On Election Day in 2004, Hunter S. Thompson put down his tumbler of Wild Turkey and put forth a proclamation. Writing in his weekly espn.com sports column, “Hey Rube,” he laid out a high-stakes bet: “Kerry will win big today. I guarantee it. The evil Bush family of central Texas is about to suffer another humiliating failure on another disastrous election day.”
By nightfall in Woody Creek, Colorado, he’d be proven wrong. And, by the following February, just 110 days later, he’d be dead.
There you have it. On top of everything else they’ve blighted over their awful eight-year reign, the Bushies did this: they killed Hunter S. Thompson.
Yes, of course, he killed himself. (In fact, he’d talked about suicide his whole life. In 1977, in the introduction to The Great Shark Hunt, he fantasized about defenestrating himself, musing that he’d already lived “13 years longer” than he’d planned. By the time he perched himself on a stool above his IBM Selectric and put a .45 pistol in his mouth, he was all but paralyzed. Paralyzed physically by increasing decrepitude — hip replacement, back surgery, broken leg — and paralyzed professionally by the Gonzo caricature he’d created. It was time to go.)
But, say some who knew him, darkness finally fell when America ignored that last fleeting chance for a course correction in 2004, willfully re-electing that “treacherous little freak.”
“I did start to worry about him right after the Bush election,” says his second wife, Anita, in producer-director Alex Gibney’s excellent new documentary film, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. “That, I think, was a trigger.”
“I think it broke his heart,” says William McKeen, author of the new biography Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (W.W. Norton), by phone from Florida. “[Thompson’s literary executor, Douglas] Brinkley said he stopped even joking. He just went into a really dark, foul mood. A couple of other friends blamed the suicide on the political climate. Hunter couldn’t live in that country anymore.”
And so we find ourselves, one week after what would have been the good doctor’s 71st birthday (July 18), muddling through the first post–Hunter S. Thompson presidential election. We find ourselves missing his political voice — and wishing he was around to see the Crawford crowd finally slink away.
In Gonzo, Thompson’s first wife, Sandy, rues his suicide. It was not a “courageous act,” as some called it, she says. It was cowardly. And it robbed America of an inimitable voice at a crucial moment. “This is a time when a together Hunter Thompson could make a difference in this country.”
Could he? Thompson was deeply invested in the idea of the American dream. (Even if he never did quite figure out what it was.) He was an idealist who learned the hard way how to be a cynic. And he could write, right until the end. But his best work, arguably, was behind him. His celebrity and outré personality had long since prevented him from reporting the way he did in works such as his stone classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Most of his latter writing issued forth from the kitchen of his Colorado compound — “Rants, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop” as the subtitle of The Mutineer, the third and final collection of his letters (due out next year) puts it.
What would the “Sage of Woody Creek” make of this year’s election? Would his words have resonance in this blog-besotted age? What, ultimately, is Thompson’s legacy? Who, if anyone, could take up his mantle? And what could a hypothetical young and hungry Hunter S. Thompson achieve in this corporatized, consolidated-media climate, anyway? Contemplating these questions, all McKeen can say is, “It’s very difficult to get through an election year without him.”
On November 22, 1963, a 26-year-old Thompson pounded out a letter to his friend William J. Kennedy (no relation to the president). That day’s events had struck him dumb. “I have become like a psychotic sphinx — I want to kill because I can’t talk.”
But he could write. “Fiction is dead,” he declared. “The only hope now is to swing hard with the right hand, while hanging onto sanity with the left. Politics will become a cockfight, and reason will go by the boards.”
For the next four decades, Thompson wrote about politicians with words and wit the world had seldom seen.
• In 1964, he wrote to the new president to ask for a job: “Dear Lyndon, It is with great pleasure and a sense of impending achievement that I make myself available at this time for the governorship of American Samoa.”
• He described Hubert Humphrey, who stepped into the void left by Johnson in ’68, as “a rat in heat . . . [a] shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack” who “should be castrated.”
• Nixon, Thompson’s career-long bête noire, was “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream . . . a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”