In the brilliant but little-known essay “Post Munich,” E. M. Forster wrote that “unpractical people often foresee the future more clearly than do those who are engaged in shaping it.” The late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (1937–2005) was such a person. During the unmemorable public appearance when I last saw him speak, he was truly incoherent—barely audible, in fact—by all appearances a wreck of a man, and that was over ten years ago. Whatever he was in person or as a person, though, Thompson was a writer. I suspect that some will try to deny him, relegating his work to the literary equivalent of a Doors poster in a sophomore college dorm. Even the most glowing retrospectives of his career still make him seem like a sixties throwback.
Thompson was much better than that. For one thing, he cared about style. “I’m a word freak,” he once wrote. “I like words.” Reflecting on a subject through writing, he said, “you can’t avoid having to come to grips with it. You might be wrong, but you have to think about it very intensely to write about it. So I use writing as a learning tool.” This is good Writing 101 stuff, and even a little standard and sentimental, which is strange because he is describing the impact of writing about the Hells Angels. The thing is, he really means it; like all satirists from Juvenal on he is broken up about the march of folly.
Thompson’s art comes from the basic insight that American political life has become so “peculiar and baroque,” and our media so inured to accepted rituals, that if an ordinary person were to set down in words what they saw politicians saying and doing offstage, it would appear hallucinatory, as if our leaders had just stepped off a spaceship. That’s the essence of his post-factual journalistic style, which has the crispness, wit, and visceral impact of eighteenth-century court satire. Between Thompson and Norman Mailer, an entirely novel method of covering Presidential conventions came into existence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, generating a great deal of extremely good nonfiction which was really a kind of subjective delving into the cultural psyche. The portraits of Richard Nixon’s strong and very real allure drawn by both writers endure as a way in to a distasteful but deeply rooted dimension of American life, an aggrieved paranoia and almost Spartan militarism that have now found their apotheosis in the George W. Bush version of the “war on terror.”
You really have no idea which details to believe but there is a pattern of truth at work. Consider the psychosis of the Vietnam dispatches Thompson sent from the Fall of Saigon. By his own account, Rolling Stone had fired him while he was actually en route to the war zone, leaving him with no health insurance and a refused Telex phone card. Reportedly he had $30,000 in cash strapped to his body, the entirety of the Newsweek payroll. His “coverage” includes an outrageously funny groveling letter to Giang Vo Don Giang, a PRG Colonel, attempting to convince him that he, Thompson, is not a CIA operative. His evidence is that he knows Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.
The “proper” sphere of writing has been widened, that is the excitement. His “Whooping It Up with the War Junkies” is a brilliant portrayal of the mentality of addicted adventurism that plagues war correspondents, but it is also a theory of what is acceptable to write about. In the essay, Newsweek’s Nick Profit says, “You find yourself standing around out in the open when you should be groveling on your fucking face someplace, simply because if you hit the ground too early and try to burrow too deep, the story goes about how you freaked out.” Thompson’s reply: “I’d rather be down in some ditch like a fool and be alive.”
Before his suicide I had been dwelling on a piece Thompson wrote about the April, 1983, bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. (63 died, presaging the 241 soldiers killed later that year.) It has always been surprising to me that, in the rush to find historical parallels for the attacks of September 11, Lebanon didn’t come up more often. After all, it was in Beirut, not New York, that America first encountered mass killing at the hands of radical Islam. It fits the historical pattern of terrorism that techniques first applied to soldiers are later used on civilians. September 11 was unthinkable; but so was Beirut, as Thompson’s essay makes clear. In retrospect, it is worth remembering exactly how unthinkable it really was.
“I have a whole legal pad full of my notes on the news of yesterday’s astonishing and unprecedented assault on the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon,” says Thompson in his “Last Memo From the National Affairs Desk” (1985, collected in Songs of the Doomed). It’s “total destruction… and nobody to blame for it except some mysterious gang of presumably Arab fanatics called the ‘Moslem Holy War.’”
