"Those who fail to learn from the brutal stompings visited on them in the past are doomed to be brutally stomped in the future." - Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson didn’t thrive on political chaos, he was political chaos. My mind has been fixed on the good doctor a great deal today because 1) It’s his birthday; 2) It’s the first day of what promises to be one of the most outrageous and unpredictable examples of political chaos since the Democratic convention in 1968; And 3) due to some eldritch wizardry, these things are happening on the same day. Call it a birthday gift arriving 11 years too late.
The 1968 convention radicalized Thompson. The convention looked to be a corker and he went to cover it for Ramparts magazine. Along the way, as chaos bloomed in the streets of Chicago he was beaten and gassed and something snapped. Somewhere amid the smoke and screams, he emerged as the fearless madman we know today. “Hunter told me that he went to the ‘68 convention as a reporter and he came back a lunatic,” says Curtis Robinson, Thompson’s latter-years editor.
It remains to be seen whether 48 years later, Cleveland 2016 will approach the shocking chaos of Chicago 1968. There’s every chance it won’t, of course, given changes in police and security procedures. Not to mention the fact that there’s a whole lot of money that’s a whole lot interested in this thing going off smoothly. Regardless, we’ll never know HST’s reaction to the peculiar brand of fear and loathing roiling its way around Cleveland this week. All we know is that his take would have been surprising, deranged and honest.
Naturally, that trademark honesty extended to Thompson’s prodigious drinking. Were he in Cleveland, we’d be guaranteed a few epic tales of consumption alongside the political insight. For now, we’ll console ourselves with this passage from early on in Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72, where he describes his writing environment:
“One afternoon about three days ago the Editorial Enforcement Detail from the Rolling Stone office showed up at my door, with no warning, and loaded about 40 pounds of supplies into the room: two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls. There was also a big Selectric typewriter, two reams of paper, a face-cord of oak firewood and three tape recorders – in case the situation got so desperate that I might finally have to resort to verbal composition.”
If you suspect Thompson might be goosing the numbers for effect, think again. “In my experience,” Robinson says, “that stuff is documentary, not hyperbole at all. Hunter picked up the gin habit in South America. By the time we were friends he had shifted to Chivas. But he always loved grapefruit.”
Of course, Thompson wasn’t the only reporter hitting the bottle in 1972. Here’s how he describes the scene in George McGovern’s campaign gaggle, which had two planes, the Dakota Queen (where McGovern and most of his staffers rode) and the Zoo Plane (which held mostly journalists).
“The Fasten Seat Belts sign was still on, above every seat, along with the No Smoking sign – but the plane was full of smoke and almost nobody was sitting down. Both flight kitchens had long since been converted to bars, stocked with hundreds of those little one-and-a-half ounce flight-size whiskey bottles. We had left New York that morning, with a stop in Philadelphia, and by the time we got to Wichita the scene in the Zoo Plane was like the clubhouse at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day...and now, flying back from L.A. to Sioux Falls, it was beginning to look more and more like the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.”
When you make your living writing about drinking, it’s only natural to have a few drinking writers who inform you, either as exemplars or cautionary tales. A select few like HST can be both. We are all of us poorer for not hearing his take on the conflicted party loyalists, strident protesters, police, Trumpists and the none-of-the-abovers who are no doubt descending on Cleveland and beginning to mix themselves into a heretofore unknown cocktail as I type this.
Before he hung up the phone, the last thing Robinson said to me was “if the animosity of the ‘68 convention gave us decades of Hunter S. Thompson, who knows what this one will give us.” I found that calming. It's a hopeful idea in a time when hope feels like it's been held prisoner in someone's basement, only let out for the occasional savage beating. So I'll take what I can get out of Cleveland. I certainly don’t want to see tear gas in the streets, but I still hold out hope that the convention will be revelatory enough to act as a crucible that smashes another white-hot agent of chaos into being. Someone who can take up the doctor’s mantle and dazzle us with political insight and pyrotechnic language, as we simultaneously worry for her health and sanity.
So today of all days, I urge you to join me in raising a gin and grapefruit to the next good doctor. May they ever burn in the blinding light of truth and excess.