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Bedtime for Gonzo

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/2/2005

It’s surely a testament to journal-ism’s obsequious self-aggrandizement that in the past nine days hundreds of articles have appeared about the legacy of the late Hunter S. Thompson, who shot himself on Feb. 20. Few writers have staked the middle ground, and in this regard The Wall Street Journal was typical.

Tom Wolfe, in a hasty rash of hyperbole, was among the first (Feb. 22) to say that Thompson ought to be remembered with the same reverence as Mark Twain, adding that he’d nominate the rock star author as the 20th century’s “greatest comic writer in the English language.”

Two days later, Peggy Noonan dismissed the erratic Rolling Stone correspondent as a mere footnote who didn’t face up to life’s twists and turns. Noonan, the well-known Reagan speechwriter and author, lectured on the Journal’s web site, “In time Thompson’s swashbuckling came to seem joyless, aggressive, and half dead. What he thought fed his gift (drugs, alcohol) killed it. . . . The empty page, the blank screen, is scary. But so is a mortgage. So is the stillness of a courtroom before you make the closing argument. And so is a broken leg that needs fixing fast. We all have jobs.”

As the revived cliché goes, good gravy!

The commotion over Thompson’s suicide, at age 67—not that far from a full life—is somewhat baffling. This columnist was a fan of Thompson’s now-ancient political romps on the printed page, but I was not among those who reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after hearing the news of his death. In fact, I was watching television late that Sunday night, when my 12-year-old son came rushing downstairs, almost breathless, saying, “Dad, you’ve got to see the Drudge Report! Hunter Thompson killed himself.” Frankly, I was only mildly curious, telling Nicky, “I bet it was a gun,” and then I finished a DVD episode of A Touch of Frost before logging onto the computer for details. Yes, he shot himself I found out, and I went to bed.

Like countless journalists of a certain age, I also have a Thompson story to tell, and even though the significance of his death seems on a par with, say, Abbie Hoffman’s, it’s a fond memory. Nearly 30 years ago, Thompson gave a “lecture” at Johns Hopkins University and the auditorium was packed. He was fairly incoherent, and as a college reporter I asked the writer, already past his prime, if the bottle of Wild Turkey and six-pack of Budweiser on his podium were props. Thompson feigned disgust and dared me to come up onstage, much to the crowd’s delight, and sample the wares. I did, they were real, and he whispered in my ear, “Sorry to bust your balls, buddy, but that’s what I’m paid to do.”

Later, at a reception, when I was interviewing him while students lined up to pay homage, an acquaintance of mine thrust a copy of Fear and Loathing, which contained a hit of Mr. Natural LSD, in his hands.

Thompson quickly gobbled it up, and went on signing autographs.

Given his legendary consumption of booze and drugs I’d always thought of Thompson as the Keith Richards of journalism. Whether Mick Jagger’s No. 2 makes it to 67 remains to be seen, but you get the point. Thompson’s career was far closer to that of a rock ’n’ roll star than a mere political/sports pundit, a fact that eludes those who now lump him together, absurdly, with Twain, H.L. Mencken, and ironically, Tom Wolfe himself.

He was an accomplished writer before Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner signed him on during the Age of Aquarius, but it was at that once-vital magazine that he became famous. If you subscribed to RS in the early ’70s, Thompson’s dispatches from the 1972 presidential campaign were mesmerizing. Like a rock band that released a single every three months, the anticipation for a new issue to arrive with his mix of irreverence, fantasy, and, amid the jumble of words, clear political analysis was rather intense.

In an August dispatch of that year, when George McGovern was agonizing over a vice-presidential pick, Thompson nailed the addiction of a man running for president. The following observation may seem old hat today, but it was extraordinary at that time: “A career politician finally smelling the White House is not much different from a bull elk in heat. He will stop at nothing, trashing anything that gets in his way; and anything he can’t handle personally he will hire out—or, failing that, make a deal.”

Not long after that campaign, as the lecture fees and fame attracted him, Thompson ceased to matter as a journalist. If you can think of something notable, something that would put him remotely in Mencken’s class, that Thompson wrote since Nixon’s resignation, you’re a better archivist than me.

As it is, Thompson’s last political piece for Rolling Stone (posted online Oct. 20 of last year)—no doubt, heavily edited—was a sad parody. Convinced that his friend John Kerry would win, Thompson jabbed George W. Bush on his victory over Al Gore in 2000. “It was the most brutal seizure of power since Hitler burned the German Reichstag in 1933 and declared himself the new Boss of Germany. Karl Rove is no stranger to Nazi strategy, if only because it worked, for a while, and it was sure as hell fun for Hitler.”

Just as Thompson’s run of fame was fun for him, but that doesn’t make him Mark Twain, or even Jimmy Breslin.

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