Saturday, October 1, 2016

Meeting McGovern: HST on the Campaign Trail 1972

Hunter S. Thompson with Senator George McGovern in 1972.
Note:  This is part three of a four-part book review.

HST had exceptional access to the brain-trust of the McGovern campaign and he spent most of his time reporting what he learned from observing and talking to them.  He met McGovern personally on several occasions.  Most encounters are mentioned in passing in the book, but a few others are entertainingly fashioned by HST, who has a knack for mixing in a heavy dose of factual truth with some, shall we say, embellishment.  Gonzo journalism is meant to shock and entertain as much as present the facts.

“It was up in New Hampshire, several weeks before the vote, that I blundered into the now infamous ‘Men’s Room Interview’ with McGovern.  People have been asking me about it ever since – as if it were some kind of weird journalistic coup , a rare and unnatural accomplishment pulled off by what had to have been a super-inventive or at least super-aggressive pervert.

“But in truth it was nothing more than a casual conversation between two people standing at adjoining urinals.  I went in there to piss – not to talk to George McGovern – but when I noticed him standing next to me I figured it was only natural to ask him what was happening….I cursed Senator Harold Hughes for siding with Muskie instead of the man I was talking to…and if we had just driven through a terrible hailstorm I would have probably cursed the hailstones instead of Hughes.

“Which hardly matters.  The point is that anybody could have walked up to that urinal next to McGovern at that moment, and asked him anything they wanted – and he would have answered, the same way he answered me.

“That is the odd magic of the New Hampshire primary, and I didn’t really appreciate it until about two months later when I realized every time McGovern wanted to piss, at least nine Secret Service agents would swoop into the nearest men’s room and clear it completely, the cordon off the whole area while the poor bastard emptied his bladder.” (page 366)

Really not much of a meeting, but after the McGovern win in Wisconsin there was a more substantial interaction, again more by accident than design.  HST went into a crowded hotel restaurant and bar looking for Frank Mankiewicz to discuss what was considered a stunning upset at the time.  “I had come down the aisle very fast, in my normal fashion, not thinking about much of anything except what I wanted to ask Mankiewicz – but his loud accusation about having ‘the nerve to show up’ gave me a definite jolt.  Which might have passed in a flash if I hadn’t realized, at almost the same instant, that four thugs with wires in their ears were so alarmed at my high-speed appearance that they were about to beat me into a coma on pure instinct, and ask questions later.

“This was my first confrontation with the Secret Service. They had not been around in any of the other primaries, until Wisconsin, and I was not accustomed to working in a situation where any sudden move around a candidate could mean a broken arm.  Their orders were to protect the candidate, period, and they are trained like high-strung guard dogs to react with Total Force at the first sign of danger.  Never hesitate.  First crack the wrist, then go for the floating rib…if the ‘assassin’ turns out to be just an oddly dressed journalist – well, that’s what the SS boys call ‘tough titty.’ Memories of Sirhan Sirhan are still too fresh, and there is no reliable profile on potential assassins…so everybody is suspect, including journalists.

“All this flashed through my head in a split second. I saw it all happening, but my brain had gone limp from too much tension…and perhaps the most unsettling thing of all was the fact I’d never seen Mankiewicz even smile.

“‘You better stay away from my house from now on,’ Mankiewicz was saying.  ‘My wife hates your guts.’

“Jesus, I thought.  What’s happening here?  Somewhere behind me I could hear a voice saying, ‘Hey, Sheriff!  Hello there!  Sheriff!’

“I glanced over my shoulder to see who was calling, but all I saw was a sea of unfamiliar faces, all staring at me…so I turned quickly back to Mankiewicz, who was still laughing.

“‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I said. ‘What did I do to your wife?’

“He paused long enough to carve a bite of what looked like a five or six pound Prime Rib on his plate, then he looked up again.  ‘You called me a rumpled little man,’ he said. ‘You came over to my house and drank my liquor and then you said I was a rumpled little man who looked like a used car salesman.’

“‘Sheriff! Sheriff!’ That goddamn voice again; it seemed vaguely familiar, but I didn’t want to turn around and find all those people starting at me.

