Forty years ago this election cycle, Hunter S. Thompson was embedded with the George McGovern campaign, reporting for Rolling Stone on McGovern’s effort to unseat the incumbent Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Thompson’s writings on the campaign and its aftermath were compiled into the book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. I know that 40 years ago is ancient history these days, but for my money this book is utterly indispensable reading for anyone with the faintest interest in how politics works in this country.

Because here’s the thing: Even today, all roads lead to Nixon.

“I’d like a haircut when I grow up. And also, to undermine democracy.”

Hunter Thompson HATED Richard Nixon, and — let’s be honest — he had very good reasons to. Nixon’s personal insecurities led him to undermine the mechanism of American democracy and exploit the traditional relationship between the press, politicians, and the public in ways that have reverberated through the decades and have now become business-as-usual. Interestingly, the Watergate break-in happened during the 1972 campaign. It receives a fleeting mention in Thompson’s book, and in hindsight the vitriol Thompson directs at Nixon seems shockingly prescient. But it wasn’t until long after this book’s release that the significance of the Watergate break-in became known, and that lends a sort of “present at the creation”  feel to this glimpse of, essentially, the moment immediately before America lost all its faith in its leaders. 

Everyone who was born after Watergate (like me) has always lived in a world where we expect our politicians to lie knowingly to us. We ask them to, and they winkingly oblige, because we all know that politics is dirty business, and we have to vote for somebody. Politics were dirty before Nixon, but we’ve now reached the inevitable end of the road Nixon paved, where “a major party’s nominee for national office apparently just doesn’t care that he is standing in front of millions and telling easily catchable lies.” 
What we’ve lost, and really only had for a fleeting instant in Hunter Thompson, is a popular voice that can be morally outraged without lying constantly about why. And we are all the worse because of it.

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