Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sizing Up the Downfall: HST on the Campaign Trail 1972

Note: This is the final entry of a four-part review on Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo history of the 1972 presidential election.

The month of October in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 takes up less than three pages.  By this time HST was in despair over the prospect of Nixon’s re-election, when a McGovern victory seemed so promising at the end of July. “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I would rather not write anything about the 1972 presidential campaign at this time.  On Tuesday, November 7th, I will get out of bed long enough to go down to the polling place and vote for George McGovern.  Afterwards, I will drive back to the house, lock the front door, get back in bed, and watch television as long as necessary.  It will probably be awhile before The Angst lifts – but whenever it happens I will get out of bed again and start writing the mean, cold-blooded bummer that I was not quite ready for today.

“That is the one grim truth of this election most likely to come back and haunt us.  The options were clearly defined, and all the major candidates except for Nixon were publicly grilled, by experts who demanded to know exactly where they stood on every issue from Gun Control and Abortion to the Ad Valorem Tax.  By mid-September both candidates had staked out their own separate turfs, and if not everybody could tell you what each candidate stood for specifically, almost anyone likely to vote in November understood that Richard Nixon and George McGovern were two very different men: not only in context of politics, but also in their personalities, temperaments, guiding principles, and even their basic lifestyles…

“There is almost a Yin/Yang clarity in the difference between the two men, a contrast so stark that it would be hard to find any two better models in the national politics arena for the legendary duality - the congenial Split Personality and polarized instincts – that almost everybody except Americans has long since taken for granted as the key to our National Character.  This is not what Richard Nixon had in mind when he said, last August, that the 1972 presidential election would offer voters ‘the clearest choice of this century’ but on a level he will never understand he was probably right…and it is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise.” (pp. 415-416)

Soon thereafter, in the chapter on November, the reader comes across an abrupt change in the narrative.  An “Editor’s Note” explains that “Dr. Thompson suffered a series of nervous seizures” so most of the remaining pages are in the form of transcriptions of various interviews.  In this gonzo manner HST searches for meaning in the failed McGovern candidacy and expresses his personal struggle to make sense of what he views as a treacherous and disastrous post-election landscape.  The first “transcript” is of the “editor” (known as Ed) interviewing HST himself.

Ed: Gary Hart later admitted he had known McGovern would lose for a month before the election?

HST: He told me when I stopped in Denver on the way to the Super Bowl that he’d sensed it as early as September, but when I asked him when he knew, he thought a minute and then said ‘Well, I guess…it was around October 1…’ According to Pat Caddell’s polls they had known – when I say ‘they’ I mean the McGovern top command – what kind of damage the Eagleton thing had done and how terminal it was ever since September.  Pat said they spent a month just wringing their hands and tearing their hair trying to figure out how to overcome the Eagleton disaster.

Ed: By ‘the Eagleton disaster,’ do you mean the question of McGovern’s competence in handling the affair?

HST:  His whole image of being a … first a maverick, anti-politician and then suddenly becoming an expedient, pragmatic hack … who talked like any politician in anybody’s ... kind of a … Well, he began talking like a used car salesman, sort of out of both sides of his mouth, in the eyes of the public, and he was no longer … either a maverick or an anti-politician … he was … he was no better than Hubert Humphrey and that’s not a personal judgment, that’s how he was perceived … and that’s an interesting word. ‘Perceive’ is the word that became in the ’72 campaign what ‘charisma’ was for 1960, ’64 and even the ’68 campaigns.  ‘Perceive’ is the new key word.

Ed: What does ‘perceive’ mean?

HST: When you say perceive you imply the difference between what the candidate is and the way the public or voters see him.

Ed: What causes the difference between perception and reality?

HST: The best example of how perception can drastically alter a campaign is the difference between, for instance, how McGovern was perceived by the Wallace voters in the Wisconsin primary as being almost as much of a maverick and an anti-politician as George Wallace himself.  He carried the south side of Milwaukee – one of the last places anybody expected him to carry.” (pp. 428-429)

HST: The Eagleton affair was the first serious crack in McGovern’s image as the anti-politician. He dumped Eagleton for reasons that still aren’t … that he still refuses to talk about.  Eagleton’s mental state was much worse than was ever explained publicly.  How much worse, it’s hard to say right now but that’s something I’ll have to work on … In any case there was no hope of keeping Eagleton on the ticket.

