Journalist, political philosopher, counter-cultural icon, Air Force veteran, Pitkin County Sheriff candidate, and spiritual commentator Hunter S. Thompson would have been 80 years old today.
I’ve often wondered what Dr. Thompson would think about current events. Would he be on the front lines of the #resistance, or would he look at Twitter slacktivism as a self-righteous indulgence? Would he have been a savage critic of the Trump administration, or did he lose all of his outrage during the Nixon years? Most importantly, what would he think about Deflategate?
Thompson was a modern-day Hemingway without the misogyny. He was fearless, riding with the Hell’s Angels and sailing with drug smugglers. He didn’t just revel in excess, he thrived in it, but he wasn’t a hedonist. There was never a sense that the Doctor dropped acid or drank rum by the quart out of anything other than a sense of grim duty. There was a dignity to his gluttony, or maybe an irony to it, as though getting twisted was the only way to see the world straight.
He loved fishing, sports, and guns–to my knowledge, he never killed anyone, and I am given to understand that he was terribly upset when he accidentally shot his assistant, as any gentleman would be. Most importantly, I truly believe he loved this country, or the promise of it–the idea that a man could be left alone in his heavily-fortified Colorado compound, surrounded by peacocks and anti-personnel weaponry. The idea that one Millennial day, all the fascists and authoritarians and bull-necked humorless cops would disappear and the Freaks would inherit the earth.
“A man with a greed for the Truth should expect no mercy and give none.”
Above all, the Doctor was a Truth-teller. All Prophets are Truth-tellers, and all Prophets are hated in their time. The Doctor wasn’t hated, I guess, at least not universally–Nixon doesn’t count–but I think he was misunderstood. He didn’t rend his clothes and gnash his teeth, but he clawed and tore at the slick caul the covered the black, sick clot of wickedness that’s been growing in this country since we offloaded a few hundred slaves in the Colonies.
It is a common misconception that Prophets can forsee future events. This is not true. Prophets can see the future no better or worse than anyone, which is to say, sporadically, and in quickly-forgotten dreams. Rather, Prophets perceive the present with an unusually harsh clarity, and given that History repeats itself, their words, read with the benefit of hindsight, seem awfully prescient.
For example, anyone who thinks the current Trump presidency is, well, “unpresidented” should read the Doctor’s “Fear and Loathing In Limbo: The Scum Also Rises,” from 1974. In his account of the Great Ford Pardon, Thompson offers some insight into what’s going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now, and a glimpse of what’s going to happen after Trump is out of the White House, however that happens.
Remember that the name Nixon will seem to give off a strange odor every time it is mentioned for the next three hundred years, and in every history book written from now on, “Nixon” will be synonymous with shame, corruption, and failure, he wrote then. No other president in American history has been driven out of the White House in a cloud of disgrace. No other president has been forced to preside over the degrading collapse of his own administration or been forced to step aside and watch helplessly–and also guiltily–while some of his close friends and ranking assistants are led off to jail.
We don’t know if that is going to happen, of course. But if it does, it will be a small comfort to know that it’s happened before. Thompson even gives us a clue as to what we’ll feel like if that day ever comes.
After five and a half years of watching a gang of fascist thugs treating the White House and the whole machinery of the federal government like a conquered empire to be used like the spoils of war for any purpose that served either the needs or whims of the victors, the prospect of some harmless, half-bright jock like Jerry Ford running a cautious, caretaker-style government for two or even six years was almost a welcome relief…I was ready to give the benefit of the doubt to almost any president who acted half human and had enough sense not to walk around in public wearing a swastika armband.
“Forgotten now but not gone…there is one more name on the honor roll of pure warriors who saw the great light and leapt for it.”
There are only two or three more things in the world more terrifying than the sudden realization that you are naked and alone and something large and aggressive is coming close to you in dark water, Thompson wrote in 1999.
One of those things, I think, is the idea that people like Thompson, mean, cruel little optimists, will disappear, that the truly Free Spirits, as ugly as they really are–and truly Free Spirits are ugly, faces covered in open, weeping sores and beady, sharp eyes–will vanish like smoke in a breeze. We don’t often think about suicide victims as optimists, but what else could he be? He worked too hard against Nixon and all the rest to really believe this world was past saving.
In the end, the Doctor will outlive all of us. In fifty years, in a hundred, in two hundred, when the sand mutants roam the wastes in their steam wagons and bleached bones just out of the scorched earth that used to be the Ocmulgee River, a barely literate, feral child will find a cache of old books, preserved from rot and decay, and his wondering, curious eyes will read the words of a man who couldn’t help but speak the truth, who knew the world could be better than it was, and who hated a man named Richard Milhous Nixon.