In a recent Sunday New York Times, Rich Cohen, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, threw another elegiac log on the funeral pyre of Hunter S. Thompson, favorite uncle of the nation’s nattering nabobs of nostalgia.
What is clear from the piece — which skips, like all the other Thompson eulogies, from Fear and Loathing straight to his final years — is Cohen’s bathetic esteem both for the Gonzo legacy and for his own vicarious glow in its light. When Cohen quotes Gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman bidding Hunter good-night — “Thank you, thank you and thank you. You’ve made my life, and you’ve made my life interesting” — one gets the impression he is really quoting himself.
But it was Thompson himself who blamed “a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything” on “the importance of Liking Yourself,” back when the cult of self-esteem had yet to eviscerate an entire culture of the sort of behavioral standards whose A-1 bugaboo appeared to be — Thompson. Today, Hunter Thompson is dead, and Liking Yourself is more popular than ever. The question of whether Thompson really liked himself is gobbled up whole by the grinning mouth of critical praise. And the question of whether the Left, which has made such a halcyon hero of Thompson, has really come to terms with his half-reactionary heritage haunts the resin-clogged halls of the whole ’68-liberal establishment.
From 1968 to 1972, Thompson was the central witch-doctor in a scene that linked Gary Hart to Warren Beatty and Sandy Berger to Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone. In the hands of Wenner, and the generation of flunkies which have taken control of the popular press and are his heirs, the Duke of Gonzo will stay memorialized in caricature as a radical, wrought-iron Leftist. The Jann Wenner version of history, bogus here as everywhere else, threatens to become so ubiquitous as to take on the sentimental aura of received truth.
In Thompson’s hands, by contrast, the truth was bent but not broken. When Hunter lapsed into double vision, it was more like Doc Holliday’s than Foreigner’s: he had two guns — one for each of you. But the kooky left that looks back upon their lion does so with lyin’ eyes. In favor of stroking the man so hard that perhaps some of his truth would come off, the dandies and dilettantes and BS artists that outlived Thompson also outlived his vision.
THE LIBERAL CULTURAL ESTABLISHMENT of modern television, film, and music does not belong to Thompson, nor does he belong to it. Within his best pages, Thompson indicted the very sort of people who would grow up to eat coke, swap wives, and spoil their bastard children. And he denigrated the Democratic old guard that they replaced. Thompson turned upon liberalism’s empty promises with the same teeth he bared at Nixon.
The Death of the American Dream was a “serious” book Thompson was never able to finish, or even start, but its bells, like Poe’s, were alarum bells, and they tolled, first and foremost, for Lyndon Johnson. Though Thompson heaped a lot of invective upon Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, nothing can beat the following:
Johnson did a lot of rotten things in those five bloody years, but when the history books are written he will emerge in his proper role as the man who caused an entire generation of Americans to lose all respect for the Presidency, the White House, the Army, and in fact the whole structure of “government.”
As for Johnson’s veep — who Hillary Clinton beatified at the outset of her recent Humphrey Day Dinner keynote speech — “the Hube” was a “treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler.” For Thompson, “the whole era” that led up Nixon’s resignation “peaked on March 31, 1968, when LBJ went on national TV to announce that he wouldn’t run for re-election — that everything he stood for was f—ed.”
This is not the stuff of Jefferson-Jackson toastmasters. In the ’70s Thompson was still calling Humphrey “Martin Bormann in drag,” and, decades before that, was unafraid of labeling one leftist friend a “cheap book-store Marxist.” When he declared on November 22, 1963 that “politics will become a cockfight and reason will go by the boards,” Thompson wasn’t choosing sides. He was picking his own.
The Left joined him — not the other way around. Whereas the caricature in 2005 is of a GOP that believes in God and a Democratic Party that worships humanism, Thompson knew as early as 1958 that he had “no god,” and found it “impossible to believe in man.” Fear and loathing was an equal-opportunity exercise. In Vegas, the dividing line between Nixon and Humphrey voters was a distinction without a difference. Given the choice between Rotarian Republicans and cop/thug Democrats, Thompson chose ether.
THE GENERATION OF ’68 itself stayed in the background in Vegas, but continued to age: and wheras in the ’70s Thompson had brutalized politicians, in the ’80s he turned on the kids who got older but never grew up. This is the part of his career that doesn’t make it into any of the pious remembrances. Thompson’s coverage of the Pulitzer divorce trial — Palm Beach, 1983 — defined his anthology of that decade, Generation of Swine, and damned the thirtysomething adults who’d been rookie liberals a dozen years prior.
Thompson laid bare the debauched habits of young Roxanne, who split with old Pulitzer, in no delicate terms. On top of it all, he wrote, “she was a lesbian, or at least some kind of pansexual trollop. In six-and-a-half years of marriage, she had humped almost everything she could get her hands on.”
“Where,” Thompson went on, “are the best and brightest children of Bel Air and Palm Beach?” He looked to the pinnacle of successful young society, the product of the counterculture’s social freedom, and found a den of filth. “These are awkward questions in some circles,” he noted, “and the answers can be disturbing.”
Indeed. Today, the answer Thomspon was looking for is that those kids are doped up in Aspen jacuzzis or bedding total strangers in Hollywood mansions, at parties put on by people with names like Mr. Leisure and Lord Eros. The moral and cultural bottom has fallen out from under liberal high society, where religion is a joke and tradition is just another word for prejudice. Of course, some religious households are frauds and failures, too, and not every child from a broken home has S&M perverts for parents. But the “awkward questions” that Thompson never bothered to answer for his Rolling Stone readership have all come home to roost.
THE LONGER HE SPENT in the company of the post-McGovern Left, the less like Thompson it behaved. It was overwhelmed by yuppies, and, despite their irrational Gonzo exuberance, Thompson hated yuppies. They were fools, well-heeled savages, swine. Greed was always for Thomspon the capital crime and sin of the Right. But in the 1980s, America’s lust for money touched off a general hedonism that has never come down. Like that other unheralded moralist, Bret Easton Ellis, Thompson wrote in the ’80s with a vindictive, vengeful honesty; now, looking back, his reportage from that period is arrestingly critical of what today appear as the psychological and philosophical vices let loose by liberalism’s excess, and his cankered view of humanity rings a fiercer indictment ’round the head of the modern Left than the ugly mug of the Right that he loathed.
Sex had become democratized long ago, but by the mid-’90s, so had celebrity. Ten years on, the revolution is as revolting as it is complete. One needn’t be Rob Lowe or Paris Hilton to trade sex tapes and get on TV. The rich mimic the lower classes, and the middle classes ape the rich. The undeniable truth of 2005 is that in 1985, Paris and Nicky and a lot of other sexy, druggy, wealthy young people would be Republicans, by choice or default. Today that demographic is unthinkable, impossible. The Left owns that world. Republicans in the style of Patrick Bateman or Tony Montana are an endangered species. George W. Bush swore off those kinds of antics long ago. Now he runs five miles a day, and his daughters can barely get away with a beer. Only Arnold remains.
THIS IS A WORLD perhaps beyond the comprehension of a man like Hunter Thompson, whose righteous fight against a whole society of ignorant roughnecks has ultimately only brought them into the fold. How many people can carry on the lie that Thompson has anything in common with VH1’s “Celebreality” lineup, with 50 Cent, with Andy Dick? How long could the Good Doctor last at an Oscar afterparty?
Hunter Thompson died, like he lived, for his own reasons; but the Left that he left behind has no monopoly on his mantle. The man who has written All my life my heart has sought a thing I cannot name is beyond liberalism. He is beyond fashion, beyond ownership, and now beyond time.