We Can't Stop Here - This Is Trump Country

by Arthur B

US presidential politics had plenty of fear and loathing involved before this electoral cycle.
The US presidential election cycle is a guilty pleasure of mine. Some people have the Olympics: I have this. Every four years or so the siren call of primary bluster, dirty tricks, shameless attacks and risible debates calls me back. I put Politico back on my RSS feed; I start frequenting corners of the Internet I can't be bothered with under other circumstances to get that sweet politics gossip going. It's kind of like having a sexual fetish which, whilst entirely legal and harmless when practiced between consenting adults, is still not really socially acceptable to air in public, and which your enthusiasm for comes in fits and starts. When it's dormant, all's well, but when it wakes up your habits change, your daily routine shifts, and the craving is unquenchable.

Hunter S. Thompson summed this craving up when he described himself as a politics junkie. Politics would be a regular feature of his writing, and he would comment on enough presidential elections with enough enthusiastic venom that people have said it's a shame he didn't live to see this current appalling horror show of a race. Then again, Thompson already gave us his definitive take on a presidential race some 44 years ago in the form of the articles compiled in Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72, next to which his subsequent coverage of presidential campaigns was somewhat more modest in scale.

Part of that may be down to the gruelling process of spending over a year on the road, following candidates from campaign stop to campaign stop and trying to make sense of the twists and turns and slimy tricks that become part of any election cycle - particularly when you are as erratic a figure as Thompson (or at least, as Thompson portrayed himself to be) and are covering the election for Rolling Stone, which hadn't been accepted as a mainstream journalistic organ at that point in time and consequently couldn't count on the same level of access as the conventional faces in the Washington press pack. It's even more difficult when it's 1972 and the Internet consists of ARPAnet and the NPL network and computer terminals are not remotely portable; Thompson reports struggling to meet deadlines even with the aid of what he called the "Mojo Wire" - actually a primitive fax machine, and some chapters are reduced to verbatim transcriptions of tapes and notes as a result.

Exactly to what extent Thompson was going to pieces and flubbing his deadlines was hard to judge. I suspect at least some of these moments are aesthetic decisions on his part rather than being strictly necessary. After Hell's Angels made his name, there's a certain extent to which Thompson's work became increasingly preoccupied with the myth of Thompson himself and promoting his image as this zany cartoon character, like the laws of causality, homage, and inspiration got reversed and Thompson started cosplaying Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan. There's points where Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas risks descending into becoming nothing more than an obnoxious boast, although it is just about saved by Thompson's knack for capturing a caricature of the place and the people he encounters there.

On the Campaign Trail '72 is not immune to this; Thompson's references to his run for Sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket is regularly mentioned, as are other boasts and tall tales. But luckily, Thompson has a rich banquet of factual events and new information to draw on during each month of the process, and he doesn't resort to self-aggrandisement and self-mythologising nearly as often here as he does elsewhere. It helps that two of his favourite people to hate were involved in the election; Nixon was the defending incumbent, whilst Hubert Humphrey, the previous Democratic candidate, had never been forgiven by Thompson for the horrifying police brutality unleashed at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago by Humphrey's ally Mayor Daley and was running again this year. (Plus no less a snake than George Wallace was running for the Democratic nomination, but an assassination attempt cut that short.)

What helps even more, though, is that somewhere in the process Thompson finds a candidate he can actually feel happy and enthusiastic about - George McGovern, whose enthusiasm for the new politics and plan to win over the wave of young voters energised by the politics of the late 1960s made his campaign, at least in the early stages, a bit more open to having Thompson tagging along than many of the others. McGovern's campaign would end in total disaster, and Thompson is there to see it all happen - the furious energy of the primary process, the careful management of the delegates at the national convention (where a sleazy bid by sore loser Humphrey to deny McGovern his California delegates was defeated, saving the party the nightmare of a brokered convention), the shift in the campaign from a young, fresh-faced grassroots movement to the disaster surrounding the selection of Tom Eagleton as a vice-presidential candidate, only for him to be dropped within a month due to the revelation that he had been hospitalised and undergone electroshock therapy for depression several times.

As Thompson explains it, McGovern managed to handle the affair in a way that pleased nobody. Those who are narrow-minded on the subject of mental health were turned off by the fact that Eagleton got as close as he did to the post of vice president in the first place. Those who had more empathy than that were unhappy that McGovern had dropped Eagleton - though it isn't necessarily as simple as Eagleton being a flat-out victim and McGovern being harsh on him. Eagleton had deliberately concealed his issues from McGovern (not a great idea when someone asks you the "what skeletons in your closet should we worry about as far as the election goes?" question) to the point where, according to one account relayed by Thompson, he lied and claimed that the medication he was carrying was for his wife, not him.

