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Book reviews

 Reviews

BACK ON THE GONZO TRAIL IN MR BILL'S NEIGHBOURHOOD

Better than sex: confessions of a political junkie trapped like a rat in Mr. Bill's neighborhood

by Hunter S. Thompson.

Sydney: Doubleday, 1995.

ISBN 0-385-40667-3.

A$34.95, £15.99


Better than sex: confessions of a political junkie trapped like a rat in Mr. Bill's neighborhood, by Hunter S. Thompson.

Book review, by Giles Hugo.

IN an age of multi-national ownership and globalised networks hawking infotainment and an increasingly tabloidised version of reality, serious political journalists with assertively independent opinions are members of an endangered species. That they survive at all is a tribute to their personal courage and integrity - in spite of the megalomaniac tendencies and murky agendas of mega-powerful media proprietors.

That's why, after every US presidential election I look forward to the next book by Hunter S. Thompson, hoping that it will contain a healthy slab of his maverick analysis of the political process, as seen from the perspective of America's weirdest political journo.

Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing; On the Campaign Trail '72' set the standard for gonzoid gubernatorial pyrotechnics. In 1976, after years of Nixon/Ford thuggery, Thompson endorsed no-hope peanut farmer Jimmy Carter in an article for 'Rolling Stone' magazine, a move which ensured the support of millions of young voters for the Democrat candidate, who won against the odds.

After 12 years of the Reagan/Bush junta, Thompson decided to throw his support behind Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the only person in HST's chemical-damaged mind capable of unseating the latest incarnation of the Republican Evil Empire. The title of Thompson's latest tome says it all - 'Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie Trapped Like a Rat in Mr. Bill's Neighbourhood'. It is primo gonzoid excess.

Thompson is totally up-front about his non-objective stance: 'There are a lot of ways to practise the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people - who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled because they are wrong.'

It's not as if Thompson finds the sax-playing candidate exactly his kind of people. Asked to comment on Bill Clinton's marijuana 'confession', he opines: 'I was embarrassed. What do mean "didn't inhale"? What the hell do you think we smoke it for? ...Only a fool would say a thing like that. It's just a disgrace to an entire generation.' To which he later adds: 'Bill Clinton does not inhale marijuana, right? You bet. Like I chew on LSD but I don't swallow it.' And even later: 'Jack Kennedy never inhaled, and neither did Marilyn Monroe.'

And when he meets Clinton, in 'a standard-brand Southern diner called Doe's Eat Place in Little Rock', he comes to a disturbing realisation: 'It is eerie to think now that George Bush might have a better sense of humor than Bill Clinton.'

He has serious reservations about the former Rhodes scholar: 'But Bill Clinton is also very enthusiastic about law enforcement and more police and re-hab prisons and the right of the U.S. military or paramilitary SWAT teams to pursue, destroy or kidnap alleged criminals in foreign countries, anywhere in the world. It bothers me - maybe in the same way that Clinton's being a democrat bothers P.J. (O'Rourke). He is a Republican and I am a criminal.'

Nevertheless, Thompson reserves his extreme bile for Bush, predicting that when the president slips below Clinton in the ratings, 'He will start acting dangerously crazy and attack in every direction like a savage gut-shot hyena with only minutes to live. He is already trading strip-mining rights in 24 national forests for electoral votes in the Rust Belt, and he long ago peddled the remains of his wretched ass to a band of God-
spewing religious Nazis and stupid hate-mongers... But that is nothing compared to the horrible damage he'll do when he knows that his deal has finally gone down. It will be like George Wallace on his deathbed being told that his final appeal to go to heaven has been denied and that hell is run by a gang of mean niggers.'

Political correctitude has never been HST's strong point - he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases and pleases, and anyway, his heart is in the right place even if his head is scrambled like a complex mega-digit equation in a Pentium every 20 billion years, or so, give or take a billenium.

And his sense of the bizarre knows no bounds, as in this 'ancient and honourable' story of how Lyndon Johnson first got elected to Congress in 1948 when his opponent was a wealthy and politically favoured pig farmer: 'Lyndon was running about 10 points behind, with only nine days to go... He was sunk in despair. He was desperate... he called his equally depressed campaign manager and instructed him to call a press conference at two or two-thirty ( just after lunch on a slow news day) and accuse his high-riding opponent (the pig farmer) of having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children... His campaign manager was shocked. 'We can't say that, Lyndon,' he said. 'It's not true.' 'Of course it's not,' Johnson barked at him, 'but let's make the bastard deny it.'

What delightfully perverse logic, far more deadly than 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' or 'You may be experiencing difficulties with a system error. If your cursor is frozen and a force quit does not work, reboot, lose all your unsaved work and have a nice day.'

