Hunter Thompson does something unique in this book that I wish more political journalists tried. He’ll spend almost an entire chapter writing about the campaign like gripping sports commentary and then, just as you’re caught up in the excitement, he whips out a trail of hopeless vitriol about the sham of the entire process. He’s doing his job, but he’s tired of it, and that exhaustion is worth noting. We can pretend this is a contest or a race, or any of the other terms journalists use to trivialize the most sacred act of our democracy, but we should remember that it’s much more serious than that.

I empathize with Thompson (and I bet most voters do, too). We’re involved in this whole thing because it matters, but we have to pretend that the emperor has clothes on in order to keep our sanity and not punch someone. (And that note of violence isn’t all mine — by this point in the book Thompson has talked about wanting to rip someone’s throat out, throw someone else down an elevator shaft, and a half dozen other such flare-ups. The frequency is increasing the more time he spends away from his beloved Sandy and with the pompous idjits on the trail.)

When Thompson sneaks off of Ed Muskie’s campaign train in Florida because the whole depressing business reminds him too much of a Nixon campaign, he fatefully gives his press pass to a crazy hippie so the guy can have a free ride to Florida. The mess that ensues is incredible, not just for what happened, but for what it says about American politics.

The crazy hippie gains Thompson’s affection by, essentially, being a spark of magical realism in an otherwise dreary month of canned, meaningless diatribe. “He has that rare weird electricity about him — that extremely wild and heavy presence that you only see in a person who has abandoned all hope of ever behaving normally,” Thompson says. He has had to endure Muskie’s insincerely repeated stump speech at every whistle stop, and he’s happy to have some relief from that.

But the crazy proceeds to try to uproot Muskie’s campaign almost single-handedly, causing such a scene on the train and at a hoped-to-be triumphant speech in Miami that the press lends all of its gaze to the debacle and none to Muskie’s stale patter.

The result? Floridians vote for George Wallace instead (yes, that George Wallace!) because he casually showed up at a NASCAR race and shared some “informal” “unprepared” remarks with the adoring fans.

On the one hand I was glad to see front-runner Muskie upended only because, through Thompson’s biased lens, he came off as such a load of political crap. On the other hand, it was distressing that one candidate’s hitch-free publicity event gave him a landslide victory while the other candidate’s disastrous publicity event got him only scorn, ridicule, and an almost-last place finish.

Both of these situations illustrate stark truths about our electoral process. Insincere hacks try to cater to whatever they think will make people vote for them, and insincere press stunts can make or break a campaign, regardless of what the candidate stands for. Thompson puts this beautifully:

A presidential candidate like McGovern — who simply lacks the chemistry — is at a fatal disadvantage in mass-vote scenes where a ho-ho verbal counterpunch, at the right moment, can be worth four dozen carefully reasoned position papers.

The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage and whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy — then go back to the office and sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece. Probably the rarest form of life in American politics is the man who can turn on a crowd and still keep his head straight — assuming it was straight in the first place.

This all puts to mind the odd reality we face now in a twice-elected George W. Bush to the highest office in the land. I used to scratch my head over this circumstance until Melissa Krodman, the whip-smart Arts Editor at the magazine I used to work for, explained it all in a study of how cultural ideas drive voters to quite irrational behavior. It turns out that it doesn’t matter if Bush is an elite Connecticut yankee draft dodger with a Yale degree. All he has to do is say that he’s a down-home Vietnam Vet country rancher just like you and me and people will believe it. Reasoned position papers matter less than saying your own name in the same sentence with words like “patriot,” “God,” or “NASCAR.”

In other words, the issues don’t matter. It’s all an elaborate game of word association.

Despite this gloom there’s an underlying hope to Thompson’s reflections that he probably wasn’t even aware of. For the second time now he has written something about the end of the party system as we know it:

Where will it end? The only possible good that can come of this wretched campaign is the ever-increasing likelihood that it will cause the Democratic Party to self-destruct.

A lot of people are seriously worried about this, but I am not one of them. I have never been much of a Party Man myself, and the more I learn about the realities of national politics, the more I’m convinced that the Democratic Party is an atavistic endeavor — more an obstacle than a vehicle — and that there is really no hope of accomplishing anything genuinely new or different in American politics until the Democratic Party is done away with.

He’s not arguing for the end of liberal thinking in politics, but an end of oppressive group-think that prevents change. There’s nothing wrong with parties, I just wish there were more of them. And if the main parties were to self-destruct, they’d be replaced with a diverse field of candidates giving us all a chance to actually vote for something for once. Who hasn’t hoped for something radically different to happen in a presidential campaign, only to be disappointed once again? In 1972 the realization of that hope was entirely likely.