On Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail:
It is August 1972 and Hunter S. Thompson wants to go for a swim. After eight months of covering the presidential campaign, crisscrossing the country, and faced with the prospect of young Nixon supporters greeting the President in Miami, Thompson needs to “get away from politics.”
Politics, however, this afternoon, is not done with him.
But as I drove toward Key Biscayne with the top down, squinting into the sun, I saw the Vets…They were moving up Collins Avenue in dead silence; twelve hundred of them dressed in battle fatigues, helmets, combat boots…a few carried full-sized plastic M-16s, many peace symbols, girlfriends walking beside vets being pushed along the street in slow-moving wheelchairs, others walking jerkily on crutches…But nobody spoke; all the “stop, start,” “fast, slow,” “left, right” commands came from “platoon leaders” walking slightly off to the side of the main column and using hand signals.
One look at that eerie procession killed my plan to go swimming that afternoon. I left my car at a parking meter in front of the Cadillac Hotel and joined the march…No, “joined” is the wrong word; that was not the kind of procession you just walked up and “joined.” Not without paying some very heavy dues: an arm gone here, a leg there, paralysis, a face full of lumpy scar tissue…all staring straight ahead as the long silent column moved between rows of hotel porches full of tight-lipped Senior Citizens, through the heart of Miami Beach.
The silence of the march was contagious, almost threatening. There were hundreds of spectators, but nobody said a word. I walked beside the column for ten blocks, and the only sounds I remember hearing were the soft thump of boot leather on hot asphalt and the occasional rattling of an open canteen top.
Look at these ellipses. We get five sets. Thompson, rarely at a loss for words, pauses. Five times. Why?
In her book, Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission, Anne Toner marvels at the genius of these dots to express hesitation and interruption, half-thoughts, and the fragmented nature of experience.
Flipping back through Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail…the ellipses…they’re everywhere.
Why do they stand out here?
- I saw the Vets…
Jack Thompson, Hunter’s father, served in the First World War. He died when Hunter was fourteen. His absence loomed large. As a senior in high school, Hunter was arrested with two friends from The Athenaeum–a literary club mostly of Louisville’s elite. One of the friends had robbed a local citizen.
The two rich boys with fathers were released. Hunter’s options? Jail or the military.
He was a boy, from a certain class, swept up and bussed off. Ten years later, similar buses jammed with similar boys rolled out to basic training camps across America.
In 1967, another Louisville native was given the same choice.
They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?
The bus for Louisiana and Fort Polk traveled south without Muhammad Ali.
For Hunter, the war in Vietnam was the crucial moral test.
In that first ellipse, Thompson catches not only his breath, but himself.
- …a few carried full-sized plastic M-16s
This is the second time in the book that Thompson looks to swim. A month earlier, in the most dramatic scene in the book, Thompson swims in a rain-thrashed, pre-dawn surf, and is swept to sea.
What sent him into such waters?
Thompson watched The Zapruder film for the first time in a Miami hotel room.
This is dangerous ground for Thompson. Already, the specter of Bobby Kennedy’s death haunts the book. Thompson admits to “a very powerful sense of loss and depression” each time he hears Bobby’s voice with the accompanying memories of ‘68 and Chicago and the hope the war would be over by Christmas. Thompson said that for two weeks after Chicago he could not speak of it without crying.
The film also presents Thompson with a new vision of that day in Dallas.
On November 22, 1963, at his cabin home in Colorado, Thompson wrote two letters. To his friend Paul Semonin and reporter William Kennedy. A local rancher gave him the news.
He writes: “I started to cry but figured that was not called for, so cursed instead.”
And: “The killing has put me in a state of shock. The rage is trebled.”
And: “I was not prepared at this time for the death of hope.”
Of the Zapruder film, Thompson writes…the sight of Jack Kennedy’s head exploding in a cloud of bloody-pink bone splinters was such a vicious bummer for me.
He goes back to his room and drinks. At dawn, he heads to the beach to swim. He’s in over his head.
Lashed by waves, the churning dark water pulls him out to sea.
Frank Mankiewicz, the director of McGovern’s campaign, who had once been Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary, and long before that fought in the Battle of the Bulge, said that Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail was the least factual and most accurate account of the campaign.
Did Thompson, shaken by the Zapruder film, nearly drown in this violent baptism of the Miami tide?