“The Eagleton thing is worth looking at for a second in terms of the difference between perception and reality.  McGovern was perceived as a cold-hearted, political pragmatist who dumped this poor, neurotic, good guy from Missouri because he thought people wouldn’t vote for him because they were afraid that shock treatments in the past would have some kind of lingering effect on his mind.” (page 430)

HST: … and in Miami I wasn’t down on Eagleton because I knew any foul secrets about him … But when I was talking to Stearns and Bill Dougherty [McGovern advisor, William Dougherty, Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota] on the beach that Saturday afternoon after the convention, I told him Eagleton looked like the first mistake they’d made up to then – because he seemed out of place in that campaign; he was a hack, just another one of these cheap hustlers …” (page 439)

Ed: So the public’s perception of McGovern was distorted – but you think McGovern essentially was at the root of that distortion.

HST: I think his indecisiveness was at the root of that distortion.  At every crisis in the campaign McGovern appeared to be – was perceived to be – and, in fact, was indecisive … for unnatural periods of time.

Ed: Unnatural periods of time?

HST: Well, unsettling periods of time.  The selection of a replacement for Eagleton was one of the most heinous botches in the history of politics. Here he was calling Humphrey and Muskie and offering it to them publicly - and then being turned down … He had offered it to Humphrey at the convention --- I didn’t realize that until later.” (pp. 440 – 442)

In December HST, as “National Affairs Editor” of Rolling Stone, sat down with McGovern in an attempt to find some answers.  The subsequent interview is revealing of the wide number of factors that crushed the initial optimism of the campaign. A few were attributable to the way Nixon orchestrated matters of policy, but most were the self-inflicted sins of the McGovern campaign itself. 

McGovern: I think there was just a chance, coming out of Miami, that we could have ignited the public.  There was a period there right after I got the nomination when I’m sure the majority of the American people really weren’t sure what they were going to do about me.  But the impressions that they had were rather favorable.

HST: I would have bet dead even coming out of the convention…I was optimistic.

McGovern: Yeah, I was, too.  Now I think the first thing they saw was the Eagleton thing, which turned a lot of people off. No matter what I’d have done, you see, we were in trouble there.  And so that was an unfortunate thing.  And then there were some staff squabbles that the press spotlighted, which gave the impression of confusion and disarray and lack of direction, and I think that hurt.

HST: I know it hurt.  At least among the people I talked to.

McGovern: So those two factors were related and the Eagleton thing upset the morale of the staff and people were blaming each other, and there was no real chance to recover from the fatigue of the campaign for the nomination – we had to go right into the Eagleton battle, and so I think that – if there was a chance, at that point, to win the election – we probably lost it right there.  And then other factors began to operate, the ‘peace is at hand’ business, the negotiations sort of blunted and killed it; actually, I think the war issue was working for the President.  And then the accommodation of – at least the beginning of the accommodation of Peking and Moscow seemed to disarm a lot of moderates and liberals who might otherwise have been looking in another direction.” (pp. 472 – 473)

McGovern: There was a feeling on the part of a lot of the staff that after Miami there wasn’t the central staff direction that should have been.  Whose fault that is I don’t know … I found in the field a lot of confusion about who was really in charge, pushing and pulling as to where you got things cleared, who had the final authority.  That could have been handled more smoothly that it was.  When you add all of those things up, none of them, in my opinion, comes anywhere near as serious as the fact that the Republicans were caught in the middle of the night burglarizing our headquarters.  They were killing people in Vietnam with bombing raids that were pointless from a military point of view.  They were making secret deals to sell out the public interest for campaign contributions, you know, and routing money through Mexican banks and all kinds of things that just seemed to me to be scandalous.

HST: Wasn’t there a Harris Poll that showed that only 3 percent of the electorate considered the Watergate thing important?

