Reasons to Read Flawed-but-Savvy Thompson

Not long after I moved to South Dakota in 2009, I got to meet former presidential candidate and senator George McGovern. I’m not as much of a political hound as many people I know, but I knew about McGovern and how he should have beat Nixon in 1972 and the eventual fallout of that campaign.

I knew because of the red-covered tome I carried with me into the bookstore where he would be talking about a book he wrote on Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t buy his Lincoln book, and even the book I carried was not written by him.

I seized an opportunity to get my copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” signed by one of the primary figures in the book. It was dicey, I wasn’t sure how McGovern would react, but I did it anyway.

Thompson, I believe, would have approved.

I read parts of that book even still — with McGovern’s signature in it — every four years as a reminder of how odd presidential elections can get. I also read it for the adventure of the book. Thompson took risks back then that today would get a reporter arrested — or body slammed — with little concern for his personal safety. Only a few years before writing “Fear and Loathing,” he had survived a beating from the most infamous motorcycle club in America, so worrying was rarely on his mind.

Far too many people read Thompson now for the drugs-and-booze lifestyle instead of for the writing and the insight he brought to pop culture and politics. I’m sure there is a handful of my journalism colleagues pulling their hair out now, screaming, “Do not tell kids to read Thompson. We need to train them first.”

As true as that is, we cannot teach boldness. We can’t teach fearlessness. We can’t teach a desire to make the world a better place.

You can teach people how to read. You can also teach them to read beyond a person’s poor lifestyle choices to see the merit of their work.

I am proposing that in our current political climate, we re-evaluate Hunter Thompson based solely on what he wrote. I propose that we give him a chance to be heard as a writer and a journalist as opposed to being just the voice of a buffoon and spirit guide to woefully unprepared young journalists who think they can get by on guts alone because their wits have been impaired with chemicals.

There are three and a half years in which to read “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” before the next election. That leaves time to read “Rum Diary” or “Better than Sex,” Thompson’s account of the first Bill Clinton campaign. Not your style? Read “Hey, Rube,” which is a collection of sports-related columns written for ESPN.

Yes, Thompson will always get political; he can’t help it. But there is rarely a moment when he is not entertaining or enlightening.

Originally published in Inland 360.

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