The gonzo journalist who forever changed political campaign coverage
by Jason Vest
It was presidential campaign reporting unlike anything seen before. The reporter made it clear: He had no desire to join the permanent Washington press corps, or ever cover politics full time, and indeed he never did. He was contemptuous of Democratic centrists and unabashed about a sitting Republican president’s depravity, and said so in prose that sounded like a punch-drunk H.L. Mencken spoiling for a bar fight. (“A treacherous, gutless old wardheeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current,” he said of Dem presidential aspirant Hubert Humphrey. And the incumbent in the White House? “A drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and the head of giant hyena … the dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise.”)
This is the unmistakable prose of the late Hunter S. Thompson, who had high hopes that a one-off gig covering national politics 50 years ago — really a sop from his editor at a music magazine — might help him go from journalist to novelist. He already had two nonfiction bestsellers under his belt, one of which he’d reported out over years as an embed, covering an outfit at least as amoral as any in Washington: the Hell’s Angels.
But if the Washington political establishment, including the press, thought the assignment was going to merit only a couple of magazine pieces, they had another thing coming. Thompson influenced a new generation of political correspondents, says Peter Richardson, author of the newly published “Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo,” a consideration of Thompson’s literary influences and influence.