“Then the fog began to lift.  I suddenly understood that Mankiewicz was joking - which struck me as perhaps the most shocking and peculiar development of the entire ’72 campaign.  The idea that anybody connected with the McGovern campaign might actually laugh in public was almost beyond my ken.  In New Hampshire nobody ever even smiled, and in Florida the mood was so down that I felt guilty for even hanging around.

“Even Mankiewicz, in Florida, was acting like a man about to take the bastinado…so I was puzzled and even a little nervous to find him grinning like this here in Milwaukee.  Was he stoned?  Had it come down to that?

’Sheriff! Sheriff!’

“I spun around quickly, feeling a sudden flash of anger at some asshole mocking me in these rude and confusing circumstances.  By this time I had forgotten what I’d wanted to ask Mankiewicz in the first place.  The night was turning into something out of Kafka.

“’Sheriff!’

“I glared at the table behind me, but nobody blinked.  Then I felt a hand on my belt, poking at me…and my first quick instinct was to knock the hand away with a full-throttle hammer-shot from about ear level; really crack the bastard…then I immediately apologized: ‘Oh! Pardon me, old sport! I guess my nerves are shot, eh?’

“Which they almost were, about thirty seconds later, when I realized that the hand on my belt – and the voice that had been yelling ‘Sheriff!’ – belonged to George McGovern.  He was sitting right behind me, an arm’s length away, having dinner with his wife and some campaign staffers.

“Now I understood the Secret Service presence.  I’d been standing so close to McGovern that every time I turned around to see who was yelling ‘Sheriff!’ I saw almost every face in the room except for the one right next to me.

“He twisted around in his chair to shake hands, and the smile on his face was the smile of a man who had just cranked off a really wonderful joke.

‘’God damn!’ I blurted, ‘it’s you!’  I tried to smile back at him, but my face had turned to rubber and I heard myself babbling:  ‘Well…ah…how does it look?’ Then quickly: ‘Excellent, eh? Yeah, I guess so.  It certainly does look…ah…but what the hell, I guess you know all this…’

“He said a few things that I never really absorbed, but there was nothing he could have said at the moment as eloquent or as meaningful as that incredible smile on his face.” (pp. 148-150)

HST had run for sheriff in Colorado (politically known as "The Battle of Aspen") in 1970.  He lost and had written an article about the experience for Rolling Stone, which is why McGovern was having some fun with him in that regard.  All of McGovern’s personal encounters with HST were rather commonplace.  But these snippets from the book serve to illustrate HST’s writing style and ability to spin a good, human-interest story in with his factual political reporting. The following excerpt occurred before the previous one, but, in typical rambling HST fashion, it is mentioned over 100 pages later in the book. 

“Four months ago on a frozen grey afternoon in New Hampshire the McGovern ‘press bus’ rolled into an empty parking lot of a motel on the outskirts of Portsmouth.  It was 3:30 or so, and we had an hour or so to kill before the Senator would arrive by air from Washington and lead us downtown for a hand-shaking gig at the Booth fishworks.

“The bar was closed, but one of McGovern’s advance men had a sort of beer/booze and sandwich meat smorgasbord for the press in a lounge just off the lobby…so all six of us climbed out of the bus, which was actually an old three-seater airport limousine, and I went inside to kill time.

“Of the six passengers in the ‘press bus,’ three were local McGovern volunteers.  The other three were Ham Davis from the Providence Journal, Tom Crouse from the Rolling Stone Boston Bureau, and me.  Two more media/press people were already inside: Don Bruckner from the Los Angeles Times, and Michelle Clark from CBS.

“There was also Dick Dougherty, who had just quit his job as chief of the L.A. Times New York bureau to become George McGovern’s press secretary, speechwriter, main fixer, advance man, and all-purpose traveling wizard.  Dougherty and Bruckner were sitting off by themselves at a corner table when the rest of us straggled into the lounge and filled our plates  at the smorgasbord table: olives, carrots, celery stalks, salami, deviled eggs…but when I asked for a beer, the middle-aged waitress who was also the desk clerk said beer ‘wasn’t included’ in ‘the arrangements,’ and that if I wanted any I would have to pay cash for it.

“’That’s fine,’ I said.  ‘Bring me three Budweisers.’

“She nodded. ‘With three glasses?’

“’No. One glass.’