McGovern: Yeah.  That’s right.  Mistakes that we made seemed to be more costly.  I don’t know why, but they were.  I felt at the time that we were being hurt by every mistake we made, whereas the most horrendous kind of things on the other side seemed to – because, I suppose, of the great prestige of the White House, the President’s shrewdness in not showing himself to the press or the public – they were able to get away with things that we were getting pounded for.” (pp. 473 – 474)

McGovern: I think we exaggerated the amount of the enthusiasm for change among young people. We saw activists in the primaries, but it’s always a small percentage that were really working, and you’d see stadiums packed Saturday after Saturday with tens of thousands of people.  There really are a great number of people in this country that are a helluva lot more interested in whether the Dolphins beat the Redskins than they are in whether Nixon or George McGovern ends up in the White House.  I think there is a lot of apathy and a lot of feeling - also a lot of kind of weariness over the activism of the sixties - the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the crusades, the marches, the demonstrations.  Nixon kind of put all that behind us.  Things quieted down.  He disarmed the peace movement - there were no riots, no demonstrations, and I think people were afraid of anything that kind of looked like a fundamental change..." (page 478)

But, for all its insight into specific reasons for the landslide dimensions of the defeat, the McGovern interview left HST with more questions than answers.  This is revealed when, once again suffering from a psychotic inability or unwillingness to write, the book offers a "transcript" between HST and the "editor." 

"HST: I spent about two weeks in Washington talking to fifteen or twenty of the key people of the campaign, and I was surprised at the lack of any kind of consensus - no hard figures or any kind of analysis - except the kind of things that McGovern said in his interviews which were mainly speculation ... he was saying, I think this, and that might work, and I'm sure this could happen if...

"But when I asked him, for instance, who the 45 percent of the voters were - eligible voters who didn't vote this year - he said he had no idea.  And when I asked the same question to Mankiewicz, he said I should ask Pat Caddell ... I just talked to Pat on the phone yesterday, and he said it would take him a long time to get the figures together on a nationwide basis, but one thing he could say was one of the most noticeable hard facts of this '72 presidential campaign was that, for the first time in anyone's memory, fewer people voted for the President in, I think it was, half the states, than had voted for the state level offices - which on the average runs about 15 percent higher in terms of voter turn-out ... no, excuse me, the presidential vote runs on an average about 15 percent higher." (pp. 480-481)

"HST: According to Pat's pools, based upon repeat interviews with the same people all year long, it shows a conscious decision on the part of an incredibly large number of people not to vote for President, but to go in and vote for state-level offices.  I'm not sure just what that means ... if they felt that they had no choice. despite what somebody said that this was supposed to be the clearest choice of the century...

"The Eagleton affair was so damaging to McGovern's image - not as a humane, decent, kind, conservative man who wanted to end the war - but as a person who couldn't get those things done even thought he wanted to.  He was perceived, then, as a dingbat - not as a flaming radical - a lot of people seem to think that was one of the images that hurt him.  But according to Pat, that 'radical image' didn't really hurt him at all ... The same conclusion appeared in a Washington Post survey ... They agreed that the Eagleton affair was almost immeasurably damaging ... according to Gary Hart, it was so damaging as to be fatal. ... They could all see it happening, but they couldn't figure out how to deal with it - because the damage was already done and there was no way McGovern could prove that he was not as dangerously incompetent as the Eagleton Affair made him seem to be.  They couldn't figure out ... there was nothing they could do ... no issue they could manufacture, no act that they could commit ... or anything they could say ... that would change people's minds on the question of McGovern's competence to get anything done, regardless of what he wanted to get done.  In other words, there were a lot of people who liked him, liked what he had to say - but who wouldn't vote for him, because he seemed like a bumbler." (pp. 482 - 483)

"HST: My own theory, which sounds like madness, is that McGovern would have been better off running against Nixon with the same kind of neo-'radical' campaign he ran in the primaries.  Not radical in the left/right sense, but radical in the sense that he was coming on with ... a new ... a different kind of politician ... a person who actually would grab the system by the ears and shake it. And meant what he said. Hell, he certainly couldn't have done any worse.  It's almost impossible to lose by more than 23 percent ... And I think that conceivably this country is ready for a kind of presidential candidate who is genuinely radical..." (page 488)

"HST: Maybe the McGovern constituency came out, but I doubt it.  The people who might have voted for the candidate McGovern wasn't, like you said, they didn't turn out.  Half the people I know didn't vote ... And besides that, the black vote was very low, the chicano vote was negligible ... and it was only 47 percent of the new voters voting. McGovern was counting on at least two-thirds of those people ... and he was getting it consistently in the primaries, but of course those were Democratic primaries ... One of the odd things about the McGovern campaign is that nobody has any figures to explain the disastrous results.  Nobody involved in the campaign seems to really have the will to understand.  I don't think we learned much from the McGovern campaign." (page 494)

