Hunter S Thompson: More fear and loathing on the campaign trail
He's covered US politics for decades and knows both the President and the man who could take his place. And, for Hunter S Thompson, this week's election boils down to a simple choice - between a 'pathetic fascist stooge' and a 'smart and brave, decent man'
Sunday 31 October 2004
The first time I noticed George W Bush," Hunter Thompson tells me, "was when he passed out in my bathtub at the Hyatt Regency in Houston. He was with a guy who had come to sell..." Thompson, sitting at his desk in a faded-green dressing-gown, stares down at a plate of untouched food: Danish pastries which were warm half an hour ago, smothered in red jam and melted ice-cream.
"Look, I'm not going to put this next sentence on the record. Let's just say that 'a friend of mine' was buying cocaine. I have friends in Houston from all walks of life. Lawyers. Professional men. Bush was hanging around with this crowd of what you might call gilded coke dilettantes."
I've driven up to Owl Farm, the writer's ranch at Woody Creek, just outside Aspen, Colorado, with the artist Ralph Steadman, his long-standing friend and collaborator. It's 2pm - four hours before Dr Thompson usually rises - but we've woken him early, and laid out before him are his usual requirements for breakfast: orange juice, coffee, smouldering hash pipe, Dunhill cigarettes, a half-pint tumbler of Chivas Regal on ice, and a small black bowl filled with what - given certain lively exchanges I had with Thompson after the last time I wrote about him - I can only describe as a substance that some might assume to be cocaine.
"I remember Bush as a kind of a butt-boy for the smart people. This was in the late 1970s, when he was in his drunken-fool period. He couldn't handle liquor. He knew who I was, at that time, because I had a reputation as a writer. I knew he was part of the Bush dynasty. But he was nothing, he offered nothing, and he promised nothing. He had no humour. He was insignificant in every way and consequently I didn't pay much attention to him. But when he passed out in my bathtub," Thompson adds, "then I noticed him. I'd been in another room, talking to the bright people. I had to have him taken away."
Thompson, 67, who is a friend of Benicio Del Toro, Bob Dylan and Johnny Depp, and the only one of that illustrious quartet who openly uses a spittoon, clears his throat and expectorates into the receptacle below his desk. His chair is surrounded by work spaces on three sides, like a mission-control centre. Across the living-room, the huge television set, which is never turned off, is showing highlights of a football game from Seattle. Stuck to the screen is a yellowed piece of paper that reads: "No music + Bad TV = Bad Mood + No Pages."
"I have a friend who was with George W Bush at Yale," Thompson recalls. "Bush branded him with a red-hot coat hanger."
"Some fraternity thing. He still has the scar. (The victim, a respected television journalist, later confirms this story. "I couldn't swear that George did the branding himself," he tells me, "because he'd made me put a pillowcase over my head for eight hours beforehand. But he was the one in charge of the ceremony. I was on the front page of Yale News.")
"It is just incredible to me," Thompson goes on, taking a slug of Glenfiddich straight from the bottle, "that Bush ever got into Yale. Well, actually, it isn't. Some are enrolled at birth, practically. He was one. There will be others. He is an average farm hand."
"Which may be why so many Americans feel they can relate to him..."
"All this was 30 years ago. What's your opinion of Bush today?"
Thompson gets to his feet unsteadily and reaches towards a bookshelf. He catches a shot glass with his elbow and it smashes on the floor.
He is examining not, as I'd expected, the political section of his vast library, but the shelves devoted to legal studies. He retrieves a large volume entitled Black's Law Dictionary, opens it, and begins to read.
"'Imbecility: a more or less advanced feebleness of the intellectual faculties' - Are you with me so far? 'That weakness of mind which, without depriving the person entirely of his reason, leaves only the faculty of conceiving the most common and ordinary ideas. It varies in degree from merely excessive folly to an almost total vacuity of mind.' That's our boy."
The sub-headings under "Insanity" in Black's, Thompson explains, "define the legal, not the medical, condition of madness. I chose Imbecility just now but there is also... let's see now... 'Derangement: manifested by delusions, incapacity to reason, or by uncontrollable impulses...' Shit, yes. 'In law, such a want of intelligence as prevents a man from comprehending the nature and consequences of his acts.'"
"Ronald Reagan..." Steadman ventures.
"Well," Thompson says, "he was out of his mind. He had mentally departed even before his second term, when he was wandering around, clapping himself. Although I always had a soft spot for him, because he started as a sportswriter and his wife gave the best head in Hollywood."
Thompson returns to his dictionary.