“She hesitated, then wrote the order down and lumbered off toward wherever she kept the beer.  I carried my plate over to an empty table and sat down to eat and read the local paper…but there was no salt and pepper on the table, so I went back up to the smorgasbord to look for it & bumped into somebody in a tan gabardine suit who was quietly loading his plate with carrots and salami.

“’Sorry,’ I said.

“’Pardon me,’ he replied.

“I shrugged and went back to my table with the salt and pepper.  The only noise in the room was coming from the L.A. Times corner.  Everybody else was either reading or eating, or both.  The only person in the room not sitting down was the man in the tan suit at the smorgasbord table.  He was still fumbling with the food, keeping his back to the room…

“There was something familiar about him.  Nothing special – but enough to make me glance up again from my newspaper; a subliminal recognition-flash of some kind, or maybe just the idle journalistic curiosity that gets to be a habit after awhile when you find yourself drifting around in the nervous murk of some story with no apparent meaning or spine to it. I had come up to New Hampshire to write a long things on the McGovern campaign – but after twelve hours in Manchester I hadn’t seen much to indicate that it actually existed, I was beginning to wonder what the fuck I was going to write about for that issue.

“There was no sign of communication in the room. The press people, as usual, were going out of their way to ignore each other’s existence.  Ham Davis was brooding over the New York Times, Crouse was re-arranging the contents of his knapsack, Michelle Clark was staring at her fingernails. Bruckner and Dougherty were trading Sam Yorky jokes…and the man in the tan suit was still shuffling back and forth at the smorgasbord table – totally absorbed in it, studying the carrots…

“Jesus Christ! I thought  The Candidate!  That crouching figure up there at the food table is George McGovern. 

“But where was his entourage?  And why hadn’t anybody else noticed him?  Was he actually alone?

“No that was impossible.  I had never seen a presidential candidate moving around in public without at least ten speedy ‘aides’ surrounding him at all times.  So I watched him for awhile, expecting to see his aides flocking in from the lobby at any moment…but it slowly dawned on me that The Candidate was by himself: there were no aides, on entourage, and nobody else in the room had even noticed his arrival.

“This made me very nervous.  McGovern was obviously waiting for somebody to greet him, keeping his back to the room, not even looking around – so there was no way for him to know that nobody in the room knew he was even there.

“Finally I got up and walked across to the food table, watching McGovern out of the corner of one eye while I picked up some olives, fetched another beer out of the ice bucket…and finally reached over to tap The Candidate on the arm and introduce myself.

“’Hello, Senator.  We met a few weeks ago at Tom Braden’s house in Washington.’

“He smiled and reached out to shake hands. ‘Of course, of course,’ he said. ‘What are you  doing up here?’

“’Not much so far,” I said. ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’

“He nodded, still poking around with the cold cuts.  I felt very uneasy.  Our last encounter had been somewhat jangled.  He had just come back from New Hampshire, very tired and depressed, and when he arrived at Braden’s house we had already finished dinner and I was getting heavily into drink. My memory of that evening was somewhat dim, but even in dimness I recall beating my gums at top speed for about two hours about how he was doing everything wrong and how helpless it was for him to think he could ever accomplish anything with that goddamn albatross of a Democratic Party on his neck, and that if he had any real sense he would make drastic alterations in the whole style & tone of his campaign and re-model it along the lines of the Aspen Freak Power Uprising, specifically, along the lines of my own extremely weird and nerve-rattling campaign for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado.

“McGovern had listened politely, but two weeks later in New Hampshire there was no evidence to suggest that he had taken mu advice very seriously. He was still plodding along in the passive/underdog role, still driving back & forth across the state in his lonely one-car motorcade to talk to small groups of people in rural living rooms. Nothing heavy, nothing wild or electric.  All he was offering, he said, was a rare and admittedly long-shot opportunity to vote for and honest and intelligent presidential candidate.

“A very strange option, in any year – but in mid-February of 1972 there were no visible signs, in New Hampshire, that the citizenry was about to rise up and drive the swine out of the temple. Beyond that, it was absolutely clear – according to the Wizards, Gurus, and Gentlemen Journalists of Washington – that Big Ed Muskie, the Man from Maine, had the Democratic nomination so deep in the bag that it was hardly worth arguing about. Nobody argued with the things McGovern said. He was right, of course – but nobody took him very seriously, either…” (pp. 240 – 244)  

(To be continued.)

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