So, to summarize all the analysis, the McGovern presidential campaign, so successful in the primaries, was butchered by Nixon in November for the following reasons: the failure to properly vet Eagleton as a VP candidate, McGovern lost his "anti-politician" perception with the electorate, McGovern was indecisive about the fundamental issues confronting his campaign, his campaign became increasingly reactionary and disorganized, Nixon was able to "campaign" using the powers of the Office of the Presidency (visiting China and Russia, initiating negotiations with Hanoi, etc.) while essentially ignoring McGovern (there were no presidential debates in 1972), the youth vote, black vote, and latino ("chicano" in HST's day) vote were all marginalized, and fewer people actually voted for president than usually did in a general election, minimizing the disenfranchised and blue-collar coalition McGovern enjoyed in the primaries. Finally, the criminal Watergate affair had no impact at all in 1972, but that would change, of course, two years later when Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment. 

That is a awful lot of things working against any presidential campaign, but most of the blame has to rest squarely on the shoulders of George McGovern himself.  He wanted to become "the leader of the free world."  But, in the end, he couldn't effectively lead his own candidacy for the office and the vast majority of voters knew it. Although McGovern was well liked and respected as a Senator by most people, that did not translate into anything more than a momentary surge in political power just before the Democratic convention.  So, while HST says we didn't learn much from the McGovern campaign experience, he nevertheless manages a superb analysis of all the factors that contributed to his demise - in spite of HST's overwhelming angst and acute writer's block regarding how things transpired after September 1972.

In a 1997 symposium (see video starting at 13:30), Frank Mankiewicz called Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, “The most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.”  Outside of the solid political analysis of the race, everything in the book is subject to gonzo embossing.  Still HST's work offers plenty of fascinating scrutiny of the great McGovern massacre (or Nixon's grand triumph) in its final section.

As for the rest of what is contained in the splendid narrative of the book, it is best summed up by HST's introduction (unlike the rest of the book, written in retrospectively in January 1973), which also serves as a kind of confession to the reader: "I had never covered a presidential campaign before I got into this one, but I quickly got so hooked on it that I began betting on the outcome of each primary - and, by combining aggressive ignorance with natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom, I managed to win all but two of the fifty or sixty bets I made between February and November. My first loss came in New Hampshire, where I felt guilty for taking advantage of one of McGovern's staffers who wanted to bet that George would get more than 35 percent of the vote;  and I lost when he wound up with 37.5 percent.  But from that point on, I won steadily - until November 7, when I made the invariably fatal mistake of betting my emotions instead of my instinct.

"The final result was embarrassing, but what the hell?  I blew that one, along with a lot of other people who should have known better, and since I haven't changed anything else in this mass of first-draft screeds that I wrote during the campaign, I can't find any excuse for changing my final prediction.  Any re-writing now would cheat the basic concept of the book, which...was to lash the whole thing together and essentially record the reality of an incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening: from an eye in the eye of the hurricane, as it were, and there is no way to do that without rejecting the luxury of hindsight." (page 20)

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 is a one-of-a-kind work of political journalism.  HST went days and weeks asking questions and listening, developing personal relationships with key players, taking notes but never writing anything intended for publication until the last minute, just as the Rolling Stone deadline loomed. He was perpetually late with his copy and could not have written the thing at all had not been for "the Mojo Wire," this incredibly massive, primitive, first-generation  fax machine that allowed him to literally rip his typed pages out of his IBM Selectric and send them to the magazine as it was going to press.  

The experience was exhilarating for him and also nerve-racking.  All that sense of urgency and confusion is apparent throughout the fantastic prose of his work.  HST was one helluva writer. And, as my extended quotes through this series of posts hopefully demonstrate, his work reads just as fresh today as it did back then; offering a rare insight into both a historic election and into the mechanics of politics that are fundamentally still with us today.

I reread this book because of how strange and ludicrous the 2016 presidential election seems to me (and to a lot of other people).  I feel nostalgic for HST's insights and shenanigans. We need him around today to make sense of the impending presidential train wreck.  There is urgency and angst and, well, fear and loathing more so today than ever before.  But HST is not here to guide us, to interpret, to ask the hard questions that will make some tragic sense of it all.  Trump, Clinton, what does any of it mean?  I miss HST's proclivity for distilling the essential bullshit out of the almost unfathomable hubris.  Even with him around, we were horrendously disoriented in 1972. Now, without him, it seems to me we are completely lost.

(This completes my four-part review of Hunter S. Thompson's remarkable journey into presidential politics.)  

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