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Writing on the Wall: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson
"The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.... This is the artist's way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass." --William Faulkner, interview with Paris Review, 1956

August 26, 1997

What would you do? You're sitting in Hunter S. Thompson's kitchen conducting an interview and he wants you to drink. So you drink.

I'd been directed to read aloud Thompson's farewell to Richard M. Nixon, "He Was a Crook" (Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994), an obituary fired off in a burst of rage. The author insisted it be read aloud to capture the right effect, and apparently I hadn't been reading with proper and resounding emphasis.

"No. No! Again. Start over. Clip your words!"

A glass of Wild Turkey and ice was placed in front of me -- for elocution purposes, of course -- and the reading proceeded, this time with the benefit of Thompson's coaching.

Hunter S. Thompson, 1997 Earlier that day I'd stopped at the Woody Creek Tavern, in Woody Creek, Colorado, to order a drink and steady my nerves before heading up the hill to the house of the Gonzo Journalist and self-proclaimed King of Fun. I'd heard the last reporter who went up the hill looking for a story had to mow the lawn before the man would talk to him. I guess my luck was better. Before the night was over I heard the famous peacocks screaming in the dark. I held the Lono club. A shade before two o'clock in the morning I saw my copy of Thompson's latest book, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, shot through with a .45 ("It's never too late to shoot guns," an assistant whispered to me). And I heard Thompson hold forth for three hours about the state of politics, journalism, and the American Dream.
Return to Strange Pollen: Dr. Thompson and the Spirit of the Age by Sven Birkerts.

Related links:

  • He Was a Crook
    Hunter S. Thompson's obituary for Richard Nixon (Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994).

  • Hunter Thompson Raw
    The official Random House pages devoted to The Proud Highway feature the introductory essay by Douglas Brinkley.

  • This year marks not only the twenty-fifth anniversary of Watergate and the beginning of Nixon's downfall but also twenty-five years since the publication of Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, the volume that collected his coverage of the 1972 presidential race for Rolling Stone. Last year Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), his bad dream of a novel based on a shred of fact, was reissued by the Modern Library. The movie director Terry Gilliam's vision of that book started production this July, with Johnny Depp starring as Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke. This is a time Thompson has obviously dreamed about. Read through The Proud Highway, especially the early letters, and it seems he's been waiting most of his life for someone to play him in a movie. (He doesn't count Where the Buffalo Roam.)

    You could spend hours poring over all the memorabilia on display in Thompson's house. The front room (red walls, red carpet) is full of mounted animal heads. There's a human skeleton in there. A four-foot-long pair of bolt cutters rests on a counter top; you expect locks to pop open out of respect when the thing comes near. "What are these for?" I asked when I first entered the house. "You don't want to know," came the answer.

    Thompson speaks in a low rumble, but not as unintelligibly as I'd been led to believe. You keep your eyes and ears open when he's talking, looking around the room for objects that might hum in sympathetic vibration.

    --Matthew Hahn

    The interview took place at Thompson's home on the evening of July 15, extending into the early hours of July 16, 1997. Both the transcript and audio excerpts have been edited for clarity and length. At times they do not correspond.

    MH: The Internet has been touted as a new mode of journalism -- some even go so far as to say it might democratize journalism. Do you see a future for the Internet as a journalistic medium?
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  • Journalism and the Net.... HST on the Web.... Energy-efficiency. (01:47)

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  • HST: Well, I don't know. There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but there is at least some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting.

    I believe that the major operating ethic in American society right now, the most universal want and need is to be on TV. I've been on TV. I could be on TV all the time if I wanted to. But most people will never get on TV. It has to be a real breakthrough for them. And trouble is, people will do almost anything to get on it. You know, confess to crimes they haven't committed. You don't exist unless you're on TV. Yeah, it's a validation process. Faulkner said that American troops wrote "Kilroy was here" on the walls of Europe in World War II in order to prove that somebody had been there -- "I was here" -- and that the whole history of man is just an effort by people, writers, to just write your name on the great wall.

