Res ipsa loquitur.
That’s latin, with a literal translation of “the thing speaks for itself.” It’s used as a legal term, meaning roughly that negligence is proven by the act itself.
It’s also one of the taglines Hunter S. Thompson frequently used to wrap up one of his observations, i.e. “The presidency of George W. Bush. Res ipsa loquitur.”
Thompson apparently found a need to wrap things up on Sunday, sitting down at his kitchen table with one of many handguns stashed around Owl Farm and putting a bullet in his head. I’ve already seen internet commentary saying this was a cowardly way for HST to check out; in this case, I disagree. Sad, yes, but probably the only way Thompson could end his run. Imagine an obituary with this lead instead:
DENVER (AP) — Noted counterculture icon Hunter S. Thompson died quietly today in a suburban Denver nursing home after a three-year battle with lung cancer. He was 93.
No. That doesn’t work.
A neighbor, quoted in the Aspen Daily News story, said Thompson would have been the last person he ever would have imagined shooting himself. “Actually,” the guy said, “I would have been less surprised if he had shot me.”
Sunday night, I was shocked. Today, it makes complete sense.
Res ipsa loquitur.
* * *
“Vegas” was the first HST book I read, probably picking it up for first time in junior high school. At that time, for a 14-year-old, it was thrilling, baffling and exhausting, all at the same time. A while later, I picked up my first copy of “Shark Hunt,” with the seminal piece about the Kentucky Derby — widely noted as the first real experiment in Gonzo. Fascinating, yes. But the political essays were what got and held my attention.
I’m old enough to remember Watergate, the hearings interrupting our normal afternoon TV patterns. I remember sitting on the couch in my grandma’s house, watching Nixon slink out of the White House. The complexities were lost on me at the time — I was 7 — but I remember thinking that the president had to have done something pretty rotten if he was quitting right in the middle of his term.
By the time I started reading HST’s Nixon rants in “Shark Hunt,” I was much more aware of the context. I wasn’t yet a fully-formed political person — I voted for Reagan in my very first election, for Christsake — but reading what Thompson had to say about the state of the union while Nixon clung to power in 1973 and 1974 was an awakening. Thompson ranted about trust, and betrayal, and an ideal that was undercut the moment the guys from CREEP broke into that suite Watergate.
The following summer, I found a copy of “Campaign Trail” in a used bookstore in Woodruff, Wisconsin. I read it three or four times before returning to Columbus in August. I was done, politically and professionally. Somewhere along the line in high school I discovered that I could write pretty well. The accounts of covering a presidential campaign were like a promise to me. Adrenaline rushes at deadline. Finding the angle that no one else came up with. Having a job that could actually make a difference, in a little town or to the entire country. Being in a position to hold the crooks and the idiots accountable. That was it. I sent out only two college applications: Ohio State was my fallback, but OU was the one. Journalism school, one of the best in the country. I got accepted and walked through the doors of the student-run newspaper there during the first week of class. I’ve never looked back.
Thompson championed subjective journalism, a term that would make profs in any J school across the country shudder with fear. From day one, we’re taught to tell both sides of any story, to be objective, to distance our opinions from our work. In the real world, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t work that way, and HST knew that, embraced it in fact. He wrote for years that the obsession with “objective journalism” is what made Watergate possible — if journalists had been free to write what they knew and what they felt about Richard Nixon, he might not have ever set foot in the White House in the first place.
I think Thompson was on to something there. With the freedom given to him by Rolling Stone, he was able to jump into subjective journalism with both feet, and he did, beating Nixon and the president’s cronies in print without mercy, every two weeks. He didn’t spare the Democrats running against Nixon in 1972 either — Humphrey was a gutless, lying hack; the bizarre behavior of Muskie, HST speculated, was fueled by consumption of a rare African hallucinogen. HST even felt free to point out McGovern’s shortcomings, even as he championed the senator as the man who should move into the White House in January 1973.
There isn’t a whole lot of room for HST’s style of journalism these days; it certainly isn’t found at my newspaper or at any other in the Pittsburgh area. But that’s not to say Thompson’s lessons are lost on newspaper people today. By nature we tend to be antiauthoritarian, ready to tweak those who need to be tweaked in print. We still are the last bastion of the counterculture, as it exists in today’s world, and that’s when my job is the most fun — when I get to point out the stupidity that exists in politics and government at the level where I work. That’s what HST made a career of — it’s just a difference of scale.