Our need to answer that question likely suggests how we read Hunter S. Thompson.
But the twin murders of the Kennedy brothers are linked to the war that waged and continued to wage unabated in Vietnam. As John F. Kennedy articulated in his speech at American University in the summer before he was shot, it was time for America to rethink our arms race with the Soviets and our basic position in the world. And as Bobby Kennedy articulated in speech after speech in the spring and summer of ’68, the time to end the war in Vietnam was now. Yet the war raged on.
The ellipse: to mark a failure in the adequacy of words.
In his 11/23/63 letter to Kennedy, Thompson states for the first time his animating vision to come:
“There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything–much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today’s murder.”
III. …But nobody spoke
The silence and moral clarity and coordination of the protest, complete with hand signals and discipline, impress Thompson greatly. So too the heroics of Ron Kovic. The vets had come to Miami on a clear mission and had the moral high ground.
This was not a happening.
Other anti-war protests earned Thompson’s scorn. He describes them as “useless mobs of chicken-shit-ego-junkies” who were “hopelessly disorganized” with “no real purpose” and “half of them so wasted” they didn’t know if they were in Miami or San Diego.
Earlier in the book, Thompson meets a 22-year-old journalism graduate from Boston University. She is on her way to search for a sometimes boyfriend who is living in a chicken coop in New England and strung out on mescaline. She isn’t sure about him. She isn’t sure about the issues of the day. She isn’t sure of where she has been or where she is going.
Thompson writes, we have created “a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything.”
Not all protests are not created equal.
IV. …No, “joined” is the wrong word
The passage joins the opening lines of A Farewell to Arms (1929) in capturing the shaded proximal distances between war and peace. The troops in Hemingway march, but we see only dust rise to the treetops. The road bare. The heavy leaves fall early. In the mountains, artillery lights the night sky.
We can replace the falling leaves with soldiers. Hemingway provides war, but not horror. Thompson gives horror, but no war. The storm has already hit. See the phantom limbs. The faces.
(During an internship with Time in New York in 1958, after the military, Thompson holed up in his apartment and typed The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms in their entirety, word for word.)
The passage joins the long paragraph in Tim O’Brien’s short story “On the Rainy River” (90). There we see another parade, a hallucinatory pep rally. The hero is a draftee who must decide between two shores: Canada or Vietnam? A frenzied cast on either shore calls. Jane Fonda. The Joint Chiefs. Burned villagers. A marching band.
The war on the Rainy River is internal. More wars, on separate fronts, remain. I survived, but it’s not a happy ending, O’Brien writes. I was a coward. I went to the war.
If we followed the vets in Miami on Collins Avenue and walked with them and kept going through Watergate, disco, Jaws, the election of Ronald Reagan…we’d find them at the Vietnam War Memorial.
There they could join the crowd of vets and civilians in Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” (93). The kinetic stillness of the poem balances a vet’s reaction to the names on the wall with the community around him. They come together here. Silence, memory, and loss unite in the black marble where the past is vividly present. The silence gathers and pools and spreads out.
The ellipse: a moment of silence. An interruptive space to allow the past and future to find now.
V. …all staring straight ahead
Hunter S. Thompson is an easy figure to misread.
In the introduction to the 40th anniversary of this book, Matt Taibbi notes that it is not the drugs or profanity that marks Thompson’s legacy, but the fact, “…Thompson never lost his sense of appropriate outrage, never fell into the trap of accepting that moral compromise was somehow a sign of growth and adulthood.”
The murder of a President in the broad daylight of Dallas drove Thompson to fear and loathing. The murder of his brother and his political vision rendered Thompson unable to speak for weeks without tears. The war in Vietnam, the wider war in Cambodia and Laos, the war without end, was enough to drive a man to swim.
All of that and more is present in these pages.
Thompson once said of his Fear and Loathing books that all of fifteen words might not belong.
Let’s cut “I remember hearing” in the last sentence. That’s three. Just twelve to go.
Thompson uses the ellipse across his many books to express a register of moods and minds. They strike here, but by the third paragraph, they’re gone.
The oldest son of Jack and Virginia Thompson is ten blocks deep with the column. Present and accounted for, he sees the stakes in the late summer of 1972.
The storm in southeast Asia still rages.
Amidst the opulence and tropical splendor, the vets are marching.
The silence, almost threatening, is contagious.