    You can get on [the Internet] and all of a sudden you can write a story about me, or you can put it on top of my name. You can have your picture on there too. I don't know the percentage of the Internet that's valid, do you? Jesus, it's scary. I don't surf the Internet. I did for a while. I thought I'd have a little fun and learn something. I have an e-mail address. No one knows it. But I wouldn't check it anyway, because it's just too fucking much. You know, it's the volume. The Internet is probably the first wave of people who have figured out a different way to catch up with TV -- if you can't be on TV, well at least you can reach 45 million people [on the Internet].

    At the gates of Thompson's home
    At the gates of Thompson's home
    MH: Let's talk about your inclusion in the Modern Library. You are now sandwiched in between Thackeray and Tolstoy. What does that mean to you? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, twenty-five years after it was published, is in the Modern Library.

    HST: That's a little faster than you'd normally think it could occur. You know, most of those people in [the Modern Library] are dead. No, I'm not surprised to be there. I guess it's a little surprising to be here still walking around and shaking people's hands.

    It tells me the Modern Library's catching up. But everything has sped up now. Instant communication. Instant news.
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  • The Modern Library.... Canonization.... Not dead yet. (00:30)

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  • MH: When you were starting out, when you were eighteen and you started writing these letters in The Proud Highway, did you think your work would ever be considered classic?

    HST: I never sat down and thought about it and stared at it. Obviously, if you read The Proud Highway, I was thinking somewhere along those lines. I never lobbied the Modern Library to include more living writers. I've always assumed it was for dead writers. But what I did assume at that time, early on and, shit, every year forever after that, was that I would be dead very soon. The fact that I'm not dead is sort of puzzling to me. It's sort of an awkward thing to deal with.

    MH: You wrote in 1977, in the introduction to The Great Shark Hunt [a collection of HST's journalism], "I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live -- (13 years longer, in fact)...." Thirteen years earlier would have been around the time you wrote Hell's Angels. Now it's twenty years since you wrote that introduction. Do you still feel the same way? What was behind writing that?

    HST: Oh, sitting alone in an office in New York, the day before Christmas Eve, editing my own life's work -- the selection, the order -- because I couldn't get anybody else to edit it. Somebody pulled out because he wouldn't publish that poem, "Collect Telegram from a Mad Dog." I guess he was using that as an excuse. So I ended up having to do it myself. It was a little depressing, sitting up there having to do it myself. One of the advantages of being dead, I guess, is that somebody else can edit all this.

    For quite a while there I had to assume that I would never be in anything, much less the Modern Library.

    MH: How is your health? How are you feeling now?
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  • "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie".... The 27th inning. (00:51)

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  • HST: I haven't started any savings accounts.... I tell you, you'd act differently if you thought you were going to die at noon tomorrow. You probably wouldn't be here doing this. I just figured, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie, good old boys drinkin' whiskey and rye, singin' this'll be the day that I die." Yeah, I just felt that all along.

    MH: Live every day like your last, because you don't know what tomorrow's going to be like?

    HST: Well, there's no plan for it. It's like going into the 27th inning in a baseball game. You're like, what the fuck am I doing here, man?

    MH: There's a lot happening for you these days: Fear and Loathing, the movie; the Modern Library; twenty-five years of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. Can you compare this time with anything prior -- the excitement, maybe, of running for sheriff, or covering Nixon -- now that you are sitting here looking back on it all?

    HST: I got more of a kick out of running Nixon out of office than I have with these author parties.

    You know, Gonzo Journalism is a term that I've come to dislike because of the way it's been cast: inaccurate, crazy. And in a way it might sound like, What am I complaining about? But there's a big difference. What I called Nixon is true -- just a little harsh.

    MH: If you were doing it again today, do you think you would go at it the way you did?

    HST: Would I do it again, is that what you mean? I'm talking about the word "gonzo." Yeah, I'd do it again. And that's the test of everything in life. You know, the way you look back on it. I use this a lot, a great measuring stick. I'd like a good war, a good fight. I get lazy when there's not one.

    In journalism, one of the reasons I think I get the pleasure I do is the political factor. It's the effect you can have, with journalism. It's like writing a poem in the woods ... you know that old thing about if a tree falls in the woods --

    MH: If nobody heard it, did it happen?

    HST: Yeah. Technically, no, there's no sound unless it's heard. [With journalism,] it's the effect, it's the sound, you know, when it's heard.

    MH: It's the effect? And in that context you would call yourself --
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  • Nixon and the peak of effectiveness.... "Luded out" on the White House lawn.... One really dark flight. (02:37)

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  • HST: Successful. I don't need any prizes or parties to shore up my self esteem. When I see Nixon getting on a plane, then I'm there. And he's headed west and I'm not.

    MH: So that was it? Nixon getting on the plane?

    HST: Yeah. That might have been the peak of effectiveness.

    MH: What were you doing that day? Do you remember?

    HST: Absolutely, man. I was in the White House Rose Garden. I was at the end of a red carpet that stretched from the stairs to the helicopter which landed on the lawn. There were some Marines to my left, but I was the last human being in the line. Annie Liebowitz was right beside me. And yeah, just being there and watching him get on, it was -- not total victory, but it gave me a sense of being very much a part of not just my reality but everybody else's. There's a big difference between railing against some oppressor for twenty years and then ending up in the Bastille, or fighting a twenty-year war and watching the enemy vanquished.

    MH: What were your thoughts when you saw him getting on the helicopter?

    HST: I felt sorry for him. He hit his head. Right after he did this thing [makes the v-for-victory sign] at the helicopter door, he turned and lashed his head on the top of the rounded door, staggered sideways, and he was so  -- in some jurisdictions we might have called it "luded out" -- he was tranquilized. There's a civilized word for it: sedated. He was almost led up the stairs. Yeah, I felt sorry for him. Can you imagine that ride west? Jesus Christ, they flew to Andrews Air Force Base, I guess, on the helicopter, and then they had like a six-hour flight to San Clemente. Whew. That must have been a really dark flight.

    MH: Did you have a relationship or correspondence with him after that?

    HST: No. I was urged to, and I thought about it, but no, I didn't. I guess that's a political technique: the war's over, the game's over. I don't want to make it into a game, although I guess it is in the same sense that getting elected President can be seen as a game. It's a deadly serious game. It's a very mean thing.

    I don't know why people think that the Mafia is merciless and badder than you know -- and yet they don't assume that the President of the United States is in a position of such power, and that of course he's going to use the same fucking tools as the Mafia.

    MH: The last we heard from you on politics was in Better Than Sex, and that was a couple years back. What do you think about the state of politics today?

    HST: I would say that I am more into politics now than I was in '92. Yeah, I was mesmerized a little bit by the access [Clinton] offered me -- like total access. "Come on down," you know? "Go out drinkin' with Hillary." Yeah, they did a good job on me. But I was set on beating Bush. I thought we were going to beat Bush at the Iran-Contra hearings, and I worked overtime. He was guilty as fifteen hyenas, and he got off, and it really bothered me. So I would have been for anybody in '92, just to beat Bush. And that's a dangerous trap to fall into -- you know, the lesser of two evils.

    Thompson's living Room
    Thompson's living room

    MH: There's a lot of apathy today. People don't want to go out and vote.

    HST: And why should they? I felt that way, and I didn't vote for Clinton in '96. I voted for Ralph Nader. There's a terrible danger in voting for the lesser of two evils because the parties can set it up that way.

    MH: What do you think about the current two-party system here?

    HST: I don't think it is a two-party system. And I think the reason Clinton was re-elected is that he understands the same thing. He took the crime issue away from the Republicans, and now he's taking the tax issue away. He's proposing a lower capital-gains tax than the Republicans already had. So now the Democrats are champions of big business. He's an extremely skilled fucking politician.

    The Clinton people all had e-mail, beepers ...

    MH: They were wired in.

    HST: Yeah, as opposed to the [Bush] White House. [The Clintons] moved into the White House, and it was like they moved into a cave. [A good friend] called me -- a photographer, very close to the Clintons -- telling me, ye gods, we move in here, and they still have a phone system that Abraham Lincoln would have appreciated.

    MH: Clinton had wanted to be JFK. That's who he talked about in his campaigns.

    HST: You tell Mr. Bill there's a reason that Jack Kennedy was shot, and he hasn't been. There's a very good reason that Jack Kennedy was shot, and Clinton hasn't been.

    MH: What's that?

    HST: There's no reason to shoot Clinton. They didn't hesitate when Kennedy seemed to be going against them. They shot him. And they shot Bobby.

    MH: They?

    HST: They. If you are going to shoot the President of the United States, plan it and do it, you must be extremely well-connected and smart and organized. Anybody who can organize a three-position, triangulated shooting at the President of the United States is very good.

    MH: Your theory on the JFK assassination is what?

    HST: That it was carried out by the Mob but organized and effectuated by J. Edgar Hoover.

    MH: If popular culture holds up JFK as something good that could have been -- and Nixon is seen as the opposite extreme -- where does Clinton fall on the spectrum between JFK and Nixon?

    HST: Well, Clinton will be lucky if he rates above Ulysses Grant or Warren Harding on the great scale. And he will, as long as the economy's good. Carville was right -- it's the economy, stupid. And Clinton finally took that to heart. I think there are only three occasions in the history of American presidential elections when people have not voted obviously with their wallets.

    MH: What are those?

    HST: Oh, boy. I walked into that one, didn't I? I believe one was the JFK election, in '60. I can't scan it back that fast now. But in every case there was -- Woodrow Wilson may have been one -- there was an instant, passionate issue. How the fuck Kennedy ever made Nixon a bad guy in 1960 is beyond me. That was real politics. A crazed Catholic playboy from Massachusetts, rich father supported the Nazis in 1940 -- I was against [JFK] at first.

    MH: The Proud Highway contains some letters you wrote on November 22, 1963 [the day JFK was shot], to your friends Paul Semonin and William Kennedy. In the one to Kennedy you wrote, "There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything -- much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder.... No matter what, today is the end of an era. No more fair play. From now on it is dirty pool and judo in the clinches. The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency." According to the book it was the first time you wrote the words "fear and loathing."

    HST: I was amazed that it went back that far. I was not aware that I was accused of stealing it from Kierkegaard. People accused me of stealing "fear and loathing" -- fuck no, that came straight out of what I felt. If I had seen it, I probably would have stolen it. Yeah, I just remember thinking about Kennedy, that this is so bad I need new words for it. And "fear and loathing" -- yeah, it defines a certain state, an attitude.

    MH: Clinton had a vision for a Great Society when he was elected. What do you think has happened since then?
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  • Bill Clinton's place in history.... A degenerate town. (00:39)

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  • HST: Well, the things that Clinton has been accused of are prima facie worse than what Nixon was run out of office for. Nixon was never even accused of things like Clinton is being accused of now. Bringing the Chinese into the political process, selling out to the Indonesians, selling the Lincoln bedroom at night, dropping his pants, trying to hustle little girls in Little Rock. God, what a degenerate town that is. Phew.

    MH: How will history remember Bill Clinton?

    HST: I don't know about history. I don't get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist's view -- "I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view." Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can't be objective about Nixon. How can you be objective about Clinton?

    MH: Objective journalism is why politics have been corrupt for so long?

    HST: If you consider the great journalists in history, you don't see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don't quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.

    MH: If you found yourself teaching a journalism course -- Dr. Thompson's Journalism 101 -- what would you tell students who were looking to go about covering stories?

    HST: You offering me a job? Shit. Well, I wouldn't do it, I guess. It's not important to me that I teach journalism classes.

    MH: But if you did, what would your reading list be?

    HST: Oh, I'd start off with Henry Fielding. I would read writers. You know, I would read Conrad, Hemingway, people who use words. That's really what it's about. It's about using words to achieve an end. And the Book of Revelation. I still read the Book of Revelation when I need to get cranked up about language. I would teach Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times. All the journalists who are known, really, have been that way because they were subjective.

    I think the trick is that you have to use words well enough so that these nickle-and-dimers who come around bitching about being objective or the advertisers don't like it are rendered helpless by the fact that it's good. That's the way people have triumphed over conventional wisdom in journalism.

    MH: Who's writing that way today?

    HST: Oh, boy. Let's just say, who's been arrested recently? That's usually the way. Like in the sixties you look for Paul Krassner, I. F. Stone. I don't think that my kind of journalism has ever been universally popular. It's lonely out here.

    A lot of times I recognize quality in the enemy. I have, from the very beginning, admired Pat Buchanan, who's not even a writer. He knows how to use words. I read something the other day, and I totally disagreed with him. But you know, I was about to send him a note saying, "Good!"

    MH: If you were going to start a paper, and you were editor, who would you hire on? Who'd be on your writing staff? Living or dead.

    HST: Whew! That would be fun. We're thinking of starting a paper here. These are not abstract questions.

    If I were to surround myself with experts, I'd hire P. J. [O'Rourke], Tom Wolfe, Tim Ferris. I'd hire Jann Wenner, put him to work.

    MH: For this publication you're thinking about putting together now, what would be your mission?

    HST: I can't think in terms of journalism without thinking in terms of political ends. Unless there's been a reaction, there's been no journalism. It's cause and effect.

    [A bottle of Wild Turkey is introduced.]

    HST: Aw, man. I drank this like some sort of sacrament for -- I mean, constantly -- for I think fifteen years. No wonder people looked at me funny. No offense. This is what I drank, and I insisted on it and I drank it constantly and I liked it. Jesus. I laid off it for six months and went back to it -- an accident one night, in a bar -- and it almost knocked me off the stool. It's like drinking gasoline. I thought, what the fuck...?
    He Was a Crook
    By Hunter S. Thompson
    (Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994)
    [At HST's request, a cardboard placard is brought into the room, bearing HST's obituary of Richard Nixon for Rolling Stone, dated May 1, 1994, and entitled, "He Was a Crook."]

    HST: Here's one of the things I'm proudest of. It's about time you read something. Why don't you read that for us? This will be a lesson for you. Start at the beginning. If you haven't read this, it might explain a little more. Take it from the top. Headline and all.

    [MH proceeds to read aloud the entire scathing obituary.]

    MH: "'He Was a Crook.' By Hunter S. Thompson. Memo from the National Affairs Desk. Date: May 1, 1994. Subject: The Death of Richard Nixon: Notes on the passing of an American monster.... He was a liar and a quitter, and he should have been buried at sea.... But he was, after all, the President.

    "Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel"--

    HST: Slow down, slow down, slow down. I've learned this the hard way. You gotta read slower, bite the words off.

    MH: Okay. Okay. [Slowly] "Richard Nixon is gone now."

    HST: Good.

    MH: "And I am poorer for it."

    HST: Good.

    MH: "He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time."

    HST: That's good.

    [The reading continues. HST stops MH numerous times, telling him to re-read lines that MH hasn't delivered to the author's satisfaction. Several times HST laughs out loud, clearly enjoying the sound of his own words. HST soon becomes distracted and digresses, and MH puts the placard down on the couch.]

    HST: Don't put that away! All the way to the end!

    MH: All the way to the end?

    HST: You bet. It's a lesson for you. You'll learn from this. I guarantee it. You're going to be happy at the end.

    MH: A happy ending?

    HST: Have a drink here, first, since you've already fucked up. You may as well have a drink.

    [A glass of Wild Turkey and ice is placed before MH, and he continues reading to the end.]

    MH: What inspired you to write this?

    HST: I don't know if inspired is the right word. It's like tapping into a vein, I guess. But the history of this is instructive.

    As it happens I was sitting in a house in New Orleans with Nixon's biographer, Steve Ambrose. He's a friend. And we were watching the last hours of Nixon. And Ambrose in his wickedness, in his self-serving skill, got me into one of these weepy, you know, "Well, he really was a nice guy..." Yeah, the death of Nixon: I either had to die or write it. I was staying at the Ponchartrain Hotel at the time in New Orleans. And I tried to react to it there. And after maybe two days, total failure. I couldn't. I was not up to the majesty of the event. I set such a high standard -- H. L. Mencken's obituary for William Jennings Bryan, which then ranked as the most savage and unnatural thing ever said on the death of a famous or any other person. Mencken is a person I'd hire. But, with that being the standard, the target being so high, it was like being asked to run the three-minute mile.
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  • The death of Nixon.... Fear and loathing on TV.... A maudlin, truthless affair. (01:44)

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  • And, fuck, I tried for like two weeks. I failed in New Orleans, and I got back here, and I failed again. I despaired several times. I had Jann and Tobias frantic on the other end [at Rolling Stone]. But I wouldn't let it go unless it was right, and it was nowhere near right.

    MH: What was it that gelled it for you?

    HST: Ah ha, thank you. It was watching his funeral on TV. It enraged me so much. It was such a maudlin, truthless affair. I was thinking about going, but I wouldn't have seen the clarity of it as I did watching it on TV here. It was such a classically -- you're talking about your objective journalism? -- it was one of those things ... speak no evil of the dead. Well, why not? What the fuck? Nixon goes out as a champion of the American dream and a hero. It enraged me. So it was the rage that tapped the vein.

    But it's cold-blooded accurate.

    I felt that same way -- not really quite the same way, but in the same direction -- about Allen [Ginsburg], since I was billed as a major speaker at his funeral. And due to very legitimate reasons it would have been crazy for me, with my back, to go down there. But I said, all right, I can't be there but I will write a funeral statement and Johnny Depp will deliver it. And then started a week of horrible nights. Hideous nights. Failure. It got worse and worse instead of better. I was trying to say nice things about him. And I gave up totally. I actually gave up physically. Set Depp up. He had no idea. He was very nervous about having to deliver my statement. I was so depressed that I was impossible to be around. I could not do it. And I wanted to a lot. It was nine or ten in the morning, and I sent Depp a short fax saying, "You're on your own. I failed. I can't do it. Say whatever you want." Luckily he was off somewhere, and he didn't get it.

    And I went to bed and ate a Halcion, which usually knocks me out -- you know, a sleeping pill. I had already been up for two or three nights. Two hours later I woke up, like at noon, and came out here like a zombie and sat down and wrote it. So I was writing out of desperation, out of fear and hatred of failure. I hate to think that, but God almighty, that's the thing.

    MH: You say "Gonzo Journalism" is a term that you're not so fond of anymore, because it's been cast as innacurate, crazy. Has anyone written Gonzo besides you?

    HST: Is that [the Nixon obituary] Gonzo in your mind?

    MH: No. I guess when I think of Gonzo, I'm thinking of your story "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" [Scanlon's Monthly, June, 1970]. You throw yourself into the middle of a story and write your way out of it. Has anybody else done that?

    HST: Oh, yeah, there are some good ones. Very few, but there was a novel called Snow Blind, in the seventies, about the cocaine trade.

    MH: Why has the term "gonzo" fallen out of favor with you?

    HST: Well, maybe because of what I just asked you. Since the Random House Dictionary defines "gonzo" as sort of whatever I write or do, and I ask you, Does that Nixon obit seem like Gonzo Journalism to you? And you say no, then I have to wonder, right?

    MH: How do you compare Gonzo to the New Journalism? Do you see them as separate or intertwined?

    HST: Intertwined, in that it is no accident that Gonzo is in Tom Wolfe's book The New Journalism [1973].

    MH: When you were writing in this way, did you feel that you were part of a movement, the New Journalism, or did you feel like you were just doing your own thing?

    HST: No, I felt like I was just a journalist on assignment, really.

    Signed and shot by the author
    Signed and shot by the author
    MH: In an early letter to William Kennedy you spoke of the "dry rot" of American journalism. Tell me what you think. What's the state of the American press currently?

    HST: The press today is like the rest of the country. Maybe you need a war. Wars tend to bring out out the best in them. War was everywhere you looked in the sixties, extending into the seventies. Now there are no wars to fight. You know, it's the old argument about why doesn't the press report the good news? Well, now the press is reporting the good news, and it's not as much fun.

    The press has been taken in by Clinton. And by the amalgamation of politics. Nobody denies that the parties are more alike than they are different. No, the press has failed, failed utterly -- they've turned into slovenly rotters. Particularly The New York Times, which has come to be a bastion of political correctness. I think my place in history as defined by the PC people would be pretty radically wrong. Maybe I could be set up as a target at the other end of the spectrum. I feel more out of place now than I did under Nixon. Yeah, that's weird. There's something going on here, Mr. Jones, and you don't know what it is, do you?

    Yeah, Clinton has been a much more successfully deviant president than Nixon was. You can bet if the stock market fell to 4,000 and if four million people lost their jobs there'd be a lot of hell to pay, but so what? He's already re-elected. Democracy as a system has evolved into something that Thomas Jefferson didn't anticipate. Or maybe he did, at the end of his life. He got very bitter about the press. And what is it he said? "I tremble for my nation when I reflect that God is just"? That's a guy who's seen the darker side. Yeah, we've become a nation of swine.

    MH: In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas you were looking for the American Dream. What is there for people to find in 1997?

    HST: Do you think we were surprised [in Fear and Loathing] to find that the American Dream was a nightclub that had burned down five years earlier? That we were surprised to find when we tracked it down that it had been the old Psychiatrist's Club? Prior to that its name had been the American Dream. Do you think that we were surprised to find that? No. I went out there looking to reaffirm Horatio Alger. I knew what was happening. That's what the book is all about.

    MH: From what I've read and from people I've talked to, the thing that people find most impressive about The Proud Highway is that from the age of seventeen or eighteen, you knew what you were going to do --

    HST: Fifteen.

    MH: People are impressed with your sense of destiny. I know that you say you got in trouble and journalism or writing was the only thing that was there for you, but at seventeen, eighteen -- or even fifteen -- plenty of things were open to you.

    HST: Right, the world is your oyster. I guess I found out early on that writing was a means of being effective. Well, you can see the beginnings of that in The Proud Highway. I grew up thinking that despite the obstacles presented by the swine, I would be successful no matter what I did. I guess that's one of the things about growing up in the fifties, it never occurred to me that you wouldn't be at least as successful as your parents. Now it's a minority position to believe that you might be even as successful as your parents.

    MH: There's a letter in The Proud Highway [from 1965] in which you said, "I should have quit journalism ... and hit the fiction for all I was worth. And if I'm ever going to be worth anything I honestly think it will have to be in the realm of fiction." What if you had stuck to straight journalism? What do you think would have been the outcome?

    HST: It might have all hinged on Phil Graham's suicide in 1963, I guess. He was the publisher of The Washington Post. [HST had struck up a correspondence with Graham.] It's a wild thought  -- we'll have to wrap this up before I get really wild and start thinking out loud -- but by now I could have been the editor of The Washington Post.

    Matthew Hahn, a freelance writer who lives in Richmond, Virginia, was three years old when Richard Nixon left office. He has written for newspapers and other publications in Virginia and North Carolina.

    Photos by Matthew Hahn
    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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