"Dipsomania... Pyromania... George knows all about those... Mania Fanatica: 'a form of insanity characterised by a morbid state of religious feeling...' Need I go on?"
Some would argue that Dr Thompson himself is a case study in at least one of the above conditions. His title is a self-awarded doctorate in Gonzo journalism, the term he invented to describe his drug-fuelled, often sublime pieces in which abuse and profanity are as common as love and redemption in the Gospel of St John. In what remains his best-known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, first published in Rolling Stone 33 years ago, brilliantly enlivened by Steadman's illustrations, the writer took the Wodehousian bachelor's blithe and adventurous attitude to alcohol and extended it to LSD and munitions.
Hunter S Thompson is not regarded as one of world journalism's easier subjects.
"Interviewing Hunter," Loren Jenkins [Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon, currently based in Baghdad] told me, "was the most excruciating experience of my life."
It's a combination of things, really: the ubiquitous firearms and narcotics; his nocturnal regime and sudden mood swings. I first encountered him in the early 1990s when I was working for another newspaper which had decided to send him to join the Royal press corps for the Highland Games. I met Thompson at Gatwick, at 6am. He lit his hash pipe while we were still in sight of the customs hall and insisted on being driven to Smithfield Market for whisky. When we reached his hotel, he barricaded himself in his suite for 36 hours, then fled back to Aspen in the middle of the night. His subsequent faxes referred to me as an "evil treacherous dingbat" and a "weird limey freak".
"In a strange way," says Ralph Steadman, "insults are Hunter's way of articulating affection."
Going up the driveway to his ranch - before you see the wandering peacocks and the Cadillac convertible commemorated in his writing as the Red Shark - you pass incrementally threatening signs such as "Keep Out" and "Danger Zone", culminating in: "Guns in Constant Use".
Last time I was here with Steadman, in 1996, Thompson was on trial for drink-driving and, at one point, told the judge that his arresting officer had been "lurking under a bridge, like a troll". He now takes the powder from his black bowl orally; a strategy forced on him, some believe, by damage to his nasal septum. Over the years he has been acquitted on charges including possession of drugs and explosives. In July 2000, he shot his then assistant Deborah Fuller and told reporters she'd been wounded because he had "mistaken her for a bear". He was not prosecuted. Thompson tosses me the empty shotgun cartridge, which he's signed and dated.
"I've always believed," he says, "that anybody with a lifestyle as flagrant as mine should have a spotless criminal record, if only for reasons of karma."
While few would claim that Thompson represents US journalism's Voice of Record, his vigorous social life has somehow not diminished his prominence as a political commentator. If anything, the persistence and ferocity of his self-destructive impulses have bestowed on him an almost fictional status, and a special licence to berate Washington's élite. The regular work he puts out, a column for sports channel ESPN - though undeniably madder and less predictable even than his early writing - still has its brilliance. Thompson at his best remains one of the greatest voices of satire in the language.
Hunter S Thompson was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. His family envisaged a future involving Harvard or Yale but his aberrant behaviour became uncontrollable following the sudden death of his father when Hunter was 14. Harshly jailed at 18 for his part in a robbery, he took a writing course in prison, where the notions of literary fame and revenge on decent society seem to have fused in his mind. He worked as a sportswriter until his taste for drink and drugs drew him permanently into the bizarre parallel universe his work now inhabits. He filed his first election report in 1964, and retains excellent political connections both locally - Bob Braudis, the highly popular Sheriff of Aspen, is one of his best friends - and nationally.
When John Kerry came to Aspen in June, he appointed Thompson his designated host, gave him pride of place in his motorcade, and bought three copies of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson's outstanding account of Nixon's re-election (viciously illustrated by Steadman). Kerry then made a speech in which he declared that he was considering making Hunter S Thompson his Vice President.
Should Thompson ever accept this offer, punctuality may be a problem. On this trip, I've been staying two miles up the road with Steadman, and this is our fourth attempt at seeing him. The first time we came down, two days ago, we arrived just as Anita Bejmuk, an engaging and remarkably well-balanced woman who married Thompson in April 2003, was climbing into her car. Anita (31) told us Thompson was asleep, and set off to spend a week at her mother's, because her husband's recent behaviour had been especially appalling.
This afternoon, when we arrived for the latest appointment he'd given us, Tracey, the housekeeper, told us Thompson was in bed, at which a muffled roar came from the bedroom. A few minutes later Thompson emerged, with an awkward, loping gait. He underwent spinal surgery last year, after which he spent weeks in a wheelchair. By December 2003, having just regained the use of his legs, he went to Honolulu where he fell in his hotel room, fracturing his left leg.
