An African root that makes you hallucinate and leads to almost incapacitating, emotional outbursts. Is there a better way to explain Donald John Trump? Don’t take my word. Read this detailed report from a legendary journalist on the campaign trail: “It is entirely conceivable — given the known effects of ibogaine — that [Trump’s] brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at the crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people, and that his mind snapped completely.”
Okay, I concede the quote is slightly (44 years) out of context and, to be totally upfront, the Republican front-runner’s name wasn’t in the original account. That’s why I yanked open the old journalist’s tool box and pulled out . . . brackets! In fact, back in 1972, when that sentence emerged, Trump was just a real estate rookie on his way to a federal discrimination suit.
But don’t let tiny details distract us from the larger point. Here we media are, desperate to make sense of every “How could he say that” and “Did he go too far” moment with think pieces, fact checks and memes/video mashes. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a definitive explanation for the potty-mouthed plutocrat’s behavior?
That’s when I think of Hunter S. Thompson, the great Dr. Gonzo. He is dead, of course, a suicide during the Bush II administration. And here we are, 11 years later, gravely unequipped as we take in the increasingly bizarre proceedings. We’re a generation of Jake Tappers — intelligent, fair, professionally predictable. Ah, to dream of a healthily crazed Dr. Gonzo on the 2016 campaign trail.
We have different entry points to his work. Mine came in the early ’90s. I was a college kid trying to make sense of a universe that allowed both Robert James Waller and the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson to flourish. With his Dunhills (always in that cigarette holder), floppy tennis hat and glass of Wild Turkey, Thompson offered an alternative path.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
That’s the opening of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a book that convinced my misguided soul that there was no better time (now) or place (dorm room) to launch my great rebellion. Inspired by Gonzo but saddled with a harrowing lack of talent, maturity or self-awareness, I sauteed fact and fiction into a grand melange. The college housing office director became “a demented speed merchant who should be castrated by a rabid, Olympic elk.” My weekly column emerged with a headline of “I Hate New York,” driven largely by my knowledge that approximately 37 percent of the Tufts student body emanated from the Empire State and had the copy of “Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1 and Volume 2” to prove it.
The blessing of reading Hunter S. Thompson at a young age, for me at least, is that I recognized my limitations before an e-record of my poor writing could be established. At Thompson’s peak, his prose burned, with references, re-inventions and risk. He was funnier than any stand-up, as free-flowing as any abstract expressionist. These were special, once-in-a-generation skills. They were not to be matched. But you could take a larger lesson from his philosophy.
If you want to cover a political race, get out of the pack. If you want to write about a subculture, whether it’s Buffalo Bills’ fans or Wagner freaks, leave your telephone and desk behind. Be there, see it, listen and take copious notes.
In a 1974 Playboy interview, Thompson is asked to explain the difference between Gonzo journalism and the “new” journalism. That leads to a response, in which Thompson references Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese.
“They’re both much better reporters than I am, but then I don’t really think of myself as a reporter,” he says. “They tend to go back and re-create stories that have already happened, while I like to get right in the middle of whatever I’m writing about — as personally involved as possible.”
Personally involved. Think about that while reading 1966’s “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”
Thompson spent more than a year with the Hell’s Angels and eventually had his head smashed in for calling out a gang member for beating his wife. Reviewers compared him to Mark Twain. I particularly love the way Thompson describes the way the Angels viewed their place in society, told from a biker’s perspective.
“To him they are all the same — the running dogs of whatever fiendish conspiracy has plagued him all these years. He knows that somewhere behind the moat, the Main Cop has scrawled his name on a blackboard in the Big Briefing Room with a notation beside it: ‘Get this boy, give him no peace, he’s incorrigible, like an egg-sucking dog.’ ”
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” came next, in 1971, a book that, for all the talk of Thompson’s chemical intake, is as polished as “The Great Gatsby.” Nothing here is by chance, not the dialogue, the foil — “my attorney” — and the litany of cultural references. Nixon, Bob Dylan, Art Linkletter, Joe Frazier, Timothy Leary, Spiro Agnew, Captain Zeep . . . they’re all part of the same, mad stew. The sick, dying and dead visage of the American dream Thompson so often returned to.
Then he headed to the campaign trail. Strangely enough, Thompson had already ridden in a car with Nixon, keeping his promise to only talk football, and later fell for the hopeless George McGovern. In “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” he played handicapper like the best of them, but also placed in print the idea that then-NBC Nightly News anchor John Chancellor dropped acid and, even better, that he could explain the erratic behavior of presidential candidate Edmund Muskie. He hated Muskie, not as much as the “gutless, ward-heeler” Hubert Humphrey, but enough to aim the Gonzo guns at the senator from Maine. Muskie’s temper was well known. Then, in a passionate defense of his wife, snow falling from the winter sky, the candidate appeared to shed tears. Enter ibogaine, an African hallucinogenic.
“If you eat it — just a chunk of it — you can sit for three days in a very quiet stupor, without sleeping, and watching a water hole,” Thompson said. “There are other manifestations, such a sudden blind rages, unexplainable frenzies . . . but mainly you’re after the animal, like Muskie.”
It was, of course, a wild goof, as absurd as the bugs in a David Cronenberg movie. But many fell for Thompson’s satirical claim, reporting it as fact.
“I couldn’t believe people took this sort of thing seriously,” he said later. “I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee . . . which was true, and I started the rumor.”
“He wasn’t doing just writing,” David Felton, the Rolling Stone editor who worked so closely with Thompson during the 1970s, told me when I called to talk about Hunter recently. “He really was doing acting and performance art with a tape recorder.”
Performance art is, these days, a prerequisite for the modern politician. There are the required, SNL pop-ups, the exaggerated claims in the service of debate, the quirky behaviors — recumbent biking! claw-hammer banjo! — sure to elicit attention.
Like the sports junkie contemplating who would get the better of a bases-loaded battle between Bob Feller or Bryce Harper, I dream of the beat-downs that might flow from a Thompson Twitter feed. Following Jack Shafer, Roseanne and Luke O’Neil only gets me 25 percent of the way there.
What would the good Doctor make of awkward Ben Carson or gun-tweeting Jeb? Of Bernie’s finger-wagging and mysteriously financed revolution? Would he forgive Hillary or file his own, Gonzified report featuring errant emails handed to him by an unnamed ex-staffer during an all-night session of Acapulco gold and John Prine? I can half imagine Thompson embracing Kasich or even just running himself, the Freak Power ticket revived in a time of need.
One caveat. My fantasy does not have room for the burned-out Hunter. That’s the guy who skipped Ali-Foreman, hung with Sean Penn and had his ashes shot out of a fist-shaped canon.
I need the Hunter of ’72, who wouldn’t let Trump’s mocking of Serge Kovaleski, Megyn Kelly’s “blood coming out of her whatever” and the P-word get stuck in a file labeled “campaign controversies, past.” Each event would become its own avatar, dancing across the coverage like a Benzedrine-soaked bat. Ralph Steadman would be there to illustrate.
Somewhere, in that Owl Creek in space, I imagine the fax machine humming, smoke rising from an ashtray and, for one night at least, we have the answer. It’s ibogaine. And don’t blame me for reporting it. It’s just a rumor I heard. A rumor I made up.