These are the times that try men’s souls. Or, at least, mine.

I hate primary season so much it makes me rage at the wind. Nothing speaks to the absurdity of politics moreso than this load of crap. While the general election in November at least pretends to be about what the people want, the primaries are always about what the media says about the candidates, which state wants more influence over the other, which candidate is the best-looking, most well-spoken, or has collected the most money so far. Do any of them deliver messages that resonate with regular folks? Umm, I don’t know since that apparently doesn’t matter.

So it’s been nice to read the good Dr. Thompson’s book chronicling his chronicles of the 1972 presidential race. I can’t think of anyone better than him, being so outside of the establishment (he always calls members of the mainstream punditry, “the press wizards”). We read to know we’re not alone, and reading this is like having a sage old dope smoker by my side agreeing with everything I scream at the newspaper every morning.

Better than that, he is writing about a bygone era of politics I never knew existed. This year was the pivotal one, apparently. Back then, the possibility — even inevitability — of strong third parties was real. This was a time when party nominees weren’t necessarily decided upon by voters — the gruesome 1968 Democratic National Convention was evidence of that. While the pundits and the press almost single-handedly coronate or crucify nominees today (remember the Dean scream?), in ’72 reporters were still only as influential in the process as football commentators are in the outcome of the Super Bowl.

But the dirty, corporate-controlled, People Magazine-style campaigns were sown back then. It’s kind of exhilarating to read about it first-hand from someone as human and honest as Thompson.

Early in the book (January, to be exact – the book is divided up by months spent on the campaign trail), Thompson finds himself handicapping all of the Democratic candidates the way he would a 49ers game and he sort of scolds himself for it. He is caught up in the excitement after all, and this sobers him up to the reality that the election actually affects people. He had just come from a conference of students trying to organize the youth vote — that ever optimistic hope that young non-voters will come out in droves and actually shake up the establishment. That year saw a host of solidly smart liberal candidates (Gene McCarthy, Shirley Chisholm, etc.) and they were all almost discounted from the start with all the expected debating about useless things like “electability.” He says:

How many more of these goddman elections are we going to have to write off as lame but “regrettably necessary” holding patterns? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?

Now, with another one of these big bogus showdowns looming down on us, I can already pick up the stench of another bummer. I understand, along with a lot of other people, that the big thing this year is Beating Nixon. But that was also the big thing, as I recall, twelve years ago in 1960 — and as far as I can tell, we’ve gone from bad to worse to rotten since then, and the outlook is for more of the same.

Much of this line of thinking seems to be about a subversion of the people’s voice — not by the old methods of outright corruption, but the new ways: a party establishment (now controlled by big business) that was just getting started then, working in concert with our cult of celebrity and general ignorance to keep the system going, changing what could be a vibrant and exciting contest into something bland and outside of our normal scope — a political process that is almost entirely self-running, requiring only our obedient flicking of levers to “R” or “D” on election day to keep moving while we fall back asleep.

Thompson writes often about the “Sleeping Giant” vote — the youth and poor and otherwise disaffected people who could seriously shake things up if they could only be roused by a strong candidate who agrees with them. But he also writes about the weird inability of any candidate to truly resonate with them. This is important to understanding why we are the way we are today.

When the anti-war George McGovern is asked by a student if he would support Ed Muskie for president if he won the nomination, McGovern says he will. Muskie voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that ignited the Vietnam War, and Thompson correctly wonders what kind of principles a man can have if he says he will blindly support a Democratic candidate for president regardless of his moral standing. Thompson says:

I doubt if I was the only person in the hall at that moment who thought, “Well, shit . . . if you plan to support him in July, why not support him now and get it over with?”

And then:

Maybe it is no longer enough to have been “against the war in Vietnam since 1963” — especially when your name is not one of the two senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and when you’re talking to people who got their first taste of tear gas at anti-war rallies in places like Berkeley and Cambridge in early ’65. . . . Who is going to explain in 1976 that all the people who felt they got burned in ’72 should try again for another bogus challenger? Four years from now there will be two entire generations . . . who will not give a hoot in hell about any election, and their apathy will be rooted in personal experience.

We scoff at our apathetic voting culture now but have completely lost sight of where it might have sprung from: a popular groundswell for a liberal candidate (McCarthy) squashed by the powers-that-be in ’68, and a timid wishy wash of candidates in ’72 who were too afraid to take Nixon to task on the real issues and who couldn’t make a strong moral case for themselves because of their politically expedient voting records. Sound familiar, Hilary Clinton fans? Apathy doesn’t come from nowhere.

Thompson was writing the beginning of the future here. I guess this is why it’s so crucial to read history, especially the history of these troubling time periods that one is too young to remember but was too recent to be included in the grade school text books.

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