Now that the world's most technologically wired-up nation finally has a Prez who has seen the future - and it's lost somewhere in a mega-snarl-up on the Infobahn - and who has an e-mail address and a World Wide Web site (with cat, Socks, who may be digitally stroked or fed cybersardines c/o http://www.whitehouse.gov), HST take great delight in revealing: When the Clintons moved into the White House... they found an antique communications system that was so old that most of Clinton's staff could barely recognise it. One of the ranking staffers who had spent a year working with the high-
tech, state-of-the-art computerised communications system in Clinton's Little Rock headquarters said the White House telephone system look like something left over from the Lincoln administration. "No wonder the goddam country is in such a mess," he said. "Bush was living in a time warp." (So much for Star Wars. - Ed.) There were no private telephones in the White House, not even in the Oval Office. Anybody in the West Wing could listen in on any call Bush or Reagan made, just by pressing a button on one of their antique phones... No wonder we were driven crazy by news leaks. Not even the hot line to Moscow was secure. The White House switchboard was a basement room in the Executive Office Building, about a block away, where three old ladies, wearing headphone, plugged every call into a black box full of holes. Clinton went crazy when he saw it. There was no way he could make a private call to anybody. The operators knew every number he called and heard everything he said - along with the FBI and CIA and probably Al Gore's wife." '

However, after the ball is over, and the Clintons are happily trashing the A.G. Bell Tinkertoy Tincan-and-String Telephonic Interchange Device No.1, and Socks is happily playing Doom on-
line with corgis at Buck House, HST feels pangs of guilty disgust: 'Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To vote for Bill Clinton... When I hear people telling that joke to each other in public, I think they are talking about me, and it gives me a queasy feeling. And I never argue, because it's true. Yessir. I crossed that road at high noon in the summer of '92, and I brought a lot of people with me - or at least I tried to, and some people mention it constantly. Even people who voted for Nixon look down on my now. But I had my reason, so fuck them. I would do it again, because I felt it was absolutely necessary to beat George Bush. He was like a rubberised impersonation of Nixon, and I figured Clinton could beat him. Which was true. We won... Nixon was so aggressively evil that he almost glowed at night. His political instincts were so dangerous that he made the politics of total opposition a very honourable trade for two generation of the best people in America. He gave no mercy and expected none. He was fun... Mr Bill is our Willy Loman. Clinton is "liked, but not well liked," not even his best friends and allies believe anything he says. He has the sense of loyalty of a lizard with its tail broken off and the midnight taste of a man who might go on a double-date with the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart.'

Which is a very nasty comparison and probably totally unfair to the Rev - and the lizard.

However, seriously, I am sure that, similarly, my former colleagues in the South African journalistic laager wept a curiously mingled cocktail of tears of joy and rage when Nelson Mandela took the oath of office last year - it would be much harder to mock an ANC government; the Malan-Verwoerd-
Vorster-Botha(squared) years had provided so much dangerous fun for members of the Fourth Estate. Never mind, Winnie Mandela, Gatsha Buthelezi and Eugene Terre'Blanche are still in the wings, even if Winnie has lost her Cabinet position. (See review of 'The Lady',Emma Gilbey.)

Aptly, HST returns to his foe of choice in his final chapter. Nixon died in April '94, as the book was going to press, and there is a suitable confused and emotional 'tribute' to RMN: 'I will miss him for the hideous clarity that he brought to my understanding of American politics, and for the anger he inspired in my work. He brought out the best in me... What follows is the obituary that I just delivered to 'Rolling Stone'. Read it and weep, for we have lost our Satan. Richard Nixon has gone home to hell... Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was a evil man - evil in every way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or moral or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him - except maybe the Stalinist Chinese.'

HST also proposes a thesis for Nixon's demise that had never occurred to me but is cunningly convincing, namely: 'Nixon had no friends except George Will and J. Edgar Hoover (and they both deserted him). It was Hoover's shameless death in 1972 that led directly to Nixon's downfall. He felt helpless and alone with Hoover gone. He no longer had access to either the Director or the Director's ghastly bank of Personal Files on almost everybody in Washington... He was not only a crook but a fool. Two years after he quit, he told a TV journalist that "If the president does it, it can't be illegal." '

Perhaps Winnie Mandela would like to extend that definition of legality to 'the president's estranged wife'.

In this final, hate-spurred plunge on the HST Big Dipper Death Run, Dr Fear and Mr Loathing restates the raison d'etre of the noble art and craft of Gonzo journalism: 'Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism - which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place... You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.'

So, paradoxically, in HST's latest gonzoidal tilt at the windmills of the political mind, the most memorable character is not the 'no humour' good ol' boy from Li'l Rock but the delightfully diabolical demon who featured in 'Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ;72', the book that made his name as a political poison pen. Who was it who said that Milton had much more fun with the ultimate bad guy in 'Paradise Lost' than he ever could have with either God or Jesus?

I sincerely wish Dr Gonzo and fellow fans of his political suss a foe worthy of his unkindest thoughts. Neither Reagan nor Bush were BAD! enough. Even Ross Perot ain't weird enough. Now, if Michael Jackson were to stand for office and succeeded, no doubt some tabloid-and-DMT-crazed Middle American would snuff the first black Prez with a full clip from an AK-47 assault rifle because he - or, more likely, she - couldn't stand people who achieve fame, wealth and enviable legal immunity thanks to gender-bending and race-rectifying cosmetic surgery.

Stranger things have happened in Mr Bill's neighbourhood.

by Giles Hugo