Hunter S. Thompson, Self Portrait, in Striped Chair, ca. 1960.
Hunter Stockton Thompson began writing about politics in the early sixties while working as a roving freelance contributor, in South America, for the Dow Jones–owned newspaper the National Observer. “Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few Seem to Mourn Its Passing” is one of the more than a dozen pieces he’d eventually publish on South American politics, but a specific moment, in 1964, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, seems to have crystalized his broader political perspective.
At the time, Thompson was just twenty-six; he was living with his wife, Sandy, and infant son, Juan, fifty miles north of the city, near Sonoma. Months earlier, he’d moved to California to serve as the Observer’s West Coast correspondent, and throughout that spring and early summer he’d written multiple articles on “local color”: who-what-when-where-why travel pieces stripped of political content by his fastidious editors. At the Republican National Convention, scheduled for the second week of July at the Cow Palace—a Works Progress–era arena on San Francisco’s southern border that had originally been built to host livestock competitions—Thompson’s assignment was that of a stringer: each day he needed to gather quotes from Republican politicians that his editors, who would do all the actual writing, could include in their standard recaps.
With the help of his old friend T. Floyd Smith, who, that week, happened to be working for the Pinkerton Agency, the private firm in charge of convention security, Thompson gained access to the entire Cow Palace: he found himself in the caucus room for Barry Goldwater, that year’s presidential nominee; he visited VIP receptions stocked with free alcohol and food—all he had to do was flash Smith’s badge.
Goldwater’s acceptance speech was scheduled for Thursday evening; by that point, Thompson had been awake for two straight nights. He’d recently started taking a daily dosage of Dexedrine—an amphetamine-based stimulant similar in its chemical makeup to Adderall—“prescribed” to him by another close friend. In the months before the convention, Thompson had begun to rely on the drug in professional situations; Dexedrine, in its effects, allowed him to stay up the entire night, with energy and focus, a perfect supplement to the convention’s frenetic environment.
That Thursday, Thompson used his Pinkerton credentials to make his way to the convention floor, a space reserved for Republican delegates and off-limits to the press. Goldwater was scheduled to go on just after nine P.M., preceded by former vice president Richard Nixon, who, in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s brutal murder in Dallas the year before, had returned from the political wilderness to once again seek the spotlight.
There wasn’t a politician in the country Thompson despised more. Nixon had made a career out of capitalizing on the basest and most destructive impulses in the national character—bigotry, selfishness, and small-mindedness—all the while painting himself, in the most garish of strokes, as just another humble civil servant acting out of love for God and country. Nixon seemed a man capable of anything so long as it got him what he wanted—more power—and now, the youthful Thompson, exhausted from four straight days of convention coverage, found himself watching the spectacle of Nixon’s reemergence from only a few dozen feet away.
“Now I’m just a simple soldier in the ranks,” Nixon intoned from the podium. It was the same hokey shtick he’d been using for years, most notably during his 1952 “Checkers” speech, and once again the audience seemed to love it. For Thompson, it must’ve been uncanny to see Richard Nixon live: it was to witness his sole talent at work: namely, the ability to convince people who know he’s lying that they should trust him anyway.
Nixon concluded the speech by gesturing theatrically. “Down this corridor will walk a man into the pages of history,” he said. “He is the man who earned and proudly carries the title of Mr. Conservative, and he is the man who after the greatest campaign in history will be Mr. President. Barry Goldwater!” As the silver-haired senator from Arizona strode to the podium to accept his party’s nomination—as the band struck up “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and thousands of balloons cascaded down—these two very different political animals basked onstage together, hand in hand.
“I’d like to thank my friend Dick Nixon,” Goldwater said. He slid on his heavy black reading glasses. In a calm, deliberate tone, he proceeded to enumerate the specifics of an ideology that, to Thompson, felt dangerously out of touch—and quite possibly apocalyptic. The speech, more than forty minutes long, was heavy on terms like “liberty” and “law and order” and “security” that alluded to his more controversial positions without stating them directly. Halfway through, he seemed to throw a jab in Nixon’s direction: “Small men,” he said, “seeking great wealth or power, have too often and too long turned even the highest levels of public service into mere personal opportunity.”
But the real surprise came just as his speech appeared to be winding down. Goldwater, after a brief silence, glanced at the podium, his jaw jutting sharply. Then, gazing out on the 1,308 delegates below, he said, pausing every couple words, “I would remind you … that extremism … in defense of liberty … is no vice.” In the next instant, Thompson found himself at the epicenter of the most primal expression of political fervor he would ever witness. The delegates howled and cheered, their voices buttressed by innumerable noisemakers, trumpets, klaxons, and cowbells. Thompson watched people in the rows ahead of him bang their bodies against their chairs, their chairs against the floor, and the floor rumbled against their countless stomping feet.
Later that night, Thompson left the Cow Palace and crossed the six miles back to downtown San Francisco with thousands of other attendees. He’d pushed himself too hard; the crash was coming: in a few hours, he’d descend into a state of drunken dissolution. Still, that moment on the floor was one he’d never forget. “When GW made his acceptance speech,” he explained In a letter to his friend Paul Semonin a few months afterward, he admits to “actually feeling afraid because I was the only person not clapping and shouting. And I was thinking, God damn you nazi bastards I really hope you win it, because letting your kind of human garbage flood the system is about the only way to really clean it out. Another four years of Ike would have brought on a national collapse, but one year of Goldwater would have produced a revolution.”
Eight years later, reporting from the site of another convention—the 1972 Republican one in Miami—he’d write,
Then it came to me. Yes. In 1964, at the Goldwater convention in San Francisco, when poor Barry unloaded that fateful line about “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, etc…. ” I was on the floor of the Cow Palace when he laid that one on the crowd, and I remember feeling genuinely frightened at the violent reaction it provoked. The Goldwater delegates went completely amok for fifteen or twenty minutes. He hadn’t even finished the sentence before they were on their feet, cheering wildly. Then, as the human thunder kept building, they mounted their metal chairs and began howling, shaking their fists at Huntley and Brinkley up in the NBC booth— and finally they began picking up those chairs with both hands and bashing them against chairs other delegates were still standing on.
In 1964, Thompson’s artistic relationship with Richard Nixon was just getting started. Over the next decade, as he continued to follow and write about the astonishing career of a person whose character he ascertained from the start, he’d find himself attending and participating in some of the most momentous events of the postwar era—from the 1968 conventions to the 1972 primary and Nixon’s inauguration, about which he’d compose his most pertinent work, the book-length essay Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and through the Watergate hearings:
The slow-rising central horror of “Watergate” is not that it might grind down to the reluctant impeachment of a vengeful thug of a president whose entire political career has been a monument to the same kind of cheap shots and treachery he finally got nailed for, but that we might somehow fail to learn something from it.
If we’ve learned anything in the time since, it’s that political crooks come and go. Thompson remains compelling as a political journalist because his approach—based on a unique combination of effort, participation, and insight—reflected the breakneck pace of the events he covered. It would exact a heavy personal price in return, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make, a point worth considering every day—especially today.
Timothy Denevi is the author of Hyper and the forthcoming Electric Snake, a narrative of Hunter S. Thompson’s life and work during the years spanning John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s resignation. You can follow him on Twitter at @timdenevi.
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