This morning brings the sad news that Hunter S. Thompson, the sage of Gonzo Journalism, has died at 67, of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado.I never had the chance to meet Thompson, and haven’t paid much attention to his writings since the early 1980s, but at his peak, he was without peer as a improvisational writer on subjects ranging from politics to drugs to pro football, to–well, to nearly every subject touching on his tortured vision of the American Dream. Any blogger who hasn’t read Thompson is arguably missing the originator of the medium’s distinctive style, long before the internet. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, his brilliant account of the 1972 presidential campaign, reads a lot more like a long series of blog posts than any kind of print journalism report. And all his earlier books, from Hell’s Angels through The Curse of Lono, are worth reading and re-reading.Thompson’s career also represents a cautionary tale about the cost of celebrity–a celebrity he seemed to endure rather than pursue. At one point Thompson was planning another Fear and Loathing book about the 1976 presidential campaign, but abandoned it, because, as he told an interviewer: “It’s hard to cover a campaign as an Outlaw Journalist when you’re getting more attention than the candidates…. I can thank friend Trudeau for that.” He was referring, of course, to the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury, based not-so-loosely on Thompson, which destroyed any sort of casual privacy for its model once and for all. And that’s also probably why Thompson’s later writings seemed often to read like self-parody.But his genius is without question, and in the welter of drugs and gunplay and sexual assault charges that appear to have marked his declining years, I can only hope he never lost his touching, almost naive faith in the possibilities of America “as a monument to the human race’s best instincts”–a faith that fueled his rage at the “greedheads” who betrayed those possibilities.So: here’s to Doctor Gonzo’s memory, and I guess the only proper way of commemorating his passing is to hunker down somewhere, light up a King Marlboro, shrewdly rip the pop tops off a six-pack of beer, and read his remarkable prose.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.