On top of that, McGovern staffers told Thompson that Eagleton had promised to give them a copy of his medical record so they could see exactly what he was treated for, but then didn't follow through and couldn't give an explanation of why he didn't. "My medical records are private" is a supportable position; "I'm going to give you my medical records so that we can work out a way to deal with this issue which has already gone into the public domain… wait, forget that, no I'm not" at best creates the impression that Eagleton was not a team player, at worst makes it look like there was something even more damaging on the records that Eagleton didn't want to disclose. Thompson was, by the end of the campaign, convinced (as were members of the McGovern campaign) that Eagleton had issues much more profound than a past bout with depression - issues which the nation would never accept in someone that close to the presidency, if the McGovern/Eagleton ticket had won - and that the McGovern campaign was in the nasty position of having to drop Eagleton but not being able to substantiate any reason for doing so beyond the depression.

As it turns out, the "not a team player" theory may well have been the correct explanation in the end. Earlier in the campaign, during the primary process, long before the national convention and a long conga line of Democratic grandees refused the vice-president slot on the ticket before Eagleton agreed to it, an anonymous Democratic senator was quoted in the press as saying "The people don't know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot. Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he's dead." Branding McGovern as the "amnesty, abortion, and acid" was extremely damaging to the campaign, particularly in the general election; Thompson notes that McGovern had somehow picked up this reputation as being an unhinged radical that had very little basis in reality. As it turned out, the source of the quote as none other than… Tom Eagleton.

So there's a case to be made that even if Eagleton had stayed on the ticket - even, in the best of all possible worlds, in a situation where his past difficulties had never become public knowledge - McGovern may well have still lost the election because of a smear that Eagleton was instrumental in getting rolling. And you have to wonder about the loyalty, integrity, and honesty of someone who'll reel out a comment like that for a known conservative journalist (Robert Novak), knowing how it'll be used, and who then turns around and accepts a job from the very person they smeared just a few months ago.

The real damage, as Thompson sees it, in the Eagleton affair lay not in the fact that it happened at all, or that Eagleton was dropped, but in the way McGovern handled it. First he dithered. Then he said he backed Eagleton "1000%". Then he dithered some more. Then he asked Eagleton to step down from the race and Eagleton did. As a result, McGovern had not only managed to look indecisive, but in the course of doing so he wavered between two mutually exclusive positions guaranteed to alienate two mutually exclusive portions of the electorate. Those who wanted Eagleton kept had seen the Senator raise their hopes only to dash them. Those who wanted Eagleton dropped didn't forget that McGovern was behind Eagleton 1000% before that changed to 0%. And it all made McGovern look incredibly indecisive to boot.

Thompson's account of the construction and unravelling of McGovern's campaign in the face of the Eagleton scandal, McGovern's image problems, and the stubborn refusal of some Democratic grandees to play along with the candidate (to the extent of even supporting Nixon in some cases) is valuable in part because it was written long before it became apparent that Watergate would become as big a deal as it was. Thompson mentions it in referring to the Washington Post's coverage, and offers up a memorable metaphor of Nixon turning into a wolf-man and loping into the night in the direction of the Watergate Hotel, but it was at this point a sideshow.

Of course, as events unfolded Watergate would end up smothering Nixon's second term, and overshadow his reputation to such an extent that it can be hard to see how it must have felt at a time when it seemed like the Democratic Party was determined to rip itself to shreds and Nixon would stay in the White House until 1976. This lightens what is otherwise a rather downbeat ending to the book, but the fact that Thompson's worst fears expressed here did not come to pass does not render it irrelevant.

In particular, in the light of the current election it's worth noting how it's tricky for an Anybody But That Guy movement to co-ordinate itself at a brokered (or potentially-brokered) convention; That Guy only has one campaign to co-ordinate, but an Anyone But That Guy movement typically has to co-ordinate a bunch of competing factions who are only working together because they dislike That Guy more than they dislike each other. The #NeverTrump movement among Republicans would do well to take note. And Trump himself had best observe how much damage an established party machinery can do if it decides it isn't going to support the current candidate. Significant chunks of major parties deciding to give the White House to the other side in the hope of riding a wave of backlash to power four years later has happened before and can happen again.

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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 00:53 on 2016-04-08
It may be tough to get in the UK, but a good book to read alongside Thompson is Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus. Crouse was Thompson's sidekick (and some of his writing is in Fear and Loathing) but after the campaign he wrote Boys on the Bus about the campaign press in 1972. It's a world that's pretty much gone (as can be seen from the easy gendering of the title) but Crouse has a good eye for the telling anecdote.
Ichneumon at 09:06 on 2016-04-10
Being someone who actually lives in the United States, the idea of Trump and Cruz not learning from history and ripping each other to pieces while Clinton or, better yet, Sanders simply steps over their writhing bodies is a very heartening one.

Also, Novak was complicit in the outing of Valerie Plame, you may recall. It seems that the facilitation of backstabbing was a good part of his modus operandi for a very long time.
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