In 1992, Rolling Stone sent what it called its "National Affairs team" to a cafe in Little Rock, Arkansas to interview the Democratic nominee for president, whom the magazine was also endorsing. Let's see who's at that table in the above picture, going from (literally, but not, politically) right to left.
That's Bill Clinton on the (again, not politically) far right. You may recall he won that election.
To the (literal, but, excepting issues involving gun ownership, not the political) right of Clinton is Hunter S. Thompson. A former newspaper reporter, Thompson first achieved notoriety in 1967 when he wrote a book on the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, a tome that ends with him getting beat up by one of its members. As odd a piece of reportage as that may sound, it was written in conventional journalistic prose. Not so his next notable piece, an article that appeared in the short-lived, far-left Scanlon's Monthly. Not so much about the Kentucky Derby as the drunks in the stands watching the Kentucky Derby, it introduced a new style of writing called "Gonzo journalism." Though Gonzo may have had its antecedents in the satirical journalism of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H.L. Mencken, Thompson added something new to the genre: he claimed, quite convincingly, to be stoned out of his mind while doing his reporting, resulting in sex-drugs-and-rock and roll blur of fact and fiction. As provocative as all that sounds, the article was as little-read as the magazine it appeared in. But it caught the eye of the editor of the aforementioned Rolling Stone, a magazine dedicated to the then thriving counterculture music scene. Thompson and the impressionist artist-cartoonist who had illustrated his Scanlon's story, Ralph Steadman, was invited to do something for RS. This became perhaps the most famous piece to ever to appear in the magazine, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" , later a book, about a trip Thompson took with his 300-pound Samoan attorney (in reality, a stocky Chicano.) The next year he and Steadman were asked to cover the 1972 presidential election. A wildly successful series of articles, and eventually a best-selling book, focusing mostly on the Democratic primaries and convention, it got Thompson a place on the Rolling Stone masthead as the head of the "National Affairs Desk" (while his alter ego, Raoul Duke, manned the "Sports Desk".) At most magazines that would usually mean news coming out of Washington, but Thompson took a more sweeping view of the term. Take Roxanne Pulitzer's divorce, which he hilariously covered. Affairs, yes. I'm just not sure how national they were. But the 1972 presidential race certainly had national implications, and that's why Thompson was at that table with Bill Clinton, who, in the opinion of some, used Thompson for his own advantage. Like just about every Democratic candidate since 1932, Clinton was characterized by the Republicans as a wild-eyed radical leftist. To prove that he was middle-of-the-road, Clinton had proposed a law enforcement bill that would add 100,000 policemen to American cities. Such a proposal was anathema to Thompson, who had witnessed the beatings of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and had taken a dim view of law enforcement ever since. He expressed those concerns to Clinton, who would have none of it, claiming that African-Americans--in his writings, Thompson had often criticized the white power structure--that he had talked to in Little Rock all supported an increase in policemen. Whether they did or not, Clinton had successfully positioned himself to the right of a counterculture hero at a time when the Republican Party was trying to inaccurately paint the Democratic Party as being an arm of that (by then almost nonexistent) counterculture.
O'Rourke. A former writer for the National Lampoon, in the early 1980s he was named head of the Rolling Stone "Foreign Affairs Desk", but he wrote quite frequently about domestic affairs as well. He's been described by himself and just about everyone else as the RS token conservative, and there may be some truth to that. Voters under 25--Rolling Stone's target audience--chose Reagan over Mondale by 2-to-1 in 1984 election, so a little tokenism at the time might have made good business sense, and no conservative was better suited to the magazine than O'Rourke. He's often been compared to Hunter S. Thompson, but I've always found both writers to be quite different. Thompson's prose was mostly stream-of-consciousness played for laughs. Despite some occasional salty language and scatological references, O'Rourke took the more traditional route of a humorist: one-liners. He was less a right-wing Hunter Thompson and more a right-wing Dave Barry. There also was a certain difference of experience between Thompson and O'Rourke that wasn't entirely political but played into their political views. For instance, both Thompson and O'Rourke have admitted to taking drugs (not that such an admission has ever gotten anyone ostracized in the offices of Rolling Stone.) But Thompson's drug-taking was in the here and now. What you read by him was on drugs. O'Rourke's drug-taking, however, was all in the past. As was his radicalism. In his prose, O'Rourke often makes mention of just how steeped he was in the 1960s counterculture during his college days. But as I suspect was often the case with college students steeped in the 1960s counterculture, he was a Lefty Until Graduation (I'm tempted to call him a LUG, but that acronym has already been taken.) Once out of college, he took a turn to the Right and....I was going to finished that sentence with "never looked back" but he DID look back. And he looked back with that most conservative of desires: nostalgia. In a printed exchange between Thompson and O'Rourke, he admitted he rails against the 1960s because he misses them so much. And that, I think, was, and is, the key to his comedy. If he no longer had any use for the ideology of the counterculture, he could still apply its anarchic spirit to his right-wing punditry, making him a hip, edgy alternative to George Will or William F. Buckley. It also meant he could attract readers across the political spectrum. Such as me. I didn't at all share his political views--I was one voter under 25 who chose Mondale over Reagan in the 1984 election--but I still found O'Rourke funny as hell. So funny that when I found out that he was going to give a talk at a Borders bookstore not far from where I lived, I made a point of being there. He attracted a big crowd, and there was a long line after the talk, but I did get to meet him. He seemed friendly enough. As he signed my book ("To Kirk Bon Appetit! P.J. O'Rourke 9/22/98"), I asked him whatever became of the National Lampoon. Betraying a bit of annoyance, not towards me personally but at the thought of what happened, he explained that some scumbag--his characterization, not mine--had bought the name just so he could make movies with National Lampoon in the title, and published the actual magazine just once a year to keep the copyright fresh (ironically, the book O'Rourke was signing was Eat the Rich, an endorsement of the free enterprise system.) Now, this was 21 years ago. Two right-wing presidencies, several right-wing congresses, and a few right-wing acts of violence later, I'm not so sure I'd want to see him if he showed up at some local bookstore (which at any rate wouldn't be Borders since the whole chain has gone belly up.) I wouldn't find him as funny. All that conservatism is to me now a very old, and very bad, joke. That said, I can't quite bring myself to throw away his book. After all, it has his autograph.
|William Greider 1936-2019