Jihad International, 1980s style. Thompson, for all his poses and well-documented outrages, has the clear human duty in mind to be shocked, truly and viscerally stunned by the news, like a good patriot muttering the Bill of Rights under his breath. His notes are reminiscent of the reaction of many intellectuals to September 11: “Nobody blows up a U.S. Embassy. It is one of those things that is simply not done.”
The essence of Thompson’s art is revealed in his insistence on relating the event immediately to a memory of watching television with Richard Nixon:
I remember watching TV film of the ’68 Tet assault on the American Embassy in Saigon with Richard Nixon in a room at the Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire. It appeared on the evening news, with no warning, while we were having a drink and talking about something else—and Nixon went half mad with rage at the very idea of such a thing, much less the televised reality of a few dozen gooks in black pajamas actually firing weapons into the U.S. Embassy compound.… A thing like that had not happened since the time of the first Roosevelt.
The connection between Lebanon and Vietnam, for Thompson, lies in the notion of displaced revenge and military defeat. America eventually pulled out of Saigon and Beirut—we retreated—but we bombed the hell out of Cambodia and invaded Grenada, respectively, as an indirect result. The rain of destruction was not visited directly upon the attackers because they were nowhere to be found.
“It was unthinkable, to Nixon, no matter what he said later in his memoirs, that anybody would physically attack a U.S. Embassy. I remember that moment very clearly, and in truth I was almost as shocked as he was.”
Nixon’s focus, as rendered by Thompson, became single-minded:
America could not, should not, and in fact would not tolerate an insult of that magnitude. It raised serious questions about our status as Number One, and what followed was two years of the most savage and relentless bombing of any nation in the history of warfare. Laos and Cambodia were bombed back into the Stone Age—as recently defeated presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had been mocked and brutally beaten for even suggesting four years earlier—just for being in the same neighborhood with people who would dare to attack the Embassy of the number-one nation in the world, and at least half of those 55,000 white crosses from Maine to California were a direct consequence of that insult, etc.
A devastating “etc.” Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, in the Middle East, as a result of catastrophic terrorism, followed by political hysteria. The purpose of terrorism is to castrate a leader and provoke an irrational military response that will fuel and deepen a conflict on turf that the terrorist believes is unwinnable for a foreign army. The point is to drag the enemy down into a whirlpool of guerilla warfare and unstomachable numbers of body bags returning from distant lands. That is why al Qaeda considers Iraq a boon.
Thompson suggests a Nixonian mindset rather similar to that implied by Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks on the campaign trail in 2004. This was “an outrage so awful and massive… as to snap the mind of Richard Nixon just as surely as if Pittsburgh had been suddenly blown up like Hiroshima by a nuclear warhead fired from some unknown base for unknown reasons by some queer Muslim sect that nobody had ever heard of.” Thompson’s psychology of Nixon provides a better indicator of Cheney’s current state of mind than the usual conspiracy theories. The country has become unhinged, and Thompson’s advice would be, as usual: Get a grip.
Thompson puts it a little more vividly after channel-surfing to confirm that the event actually happened: “Ye fucking gods, the bastards have done it now. Whoever put that bomb in the Embassy made sure that the U.S. can’t get out of the Middle East, peacefully or any other way.”
And so Thompson stretches beyond his ability to speak in order to capture “the sheer magnitude and craziness.” In the final analysis, to put it simply: “It is off the board, a whole new set of rules.” As Dr. Thompson would say: Indeed. As the memory of the U.S. elections of 2004 recedes, it is worth remembering that in 1968 it was the timing of the Tet offensive, and Nixon’s furious reaction to the Embassy footage, according to Thompson, that allowed Nixon to take control. “The incident,” Thompson says, “a mere firecracker compared to what happened yesterday in Lebanon, blew George Romney out of the race for the GOP nomination almost overnight and confused Nelson Rockefeller’s long-awaited challenge so totally that Nixon was able to walk away with New Hampshire and ultimately the White House.” It was a reincarnation of the political spirit of Andrew Jackson—the fearsome lashing out of a giant that feels fully justified in its overwhelming reaction to a defeat. What Thompson saw in Nixon was something that matched the national mood, that fear and loathing in American life which now goes by the name of Terror.