The far right branded him a weirdo. So did the far left. Yet leaders on both sides still remember him as a genius -- and one of the most important (and strangest) journalists of our time.
Renegade journalist Hunter S. Thompson -- the man Johnny Depp depicted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- still has a impressive celebrity fanbase, and they lend a voice to Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which opens early next month.
"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone," Thompson, once said, "but they've always worked for me."
In the mid '60s, Thompson rode with the Hell's Angels, and wrote a classic piece of reportage about the experience. A few years later, he turned Colorado politics upside down, when he ran a "Freak Party" campaign for sheriff of Aspen, promising to legalize drugs, un-pave the streets, and change the town's name to "Fat City," to keep out tourists -- and he almost won.
In the early '70s, he began filing his "Fear and Loathing" pieces for Rolling Stone, quickly becoming the Nixon era's most talked-about Capitol Hill reporter.
An Equal Opportunity Offender
George McGovern, Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter, join former Nixon staffer and republican stalwart Pat Buchanan in the new film, to hail Thompson's psychedelic screeds. McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz called Thompson's reports the "least factual, but most accurate" account of the '72 presidential campaign.
Buchanan (who Thompson once described as "Davy Crocket at Nixon's Alamo") notes that Thompson savaged Democrats and Republicans with equal ferocity.
Of Bill Clinton, Thompson would write, " It's almost embarrassing to talk about Clinton as if he were important. I'd almost prefer Nixon. I'd say Clinton is every bit as corrupt as Nixon, but a lot smoother."
Still, Thompson's hatred of Nixon -- whom he likened to a werewolf -- was unrelenting, even up to Nixon's 1994 death: "He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. . . . His body should have been burned in a trash bin."
Thompson's legendary drug use, the trappings of celebrity, and his 1979 divorce from his first wife all coincided with the decline in the quality and quantity of his work. He nevertheless could answer the bell when circumstances required. On the morning after Sept. 11, he wrote:
"Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.
"It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy . . . and Victory is not guaranteed -- for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now."
The movie, directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and narrated by Depp, captures Thompson at his best -- and worst -- leading up to his 2005 suicide. It was Depp who picked up the considerable tab for Hunter's memorial service -- a bizarre last request to have his ashes shot from a cannon.
Footage from the Gonzo memorial -- attended by Sean Penn, Bill Murray, John Cusack and Benicio Del Toro and Lyle Lovett, among others -- are one of the film's highlights.
For those of us who spend our lives obsessing over society's fringes, Thompson is a trailblazer and an inspiration. As he famously said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Moreover: "Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why."
Of all the epitaphs for the gonzo legend, the best comes from Hell's Angel leader Sonny Barger:
Thomposon "was a jerk . . . but a very good writer."
- Classic (and Funny) Thompson Quotes
- 'Where Pimps Run Free': Thompson Urban Legend
- Thompson's 2005 Suicide
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