Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"How it all went wrong for Hunter S. Thompson in Elko"

Michael J. Mishak and J. Patrick Coolican (Las Vegas Sun):
Before the Iraq war and the tax cuts for the wealthy, before Willie Horton and the ’94 Republican revolution, before the sustained assault on the welfare state and civil liberties, before the American left’s 35 years of cold-sweat nightmare, Hunter S. Thompson had hoped it could be different.
In 1974, Thompson was at the height of his literary and journalistic accomplishments, fresh off his book about the 1972 presidential campaign, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.” Between belts of Wild Turkey and dark, at times psychedelic turns through the increasingly bleak landscape of 1970s America, he was busy assessing the state of American politics and looking for a new way forward for the Democratic Party, which was reeling from the devastating loss by Sen. George McGovern at the hands of President Nixon.

Too bad it amounted to dropping acid, running off with the baby sitter and buying tire checkers. More on that in a bit.

In 1972, McGovern attracted thousands of new people to the political process, and he and his legions claimed the mantle, not unlike, say, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, of a “new politics” — a movement of transformational change.

Thompson was hopeful the new politics was the future.

So in 1974 he arranged a conference of the heavies, the big thinkers in the Democratic Party then, culled from two clans: the Kennedys and the McGoverns.

The lineup: Robert F. Kennedy campaign veterans Adam Walinsky, David Burke, Richard Goodwin and Doris Kearns, and McGovern operatives Sandy Berger, Patrick Caddell, Rick Stearns and Carl Wagner.

The unlikely venue: Stockmen’s Hotel in Elko, Nevada.

Thompson said he chose Elko because it was — and remains — one of the most remote places in the lower 48: “It was the most unlikely place I could think of — I figured that if this were known, if this group were seen together anywhere, it would fail,” Thompson writes in “Songs of the Doomed.”

“We were still pissed off about Chicago,” he continues in that collection, referring to the Democrats’ disastrous 1968 presidential convention there. “We were still pissed off at being crushed twice by Nixon, who was still around. It was not a happy time. We were on the run. But it was exhilarating.”

Thompson’s idea for the Elko meeting was to bring together the best thinkers from the Kennedy and McGovern campaigns in hopes of producing some sort of guidebook for the 1976 elections. That never quite happened. But viewed through a 35-year lens, this long-forgotten piece of Nevada history does provide a window into the freewheeling 1970s and perhaps also the failed electoral politics of American liberalism.

Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005 amid physical ailments and a rigorous regimen of self-medication, planned the conference with his usual grandiosity.

The memories of participants vary widely.

One thing everyone recalls though: The only problem with Hunter S. Thompson’s plan was Hunter S. Thompson.

Burke, who went on to become president of CBS News and is now on the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, said, “It certainly wasn’t a well-structured, serious conference. It was Hunter Thompson. He didn’t lend himself to that kind of stuff.”

Indeed Burke, who was the first to arrive that weekend, was greeted at the airport by a drug-addled Thompson, who, according to Burke, was ecstatic about Elko. The two went on a joyride, with Thompson admonishing Burke for wearing a tie to the conference as they roared down country roads on the outskirts of town.

The conference started the next morning, and whereas Thompson was hoping for some grand blueprint for a Democratic victory in 1976, the participants themselves, who were flown out to Elko on a Learjet by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, saw things differently.

“I lost a few dollars playing craps. I remember that,” joked Stearns, now a federal judge in Massachusetts. Stearns, who called Thompson a loyal friend, said the writer was a romantic who “envisioned a better world and thought there might be a shortcut to it. Somehow if you could get the right thinking group of people with a common objective, you could succeed.”

Burke added: “Jann paid for a lot of it, and he got taken by Hunter, who would get himself gassed up and make world-changing plans. It was sort of a lark. We thought, ‘Why not have a good time and take advantage of this opportunity?’ I do not believe the so-called participants took it seriously at all.”

As Burke noted, “Richard Nixon had nothing to worry about.”

Walinsky described the conference as a “long, silly weekend,” and attributed his attendance solely to Burke, who had demanded he show up. As for the Democrats’ dilemma and the upcoming presidential election, an answer emerged during a postmortem of the failed McGovern campaign: No more Protestants. (McGovern was a Methodist.)

“That’s as serious as it got,” Walinsky said. “That hardly passed for major political analysis, even in those drug-addled days.”

