The 80s were not a good decade for the Doctor. In 1980 he saw his personally anointed president, Jimmy Carter, soundly thrashed by the hated Ronald Reagan. And not just beaten but roundly denounced as a failure, a weakling, and worst of all, a bummer.
America, it seemed, was tired of hearing the bad news, however truthful. People preferred Reagan’s fantasy world, where you can cut taxes and increase spending without repercussions. Even so, Carter might well have been reelected had he been able to get the hostages out of Iran; that was what really sealed his fate. Of course we know now that Reagan’s campaign made a secret deal with the government of Iran to keep the hostages until after the election, which is technically treason, but that is a topic for another time.
The point is, after The Curse of Lono was published in 1980, we didn’t hear much from Hunter Thompson for a few years, and he never seemed quite the same afterward. Like most confirmed cynics, Thompson was a romantic at heart, and I think he really allowed himself to believe in Jimmy Carter, or rather what he thought Carter represented for America: honesty, integrity, and willingness to do things the right way, even if it’s more difficult.
It would be easy to get into a long argument about Carter’s effectiveness as president, but there’s no question that the country gave up on his way of doing things pretty quickly, and jumped on Reagan’s bandwagon with a vengeance. This was hard for a lot of people to swallow, and harder for Hunter Thompson than most.
When Thompson reappeared as the author of a weekly San Francisco Examiner column in the late 80s, the sense of hope that had counterbalanced his cynicism was gone, and he became a straight-up prophet of doom and malice who ranted about a “generation of swine.” Which was what the times called for, no doubt; but it can’t be healthy for you, and neither can staying continuously loaded for 20 years, which is what he was working on at the time.
Maybe it was the booze and the drugs; maybe it was because he’d given up hope; or maybe they’re two sides of the same coin — for whatever reason, the Doctor’s productivity had declined over the years. He went from being a guy who produced a 500-page book on the 1972 election to one who struggled to produce a thousand words once a week (many tales are told of his deadline battles with editors at the Examiner, whom the Doctor put through hell on a weekly basis).
But again, the talent was always there, and every so often it would make itself heard, as in this 1988 column (which is collected in the book Generation of Swine). Here the Doctor wields sarcasm like a knife aimed squarely at the heart of George Bush the Elder — though it’s every bit as funny, and more relevant, if you picture George W. instead.
The Other George Bush
By Hunter S. Thompson
Skinner called from Washington last week and warned me that I was dangerously wrong and ignorant about George Bush. "I know you won't want to hear this," he said, "but George is an utterly different person from the one he appears to be — from the one you've been whipping on, for that matter. I thought you should know...."
I put him on hold and said I would call him back after the Kentucky-Maryland game. I had given 5 points, and Kentucky was ahead by 7 with 18 seconds to go.... George Bush meant nothing to me, at that moment. The whole campaign was like the sound of some radio far up the street.
But Skinner persisted, for some reason.... He was trying to tell me something. He was saying that Bush was not what he seemed to be — that somewhere inside him were the seeds of a genuine philosopher king.
"He is smarter than Thomas Jefferson," Skinner said. "He has the potential to stand taller in history than both of the Roosevelts put together."
I was shocked. "You lying swine," I said. "Who paid you to say these things? Why are you calling me?"
"It's for your own good," he said. "I'm just trying to help you."...He took a call on one of his other lines, then came back to me in a blaze of disconnected gibberish.
"Listen to me," he was saying. "I was with him last night, all alone. We sat in front of his fireplace and burned big logs and listened to music and drank whiskey and he got a little weepy, but I told him not to worry about it, and he said he was the only living voice of Bobby Kennedy in American politics today."
"No," I said. "Don't tell me that swill. It's too horrible. I depend on you for more than that."
I laughed. It was crazy. Here was Gene Skinner — one of the meanest and most cynical hit men in politics — telling me that he'd spent the last two nights arguing with George Bush about the true meaning of Plato's Republic and the Parable of the Caves, smoking Djarum cigarettes and weeping distractedly while they kept playing and replaying old Leonard Cohen tunes on his old Nakamichi tape machine.
"Yeah," Skinner said, "he still carries that 350 with the Halliburton case, the one he's carried for years... He loves music, realy high rock'n'roll. He has tapes of Alice Stuart that he made himself on the Nak."
Ye Gods, I thought. They've finally turned him; he's gone belly-up. How did he get my phone number?
"You hideous punk! Don't call me any more!" I yelled at him. "I'm moving to Hawaii next week. I know where you've been for the last two years. Stay away from me!"
"You fool!" he shouted. "Where were you when we were looking for you in New Orleans last week? We hung around for three days. George wanted to hook up with the Neville Brothers. We were traveling incognito." ...and now he was telling me that Bush — half mad on cheap gin and hubris, with 16 states already locked up on Super Tuesday — showed up at the New Orleans airport on Sunday night with only one bodyguard and a black 928 Porsche with smoked windows and Argentine license plates.
It was hard to accept. Skinner was a professional, I knew — and Bush was a former director of the CIA. It was a strange mix; and especially strange, given Skinner's bizarre fix on Bush, which made me very uneasy.
"You know why he likes me?" he said. "He likes me because I know poems. He loves poetry. He can do 'Annabel Lee' from top to bottom." At that point his voice got blurry:
"It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea...." He paused for a minute, then went on in a dreamy voice, which disturbed me. "And this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.... I was a child and she was a child in this kingdom by the sea. But we loved with a love that was more than love—"
"That's enough," I said. "I can't stand it. The idea of George Bush cruising around New Orleans and quoting the works of Edgar Allan Poe is more than I can handle."
"That's nothing," Skinner replied. "He can sing every song that Bob Dylan ever wrote. He plays the Dobro. He has the second Dobro ever made — in its original case. Incredible, incredible."
I laughed harshly, but he seemed not to notice.
"And he loves animals," Skinner said. "Animals are the only thing he loves more than music."
"I saw him rescue a dead cat and try to bring it back to life," he said, "right out in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. He put his head right down on that animal's lips and blew his own breath down its throat.... People hooted and cheered at him and a big crowd gathered, but he kept right on."
I felt sick and said nothing. Skinner rambled on, drifted from one demented story to another, like he was talking about the Maharishi. It made no sense at all.
None of it did, for that matter. George Bush was a mean crook from Texas. He had no friends and nobody in Washington wanted to be seen with him on the streets at night. There was something queasy about him, they said - a sense of something grown back into itself, like a dead animal.... It was impossible that he could be roaming around Washington or New Orleans at night, jabbering about Dylan Thomas and picking up dead cats.
There was something very wrong about it, deeply wrong, even queer.... Yet Skinner seemed to believe these things, and he wanted me to believe them.
Why? It was like hearing that Ivan Boesky had written "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," or that Ed Meese wakes up every morning and hurls a $100 bill across the Potomac.
I hung up the phone and felt crazy. Then I walked back to the hotel in the rain.