"It happened around 4am," Thompson recalls. "I needed more ice for my drink. I executed a sharp turn at the mini-bar, and slipped. The break was so savage - everything shattered."
His friend Sean Penn sent a private jet, at a cost of $27,000, to fly him back to Colorado.
The original operation was for stenosis (compressed nerves in the lower back), "one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. I have had to learn to walk again twice," Thompson says, "in a single year."
He still appears frail; at the same time he is more coherent than I have ever seen him. His manner is welcoming and - to use that least Thompsonesque of adjectives - genial. He gives us green tea, and beer.
To my surprise, given the widespread view of Thompson as a busted flush, he constructs a persuasive case against the Iraq War, arguing that the policy of regime change was driven by major US corporations such as Halliburton, which needed a new "legitimate" government to secure oil contracts. He goes on to deliver an incisive critique of the recent 918-page report from the chief arms inspector of the CIA.
Watching the debates between Bush and Kerry, I tell him, I was struck by something lacking in this President that was present in others, namely a mean level of competence. Bush's televised performances reminded me of what Sid Gillman, former coach of the San Diego Chargers, said of one of his players. "He doesn't know the meaning of the word fear," Gillman declared. "Of course there are lots of other words he doesn't know the meaning of either."
Watching Bush face Kerry, Thompson says, "I almost felt sorry for him until I heard somebody call him 'Mr President', and then I felt ashamed. You know what? I find myself talking almost with nostalgia about Nixon," adds Thompson who, as a reporter, established a curiously affable relationship with the late president.
"Was Nixon somebody you could engage with, on any level?"
"On one level - football. Nixon understood football. Politically he was adroit, and a sound analyst. Compared to these Nazis we have in the White House now, Richard Nixon was a liberal. And that's saying something, when I think what I wrote in his obituary."
(His Rolling Stone piece, from June 1994, departed from the benevolent tone favoured by most Nixon obituarists. Under the headline "Notes on the Passing Of An American Monster", Thompson described him as "a liar, a quitter and a bastard; a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal". He was a man, he went on, "who could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honourable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. My friends hate Nixon. My mother hates Nixon. My son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together. Nixon laughed when I told him this. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'I too am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.'")
"I never thought," Thompson says, "that I would ever see a president worse than Richard Nixon. But he is the worst president in American history, this one. Because he is the dumbest. And because he has destroyed, in four years, what it took two centuries to build up. He has taken this country from a prosperous nation at peace to a dead-broke nation at war. We are losing this stupid, fraudulent war in Iraq and every nation in the world despises us, except for a handful of corrupt Brits, like that simpering little whore, Tony Blair."
Thompson gives Steadman a mischievous look.
"Blair is Ralph's boy. Ralph is going to vote for Blair again."
"I can't wait," the artist replies.
The two men's relationship is a curious one. The quietly spoken Welshman contributes generosity, patience and good humour. Thompson responds with theatrical abuse that * sometimes crosses over into real meanness. And yet if, like Steadman, you produce your best work when anguished, Thompson's is a useful number to have in your phone book.
On one of their first assignments together, in 1970 at the America's Cup Race in Newport, Rhode Island, for Scanlan's magazine, Thompson gave his illustrator psilocybin - a hallucinogen similar to LSD - then rowed him out to the American yacht under cover of darkness, demanding that Steadman spray the words "Fuck the Pope" on the hull. When their small boat was spotted, Thompson (who has a reputation for igniting marine flares in situations of no obvious nautical emergency - he once detonated one in a Manhattan pizzeria) sent a distress rocket across the harbour, setting fire to two yachts. When Steadman arrived in the baggage hall at New York's La Guardia airport the next day, he was hallucinating, with no shirt, and barefoot.
("I'd lost my own shoes in the ocean," Thompson wrote. "I told Ralph that it was common for people to wander round New York barefoot. How could he know? He was British. I told him the really fastidious ones wore black socks. Maybe he didn't believe me, but by then I had his shoes on my feet.")
What has sustained their tempestuous 35-year relationship is their deep respect for each other as artists, and a shared love of full-blooded subversion that has found new inspiration in George W Bush.
"I have objected to our politicians for years," Steadman tells Thompson, "and so have you. They keep replacing their troops with fresh blood, and they seek to marginalise us by pretending that we are too old to care. America's true weakness," he adds, "is that it has been found wallowing in a pit of isolationist complacency."