And I have places where I can rant. Uncle Crappy has been home to a few of those, and The Learned Pig and I have finally started up Not Too Bright (http://nottoobright.blogspot.com) so we have a place for the truly vitriolic rants we’re both feeling these days. I have other thoughts about Thompson, especially in the current political climate; be sure to head there after you’re done with Uncle Crappy today.
* * *
I mentioned earlier that I voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. I was a senior in high school, and my political thinking at the time was heavily influenced by my surroundings, a wealthy, conservative suburb of Columbus. I was reading HST at the time, but more for entertainment than for anything substantial. That process started, as I said before, when I read “Campaign Trail” for the first time.
In that book and in the other political essays I came across in later years, I picked up the rhythm of Thompson’s sermons, about what’s right and what’s wrong — both with politics in general and within the individual parties. About idealism. About what the United States could and should be. And how we get there.
In my estimation — and his, from what I’ve read in subsequent years — we haven’t come close yet. HST was never shy about voicing his disdain for the Clinton White House, even though it’s the only point in my adult lifetime that the Democrats had any real power in Washington. I’m sorry that HST won’t be around to assess the current state of politics — his total loathing for W and the rest of the Bush clan is already well-documented, but I’d love to hear his assessment of what Howard Dean is able to do as the head of the Democratic party over the next few years. My guess is that he would have liked the general direction, but also would have bemoaned a lack of focus that has plagued and probably will continue to plague the party’s leadership.
But he would have been as clear about this as he always was: We’re right. They’re wrong. If we can put all the bullshit aside and find the means to that end, we’re gonna win.
* * *
It’s easy to dismiss “Vegas” as a drug book, most appropriate for teenage boys looking for kicks. It’s easy to write off the Kentucky Derby story as unorganized, lazy crap. It’s easy to see “Campaign Trail” as partisan propaganda and toss it in the trash.
It’s easy to do those things, just like it’s easy to vote for George W. Bush because we’re at war and W makes us feel safe. It’s easy, but it’s not especially smart.
“Vegas” was a drug book. But it also was an eloquent requiem for the idealism of the 1960s. The Derby essay and “Campaign Trail” brilliantly capture the chaotic energy of both events. I’ve been to the Derby, and I know. “Vegas” was also as relevant an assessment of that era as I’ve read anywhere. And I’ve read them all.
Gonzo worked for HST because he was an exceptional journalist first. He paid his dues, working at crappy small-town papers, getting by on stringer paychecks writing magazine stories about South America. Gonzo is a fun thing to try, and anyone who’s read Thompson has tried to figure out a way to get a Gonzoesque piece past his editor and into print.
The flip side of that equation is this: we’ve all seen bad Gonzo in one place or another. When it’s bad, it’s terrible, a load of pretentious crap. Only the best writers — and the best all-around journalists, because it requires a superior eye and ear as well — can get away with it. Thompson could. He was that good.
Those who write off HST are those who teeter at the precipice of superstardom — but know they’re not quite good enough to get there. Hunter Thompson was good enough. He got your attention with this:
“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. But the only thing that worried me was the ether. There is nothing more irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we would be getting into that rotten stuff sooner or later.”
He kept your attention, and deservedly so, with this:
“And that, I think, was the handle–that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting–on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark–the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
* * *
You’ve read references to our skiing trip to Colorado, now coming up in two weeks. The Wife and I were planning one evening without the parents, a trip to the Woody Creek Tavern, the dive outside Aspen where Thompson was still a fixture. I imagined meeting HST, cursing him for dooming me to a life in journalism and buying him a drink in thanks. The Wife and I will still make that trip: Eat a cheeseburger, drink a glass of whiskey or two, and pay our respects to a Genuine American Hero.
* * *
In the end, HST — whose deadline battles with Rolling Stone honcho Jann Wenner were legendary — got in one last dig at editors everywhere. The AP first moved notice of Thompson’s suicide at 11:04 p.m. Sunday — an hour when most newspapers from the East Coast to Chicago would have been trying to close out the last pages for Monday’s edition. In my own newsroom, I noticed that our night managing editor started muttering darkly to himself around 11:15; when one of the copy editors asked him what was up, Wasko said something about trying find space on page 5 for a Hunter Thompson obit — if AP moved a full version quickly enough.
Fucking perfect. As a result of his final dramatic gesture, Thompson had editors across the eastern half of the United States babbling franticly as deadlines loomed. You can almost hear the whiskey-soaked chuckling all the way on this side of the Continental Divide.