”
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.There is a hilarious passage describing Bill Clinton's supposedly odd behaviour at his first interview with Thompson, later explained by a mutual friend as the effect of Thompson's eerie resemblance to Clinton's childhood nemesis (way too good to be true, alas). I had also completely forgotten that Ross Perot's excuse for dropping out of the 1992 presidential election was that the Republicans were planning to spoil his daughter's wedding by distributing fake compromising photographs of her. Yes, really.
The book ends with a postscript written after the death of Richard Nixon, Thompson's old nemesis, in 1994. For all that Thompson says he hated him, there is evidence of some respect between the two:
Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.Anyway, I should get hold of the better, earlier books of the Gonzo Papers. It's a little sad to get the sense from reading that Thompson's powers were waning, and that he knew it. You can get it here.
Nixon laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”
This was my top unread book acquired in 2016 (cheating slightly because I had in fact read it years ago). Next in that list is The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester.