12 Nov 2021

Hunter Thompson “Sitting in Hell. Handcuffed to Richard Nixon.”

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Kevin Mims, in Quillette, reviews High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism by David S. Wills with a very amusing account of just how huge an asshole Hunter Thompson really was.

Every few pages of Wills’s book brings another example of Thompson screwing people over. Thompson always had difficulty with self-discipline, but his inability to produce any work was exacerbated by his cocaine abuse. This was certainly bad for his career. But it was also bad for the careers of those in his orbit. Steadman joined Thompson in Zaire where Rolling Stone had sent them to cover the Ali-Foreman fight. Steadman was eager to see the fight, but Thompson told him, “I didn’t come all this way to watch a couple of niggers beat the shit out of each other.” On the morning of the fight, Steadman frantically tried to find Thompson, who had their press passes, but Thompson had sold them and used the money to buy cocaine and marijuana. When Steadman finally found him, he was stoned and was throwing large quantities of marijuana into the hotel pool. …

When the US military began pulling out of Vietnam, Wenner asked Thompson to cover it for Rolling Stone. Thompson agreed but began to lose his nerve as his departure date drew near. Wenner asked New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson to try to bolster Thompson’s confidence. The phone calls between them were recorded (Thompson—like Nixon—recorded many of his phone calls and conversations), and Emerson can be heard telling him how to cover the story, passing him the details of her own contacts and translators, and offering to provide him with all the facts about Vietnam that he lacked.

Thompson finally arrived in Vietnam in April of 1975 (more than a decade after the mainstream journalists he hated began covering the story on a daily basis). He took a lot of opium, mingled with prostitutes, and generally behaved like a clown in order to entertain the other journalists, many of whom were fans of his work. But, as Wills remarks, his behavior “wasn’t as funny in real life.” The other journalists quickly realized that his antics might get him—and them—killed. At least 60 Western journalists were killed covering the war and, as Wills points out, “few of them were running around high on drugs.” Tape recordings make it clear that he was hopelessly out of his element. The other journalists can be heard laughing at his ignorance of the facts on the ground. They teased him about the fact that he hadn’t managed to write a word about the Ali-Foreman fight when Norman Mailer had managed to write a groundbreaking piece for Playboy.

Later, by himself, Thompson can be heard spitting out the words, “Fuck them!” on the recorder. At one point, stoned out of his mind and believing he was chasing “four giant fucker pterodactyls,” Thompson wandered dangerously close to the front line. Several journalists had to put themselves in harm’s way to bundle him into a jeep and drive him back to relative safety. …

In 1994, Rolling Stone hired Thompson to write a two-part story about the US Polo Open. Only one part of the story was written because Thompson had run up expenses of $40,000 by that time and the magazine couldn’t afford to eat any more of these costs. In the year 2021, many talented young college-educated journalists don’t earn $40,000 for a year’s worth of freelance work! According to the career-research website zippia.com, even American journalists who have full-time employment earn an average of only $52,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, the $40,000 in expenses that Thompson ran up on one story back in 1994 would be $73,332.25! Over the course of his career, Thompson probably earned more money (adjusted for inflation) for work he never turned in than most contemporary journalists will earn in their lifetimes for work they actually do. Throw in the money he bilked from expense accounts and most journalists will never come close to earning as much. …

In spite of all this terrible behavior—the entitlement, the egocentricity, the cruelty, the endless wasting of other people’s time, money, and patience—the glamorous myth of the fearless and righteous outlaw journalist persists. To this myth, Wills’s fascinating biography offers limited endorsement, but also a valuable and comprehensive corrective. We are left in no doubt that the man whose work Wills admires was, by nature, a colossal jerk—alcohol and drugs only aggravated the problem. If there’s a hell, Thompson is probably sitting in it right now. Handcuffed to Richard Nixon.


3 Feedbacks on "Hunter Thompson “Sitting in Hell. Handcuffed to Richard Nixon.”"


Richard Nixon was one of the most qualified people for the presidency in the 20th century. His big sin/mistake in the Watergate fiasco was covering it up and being to unwilling to play defense. Everything else in Watergate was actually perpetrated by one of the other actors in that drama and not Nixon.

Nixon’s biggest fault was that he had a face fit for radio AND that he allowed the opposition to get to him on a personal level which made him look bad.

Hairless Joe

Agreed with Oneguy that Nixon, while a flawed man, was in no way so evil as to deserve to be handcuffed to Hunter S. Thompson for 24 hours, muck less eternity.

Thompson’s story has something of the tragic in it: He had one book in him, “Fear and Loathing”, and there was no need any more for Hunter S. Thompson after it was written. His later behavior reflects his consciousness of this reality.


Nixon’s biggest problem was that he was an introvert in an extrovert’s profession. The man never really seemed comfortable in public. He would have been better off as the director of the FBI.


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