The sad irony for these liberal thinkers is that while they were frittering away a weekend in Elko, conservatives were holding similar conferences, though they were productive affairs. They were nurturing the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan and building the institutions — think tanks, media organs and grass-roots shops — that would contribute to the building of a movement and would emerge in the liberal sphere only 30 years later.

For his part, Thompson had been clear about his hopes for the conference: Learn from the mistakes of the McGovern campaign, detail a way forward and debate the very value of politics itself amid rising disgust in the American electorate.

By his own account — and those of his fellow conference participants — Thompson blew it. He later wrote that he ate acid the first night and ran off with the Goodwins’ baby sitter to a town named Wells. There, at a truck stop, he purchased 16 tire checkers, heavy, billy club-size tools that truckers use to check tire pressure. When he returned to Elko, he gave one to each participant. The reason: Tensions were riding high between the Kennedy and McGovern camps, and Thompson thought each side should have weapons.

Berger, who would later become national security adviser to President Clinton, recalled the recriminations between the two camps. “We schlepped out to Elko and holed up in some hotel and Hunter put us in the same room, and instead of coming together we splintered apart, and it was a cantankerous affair filled with accusation and recrimination. It was a disaster.”

But the Kennedy people didn’t remember tension.

“Hunter had some crazy idea and couldn’t pull it off,” Burke said. “There was nothing to be arguing about. We were all of like mind as to the situation. Some people clung more to the ’60s than others. Everyone felt that sense of frustration.”

For Walinsky the frivolity of the weekend, and for that matter, that of the Democratic Party’s post-Kennedy era, still burns.

“There was no fundamental rethinking of what Democrats were about or the Democratic Party. They were all more or less men of the left, to the extent that they were men and not boys. It was the perpetual search for the magic candidate who would somehow persuade or hoodwink the public into accepting various kinds of socialist nostrums as the solutions to our difficulties. And that’s not serious politics. That’s romantic self-delusion, of which there was a lot in those days. Self-delusion is not politics.”

About 20 years ago, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he up and quit in disgust.

One of 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy’s top Senate aides and speechwriters, Walinsky got out of politics and turned his attention to the police, which he calls “the real government of the poor.” His idea was the Police Corps, a program aimed at recruiting college graduates to serve in law enforcement — and to train them in a decidedly different way. Recruits were essentially part cop, part social worker.

“I decided that none of these politicians was going to do anything,” Walinsky said. “So if I was going to be involved with any kind of reform or improvement of American life, I would have to put that together myself. I try and do stuff that depends as little as possible on Washington, D.C.”

The Democratic Party, he said, lost its way after McGovern, and the Elko conference was more a product of the times than a solution to them.

“The whole country was coming apart,” Walinsky said. “The ’70s have to go down as the worst decade in American history. Everybody was in flight from everything, but most of all everybody was in flight from responsibility. Everybody wanted to be a rebel. People were rebelling against everything, even their own marriages. All the people who were supposed to be in charge just downed tools and walked off the job to find themselves. Showing up in Elko, Nevada, was one of those things.”

Today Walinsky is still pushing the Police Corps, and working on a training project for teachers in Baltimore. Asked about the current field of Democratic hopefuls, Walinsky sounded as disgusted as ever.

“I am too appalled to speak,” he said of the current political picture, including Democratic candidates for president.

Though Walinsky seems to have no love lost for Thompson, his comments today echo something Thompson wrote before the Elko conference that he hoped would truly alter the political winds: “There is the possibility that maybe we’re all kidding ourselves about the intrinsic value of taking politics seriously in 1970s America. Unless we’re honestly convinced that the Practice of Politics is worth more than just a short-term high or the kind of short-term money that power-pimps pay for hired guns, my own feeling is that we’ll be a lot better off avoiding all the traditional liberal bull (expletive) and just saying it straight out: That we’re all just a bunch of fine-tuned Politics Junkies and we’re ready to turn Main Street into a graveyard in the name of anybody who’ll pay the price and even pretend to say the Right Things. My only real concern is to put something together that will force a genuine alteration of consciousness in the realm of national politics, and also in the heads of national politicians.

Given the weird temper of all the people I’ve talked to in the past year, this is the only course that could possibly alter the drift of at least a third of the electorate away from politics entirely.”
Howie P.S.: Take that all you dirty hippies and earnest bloggers who think you can change the world.

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