SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Do not — I repeat, DO NOT keep reading beyond this point if you don’t want it revealed that Richard Nixon won the presidential election of 1972. You’ve been warned!

Considering the fact that I obviously knew how this book was going to turn out, the ending was surprisingly disturbing. I guess I was hoping that Dr. Thompson would reveal some ancient secrets about why it happened that way. But it turns out that, no, you could have written this ending as well, even without knowing anything substantial about the election. We’ve seen it all again, a thousand times since.


Towards the end of the last chapter (he calls it an epitaph) Thompson seems to be saying that McGovern lost because he changed his campaign to Old Time Politics As Usual, after setting himself up as a radical Washington redecorator. The people were ready for something new and McGovern, afraid of losing the traditional Democratic machine, offered the VP spot to old-politics standard bearers. To make it all worse he handled every potential flub like a closed-door equivocating lying politician just like he was supposed to, instead of just being open and honest and himself.

We have a lot of theories about the collapse here — America was full of right-wing racists, no one trusted McGovern after the debacle with his first VP choice, Tom Eagleton. But Thompson’s theory is more compelling: people just didn’t vote. An alarming statistic he dredges up shows that a significant percentage of people voted for state-level officials that November but blank voted the president. Like he said earlier, and repeatedly, people didn’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils anymore.

Could we have been ready for something revolutionary that year? McGovern doesn’t think so. He says in an interview with Thompson that the majority of people in the country were tired of the popular uprisings of the ‘60s and wanted someone to make it all go away somehow (which Nixon did, I would argue). In other words, no one claiming to be on the side of non-whites and labor unions and poor people could possibly have won that election.

Thompson disagrees. Gene McCarthy, a staunch anti-war candidate and a humanist all around, deposed a sitting president during his campaign four years earlier but lost the nomination to the Old Politics machine at the Democratic National Convention. If he hadn’t, he could have firebranded his way to the White House. McGovern, on the other hand, was able to beat the old time cronies at their own game at the DNC and lock up the nomination even though he was an outsider. But he stopped being an outsider afterwards, so his supporters threw their hands up in frustration.

I’m sure the real reasons are a mix of both theories, as well as another intriguing yet underdeveloped one in Thompson’s reporting — that many more people are more interested in finding out if the Dolphins will beat the Redskins on Sunday than whether or not McGovern or Nixon is sitting in the White House. Thompson uses the game to mean different things throughout the book. Sometimes it’s a way to gain access to a candidate and express some human familiarity with them. Sometimes it’s a way to unwind and get this political crap out of his mind and go back to something real and honest and celebratory. Sometimes he uses it as a metaphor to understand what he’s writing about on the trail. But at the end here it becomes something more disheartening — a sign of Americans’ deserved apathy or distressing stupidity, or both. I wonder if this really is what it comes down to — that people forget to vote, or don’t realize they should care, or just vote for whomever seems like a nice man based on things they’ve overheard in bars.

We don’t have a culture of awareness. We have a culture of intense diversion. We study and expound upon our diversions the way Thompson analyzes the presidential race throughout this book. But our diversions, though important and necessary, don’t have consequences. The Redskins will play again next week. But our civil liberties won’t be reinstated in the next congressional session.

At the end of his interview with McGovern, McGovern says that everything is cyclical and that the pendulum will swing back away from Nixon’s far right. It’s a comforting thought but Thompson’s realism begs to differ. And history bears him out, doesn’t it?

The pendulum may have swung back to the Democratic side of the Old Political machine once or twice in the succeeding decades but has anything meaningful changed?

Jimmy Carter’s presidency is held up by most as one of the most ineffectual in all history, even though he heroically, patiently, saved the lives of our hostages in Iran in 1979, and insisted that Americans must change their ways when faced with the resulting energy crisis, rather than stubbornly declaring our god-given right to be unchanging assholes whenever we damn well feel like it. He wasn’t a revolutionary at all but those are some revolutionary, positive ideas and actions. But history tells us he was a simpering nothing, and now he’s dismissed patronizingly as a “good ex-president.”

Ralph Nader, the first strong people’s choice for high office since McCarthy, was excluded from the debates and the incredible access they provided by the powers that be and he still managed to launch a significant challenge. Then he was railroaded, ostracized, and reviled by even his staunchest supporters for doing so, to the point where he no longer matters. Checkmate.

People’s choice candidates that have come afterwards, like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich today, are given no media coverage since they are not considered serious contenders. The media tells us we’re not ready for them, even though their statements during debates garner standing ovations, not derision.

And what about our vaunted official Democratic challengers to the machine? John Kerry’s lukewarm acquiescence to whatever he was supposed to say in 2004 came to mind throughout this reading of McGovern’s limp to obscurity in 1972. Al Gore got all fiery in the last few years, long after he lost the race to Bush, refused to fight the bullshit Supreme Court decision that cost him that race, and then went on to call Bush his personal commander in chief after September 11. Thanks, Al.

So what the hell are we? As a people, I mean.

Thompson’s writing wasn’t completely hopeless at the end here. It was more cautious. He thinks about running for office himself. He thinks about covering the campaign again in ’76 for the exciting rush it brings. He seems to be saying, “Who knows?” with a reassuring smile and a shrug. But that was in 1972. Now it’s 2007 and we do know. It all happened all over again, exactly the same way, eight more times. And it’s happening again now. So this is what we are. And what does that say about us? Do we deserve everything that’s happening to us? All the poverty, untreated disease, war, fear, and misery — isn’t it all our fault for being such terrified stupid idiots?

In Thompson’s final image of the book, he’s back home in beloved Colorado. He puts on a clean shirt and heads out into town, down to the bar. And that’s it.

It doesn’t mean anything really — it seems to me like a kind of political non-statement, on purpose. He decided his last act of this political venture was just to be Hunter S. Thompson doing what he has always done best. He’s not saying we should vote or not vote or care or not care, but that regardless we should still live, because the despair will come anyway. Why the fuck not?

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