[This appeared in the March 4-24 2005 edition of the Dateline Downtown]
Hunter S. Thompson, R.I.P.
K. A. Laity
This past weekend, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in his Colorado home, which he often referred to as his “well-armed compound,” although he also claimed that his reputation was enough to keep people away. We may never know if it was terminal disgust with the direction of this country or the simple attrition of age. After all, he was 67, had a hip replacement and recently broke a leg. Pain might be the one drug he decided to do without. But as an outspoken critic of the “W” vision of America and the precipitous decline of civil rights, he may at last have given into despair.
Thompson will be remembered best for his self-proclaimed "gonzo" journalism, the notion that not only was objectivity not possible, but it was probably not all that desirable. To inhabit the world you studied—whether it was the Kentucky Derby, the Nixon presidential campaign, or the Hell's Angels—came with risks as well as rewards.
In a culture where paid mouthpieces help push the current administration's agenda in secret, Thompson has long been admired for being up front about his own beliefs and prejudices. While he was lionized by the 60s counterculture for the drug-fueled odyssey of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his own views were distinctly libertarian. A lifetime member of the NRA, he was unabashedly proud of his guns as well as his notorious drug habits. Thompson has said, "I do not advocate the use of dangerous drugs, wild amounts of alcohol and violence and weirdness... but they've always worked for me."
Thompson understood the inevitability of remaining the outsider if you want to tell the truth. Yet it was this outsider status that made many celebrate him. He was immortalized as Uncle Duke in Gary Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury. His thinly veiled alter-ego Raoul Duke has inspired two cinematic portraits; first, in the lamentable Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), a toothless party piece that had a lot more to do with Animal House than with the man himself, starring Bill Murray before he really became an actor. More successfully, the spirit of Fear and Loathing (1998) was captured in the film by Terry Gilliam, himself no slouch in the gonzo approach to creation. Ably supported by a stellar supporting cast including Benicio Del Toro and Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp eerily conjured the spirit of Thompson down to his bow-legged walk, a mimicry that the man himself admired. Gilliam’s film proved successful not just because he captured the drug-fueled chaos, but because he also caught Thompson’s despair at the death of the American Dream.
In more recent times, Thompson spoke out against what he saw as the descent toward fascism taken by the current administration since 9/11. Two years ago, in an interview with Salon, he characterized the Bush government caustically: “I believe the Republicans have seen what they've believed all along, which is that this democracy stuff is bull, and that people don't want to be burdened by political affairs. That people would rather just be taken care of. The oligarchy doesn't need an educated public. And maybe the nation does prefer tyranny. I think that's what worries me. It goes back to Fourth Amendment issues. How much do you value your freedom? Would you trade your freedom for some illusion of security? Freedom is something that dies unless it's used.”
Thompson always sought that freedom, even from his own caricatured fame, refusing to be a hero to those who sought to idolize him. A journalist to the end, information was always the key. "I've found you can deal with the system a lot easier if you use their rules—by understanding their rules, by using their rules against them." He never underestimated the brutality of the system, but he may have finally grown tired of the fight.
See the entire 2003 Salon interview at: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/02/03/thompson/index1.html