This election is unusual, Steadman argues, in that, whereas the focus of campaigns has traditionally been domestic, the US is now umbilically connected, through Iraq, to the wider world.
"This is the single most important democratic vote of my lifetime," Thompson says. "I have no doubt that John Kerry will win the election. Whether he will become President is another matter."
I ask if he's referring to the well-documented electoral fraud in Florida and elsewhere.
"Absolutely. That will happen again. The last time I spoke to Kerry, I talked to him about that, and I also warned him about..."
Thompson places a Dunhill in his cigarette-holder, and lights it.
"My impression was that Kerry's staff were a little naïve about the possibility of his being assassinated."
"Are you serious?"
"Absolutely. His life is in danger. I believe that. I'm not sure that he does."
"But you've told him."
"I told him about just how mean these fuckers in the White House are. And cheap mean. The Medicis, for instance, were mean as well. But the Medicis were smart."
Thompson says he first encountered the Democratic leader when they were both involved in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement.
"I met John Kerry in a riot on that elegant little street in front of the White House. He was yelling into a bullhorn and I was trying to throw a dead, bleeding rat over a spiked fence on to the White House lawn."
The year was 1971.
"I understood right away that Kerry was on the right side," he explains. "He is decent, he is smart and he is brave. Kerry would be a good person to have next to you in a fight. Can you imagine being in a fight and depending on George W Bush to help you? John Kerry is a hero to me. George Bush is chicken shit."
The phone rings, as it has done every few minutes; Thompson's only response to previous voice messages has been muttered obscenities.
This call is from Laila Nabulsi, producer of Terry Gilliam's 1997 film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Thompson's partner for five years in the early 1980s. The writer has had a number of long-standing relationships with tolerant women, notably his first wife Sandy, the mother of his son Juan, a computer analyst who lives nearby. Nabulsi's message says she's assembling the guest list for a party to launch a proposed film of The Curse of Lono (the book, a surreal fable inspired by the Hawaiian Marathon, which Hunter and Steadman produced in 1984, is about to be republished). Thompson takes her call, on speakerphone.
"We want Jack Nicholson," Laila says, "obviously."
"Yeah," grunts Thompson.
"Well... OK. He's kind of a geeky little bastard but I guess it doesn't matter if I like him."
"I invited Harry Dean," she adds. "And John Cusack. And Lou Reed."
The list goes on: Benicio, Bob [Dylan] and Steve [Buscemi].
"I want some women," Hunter says.
"OK. She's nice."
"Give me a name," he asks me.
I suggest Jordan Zevon, the son of the late songwriter Warren Zevon, who wrote songs such as "Lawyers Guns and Money", and "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead". Zevon, who died of lung cancer last year, was a close friend of Thompson, who wrote the lyrics for one of his last songs, "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared".
"Laila," he says. "Put down Zevon's kids, Jordan and Ariel."
He solicits suggestions from Steadman, but then the artist makes the mistake of proposing a name while Thompson is thinking.
"Aaaaaargh shit, Godamnit Ralph will you shut the fuck up," Thompson screams, in a voice which is genuinely unnerving. He picks up a lock knife and throws it into his wooden desk, where it lodges, vibrating.
There's a pause. Thompson winds up his phone conversation.
Then he turns to Steadman and delivers something I've never seen him attempt before, in person or in print - an apology.
"I'm sorry I shouted, Ralph," he says. "Forgive me. I spoke out of turn."
I wouldn't like to suggest that Thompson has reformed, or lost his knockabout sense of fun: at one point during a Hallowe'en party he threw at his house the night after this interview, I looked up and noticed him sitting quietly behind his desk, while the rest of us were unwinding with his ample collection of hand guns, political masks and grotesque wigs. Thompson had half an eye on the late-night erotic movie, while polishing his ceremonial sword with impregnated cotton wipes from a tin which bore the brand-name: Never Dull.
And yet friends agree that something - his marriage to Anita, perhaps, or the acute physical suffering he's endured over the past year - seems to have humanised him.
In the days I'd spend with Steadman and his wife Anna, waiting to interview Thompson, I speak to many of the writer's friends in Aspen, including Deborah Fuller (who insists that Thompson was indeed firing at a bear when he hit her: "I just came out of the door at the wrong moment") and Sheriff Bob Braudis, a likeable giant of a man, who helped look after the writer following his spinal operation.
"You have to understand that Hunter has hit bottom twice in the past year," Braudis explains. "First the surgery, then the fall in Hawaii."
Dr Thompson was not, the sheriff recalls, a model patient.
