One of my favorite movies is a terrifically bad movie starring Bill Murray as Hunter S. Thompson. It’s called, “Where the Buffalo Roam.” I caught it again on late-night TV the other night.
Now, those of you who were not born before the age of Nixon can’t possibly appreciate the hold Thompson has on many journalists of a certain age. Quite frankly, I would have never gone to journalism school if I hadn’t read “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” “The Great Shark Hunt” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Thompson was a free-spirited magazine writer and author who trafficked in something like journalism. He was unabashedly subjective. He claimed to take copious amounts of drugs while on assignment. He was pretty much unemployable. He was also a very fun read.
For all of his foolishness, Thompson reflected the times in a unique way and was the end of the line for something that was once called New Journalism. The 1960s and ’70s were a very heady time in the business. In addition to those heroes at the Washington Post who brought down a crooked president, there were New Journalists like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese who were, for my money, more literate (if less objective) than any journalist today. (By the way, I’m convinced those guys would be all over our new media tools, if they had had them.) …
Thompson was the perfect foil for those Watergate characters and sometimes he even wrote passages of brilliant insight. Here’s one, from his most famous book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” that describes what may have been his central theme: the death of innocence and the failed promise of the 1960s. He wrote that there was a time when it felt like the good guys were winning but, by 1972, that had changed.
There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … Now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
I mention Thompson today because I miss him. I miss what he did to us. I miss that no matter what I did I would never be as impossible as Thompson, ipso facto what I was doing fell within the boundaries of the professionally acceptable. Most of all I miss his swagger. Too many of us, from newspapers like mine all the way to the hip digital newsgathering sites of the 21st century, are lulled to sleep by history’s long sweep of outrages. We don’t talk truth to power because we fear next time power will talk to someone else.
“Where the Buffalo Roam” reminds me where I come from.
Thompson was a cartoon character. I would never suggest you adopt his personal habits. He would sometimes admit it was mostly an act anyway. I’d settle for seeing a little more of his confidence among my peers.
In a note to his grandson shortly before he died in 2005, Thompson wrote:
Walk tall, kick ass, learn to speak Arabic, love music and never forget you come from a long line of truth seekers, lovers and warriors.
I like to think those of us in this profession are all Hunter S. Thompson’s grandchildren.