"I visited him after the spinal operation, at this clinic in Vail, Colorado. Hunter said: 'Get me out, Bob. I need a drink.' I asked the doctor if this was clinically advisable. She said: 'No. Not usually. But in his case my professional advice is - go.' Hunter's last words to her, as I wheeled him out towards the bar, were: 'Can you get me some trousers like yours?'"
Periodically, during the stand-off which precedes any meeting with Thompson, the writer would give some small sign of encouragement, such as a rambling 5am phone message, making an appointment he would break. One morning a bottle of wine appears on Steadman's kitchen table. Next to it is a volume the artist has asked him to sign, inscribed: "Here's your book, Ralph. Now stick it up your ass."
"You see?" Steadman says. "You can't get more affectionate than that."
Talking to Thompson and Steadman, I sense the two men are aware that this meeting could be their last. There's almost a sentimental tone to their exchanges even though they are, as ever, in disagreement about copyright and money. Steadman is particularly exercised about a number of his paintings which Thompson appears to have acquired without going through some of the usual preliminaries, such as paying for them.
We've talked for over three hours when Thompson suggests "firing up the Shark" and going out for "a beer".
"I am not getting in that car," Steadman says. "Anna has forbidden me to ride in it."
"Why?" Thompson asks.
"Because," Steadman replies, "the last time I got in it, you nearly killed us both."
"Oh..." Thompson replies. "You mean... that truck... Oh, yeah."
"My wife," Steadman adds, "says she'd prefer not to take a dead body back to Maidstone."
Thompson once wrote that, "Me and William Burroughs are the only two left - the last unrepentant dope fiends." Now Burroughs is gone and, in the last couple of years, Thompson has lost other allies including the magisterial writer George Plimpton, and the great Warren Zevon. Does he feel mortality closing in on him?
"Absolutely. But I've always had that feeling, ever since I was 18. The worst thing about those deaths you mention is that I miss those two people. I miss them a great deal."
I tell him that, now and again, I find myself in an idle moment marvelling at the thought that Hunter S Thompson is still alive: has he had that experience?
"Often. I never figured I would live past 30."
"How do you explain it?"
"Well," he says, with a conspiratorial look. "Here is something that nobody knows. Ralph - get that book please. The one in the plastic bag."
Steadman fetches the package from the shelves, and unwraps The Reluctant Surgeon, a Biography of Nigel John Hunter: "medical genius and great enquirer of Dr Johnson's England".
"Read that, Ralph," he says, pointing to the inside flap.
"A gruff Scotsman," Steadman begins, "Hunter has been described as the most important naturalist between Aristotle and Darwin, the Shakespeare of medicine and the greatest man the British ever produced. He was the first to trace the lymphatic system. He performed the first human artificial insemination. He was the greatest collector of anatomical specimens in history. He prescribed the orthopaedic shoe that allowed Lord Byron to walk."
Carefully inscribed on the title page, in Thompson's writing, are the words: "My mother, Lucille Hunter Ray, was a descendant of John Hunter. Mrs Thompson has visited John Hunter's grave in Westminster Abbey."
"What are you saying, exactly?
"Well, I guess that might be the secret of my survival," Thompson replies. "Good genes."
Thompson is probably not a man John Kerry would like to have at his side on a daily basis. A few days after this interview, he arrived for a book-signing in Los Angeles on the shoulder of Benicio Del Toro - stumbling, incapable and screaming abuse about George W Bush.
And yet, when people read about this presidential campaign, decades from now, it will be Thompson's crazed polemic, which at times approaches Restoration satire in its brutal vulgarity, that will be remembered, ahead of the orthodox accounts of a Tom Brokaw or an Andrew Marr.
What immediate message would the Doctor deliver, if he could address the US electorate?
"I would tell them that, if George W Bush wins again, the United States faces utter disaster. That the question facing voters is no longer whether or not George W Bush is a pathetic fascist stooge. The question is whether - Bush having already demonstrated himself to be a fascist stooge - the American people like it that way, and see that as their future.
"If this president is re-elected," he adds, "we are facing the total death of the American Dream as I know it, and I have spent a lot of time knowing it. I would tell them that if this gang of criminals get in once more, we will be in the position of a family who have sent the Hell's Angels written invitations to their Thanksgiving party.
"Such a decision represents a serious error of judgment." Thompson laughs, good-naturedly. "Because certain people never leave. Consequently I would urge them..." He pauses, his voice soft, measured and utterly serious, "to vote out this baffled little creep, on November 2."
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