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The godfather of gonzo says 9/11 caused a “nationwide nervous breakdown”
– and let the Bush crowd loot the country and savage American
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Feb. 3, 2003
| He calls himself “an elderly dope
fiend living out in the wilderness,” but Hunter S.
Thompson will also be found this week on the New York Times bestseller list
with a new memoir, “Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child
in the Final Days of the American Century.”
Listening to his ragged voice, there is some sense that Thompson, now 65, has
reined in his outlaw ways, gotten a little softer, perhaps a little more
gracious now that he’s reached retirement age. “I’ve found you can deal with the
system a lot easier if you use their rules,” he says. “I talk to a lot of
But do not be deceived. In “Kingdom of Fear” and in a telephone interview
with Salon from his compound in Aspen, Colo., Thompson did what he’s always
done: speak the truth about American society as he sees it, without worrying
much about decorum. “Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?” he
writes, referring to the people currently occupying the White House. “They are
the racists and hate mongers among us — they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down
the throats of these Nazis.”
That’s his enduring attitude in this new age of darkness: a lot more loathing
The godfather of gonzo believes America has suffered a “nationwide nervous
breakdown” since 9/11, and as a result is compromising civil liberties for what
he calls “the illusion of security.” The compromise, he says, is “a disaster of
unthinkable proportions” and “part of the downward spiral of dumbness” he
believes is plaguing the country.
While the country’s spinning out of control, Thompson says his own lifestyle
has been a model of consistency. He still does whatever the hell he wants. In
fact, his new book was supposed to be a “definitive memoir of his life,”
a long look back by the man who rode with the Hell’s Angels, who experienced the
riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and who has smoked more cigarettes,
driven more fast cars, fired more weapons and done more drugs than most living
people, let alone most living authors. But the book is much more than memoir.
Thompson has long been an outspoken and vigorous champion of civil liberties,
at least since a well-publicized 1990 case in which he was charged with sexual
and physical assault and possession of illegal drugs — charges that were
ultimately dropped due to an illegal search and seizure.
Of course, the writer has distrusted power all his life, and it may come as
no surprise that he now believes the administration is “manufacturing” the Iraqi
threat for its own political gain and the economic gain of the “oligarchy”
(read: the military-industrial complex).
Perhaps Thompson’s most disturbing charge is aimed at the American people —
only half of whom exercise their right to vote. “The oligarchy doesn’t need an
educated public. And maybe the nation does prefer tyranny,” he says. “I think
that’s what worries me.”
In the end, however, Thompson is not and has never been that easy to
pigeonhole. He’s friends with Pat Buchanan and has a lifetime membership in the
National Rifle Association. In his own mind, if not in others’, he is “one of
the most patriotic people I’ve ever encountered in America.”
Your new book, “Kingdom of Fear,” is being called a definitive memoir —
although almost all of your books seem to be autobiographical in one way or
another. What’s the difference between the written accounts — of drug use,
run-ins with the law, sex, fast cars, guns and explosives — and real-life
I don’t really see any difference. Telling the truth is the easiest way; it
saves a lot of time. I’ve found that the truth is weirder than any fiction I’ve
seen. There was a girl that worked for me a long time ago, who graduated third
in her class from Georgetown Law School, and was from some kind of uptown family
in Chicago, and instead of going to work for some big-time firm, she came to
Aspen and ends up working for me out here in the wilderness. A year or so later
her mother or father were coming out to visit. I’ve had some understandable
issues with parents — really all my life. And I’d be worried about my daughter,
too, if she’d run off with some widely known infamous monster. And so I asked
her — just so I could get braced for this situation, meeting the parents and
having them come to the house: “Given what you know about me and what you hear
about me, which is worse?” She finally came out and said there was no question
in her mind that the reality was heavier and crazier and more dangerous. Having
to deal with the reality is no doubt a little more traumatic.
Indeed, your author blurb says you live in “a fortified compound near
Aspen, Colorado.” In what sense is it fortified and why does it need to be?
Actually, I live in an extremely pastoral setting in an old log house. It’s a
farm really. I moved here 30 years ago. I think the only fortification might be
my reputation. If people believe they’re going to be shot, they might stay away.
Yes, I understand you’re a gun enthusiast, to put it euphemistically. But
do you support more restrictive gun laws? Do you support a ban on assault
I have one or two of those, but I got them before they were illegal. In that
case, if I were sure that any tragedies and mass murders would be prevented, I’d
give up my assault rifle. But I don’t really believe that. Do I have any illegal
weapons? No. I have a .454 magnum revolver, which is huge, and it’s absolutely
legal. One day I was wild-eyed out here with Johnny Depp, and we both ordered
these guns from Freedom, Wyo., and got them the next day through FedEx. Mainly,
I have rifles, pistols, shotguns; I have a lot of those. But everything I have
is top quality; I don’t have any junk weapons. I wouldn’t have any military
weapon around here, except as an artifact of some kind. Given Ashcroft and the
clear blueprint of this administration to make everything illegal and everything
suspicious — how about suspicion of being a terrorist sympathizer? Goddamn,
talk about filling up your concentration camps. But, yeah, my police record is
clean. This is not a fortified compound.
So, just to clarify, how do your views stack up with the NRA’s?
I think I’m still a life member of the NRA. I formed a gun club out here, an
official sporting club, and I got charter from the NRA. That made it legal to
have guns here, to bring guns here, to have ammunition sent here, that sort of
thing. I’ve found you can deal with the system a lot easier if you use their
rules — by understanding their rules, by using their rules against them. I talk
to a lot of lawyers. You know, I consider Pat Buchanan a friend. I don’t agree
with him on many things. Personally, I enjoy him. I just like him. And I learn
from Pat. One of the things I’m most proud of is that I never had anybody
busted, arrested, jailed for my writing about them. I never had any — what’s
that? — collateral damage.
But speaking of rules, you’ve been arrested dozens of times in your life.
Specific incidents aside, what’s common to these run-ins? Where do you stand
vis-à-vis the law?
Goddammit. Yeah, I have. First, there’s a huge difference between being
arrested and being guilty. Second, see, the law changes and I don’t. How I stand
vis-à-vis the law at any given moment depends on the law. The law can change
from state to state, from nation to nation, from city to city. I guess I have to
go by a higher law. How’s that? Yeah, I consider myself a road man for the lords
In 1990, you were put on trial for what you call “sex, drugs, dynamite and
violence.” Charges were eventually dropped. Since then, you’ve been outspoken on
Fourth Amendment issues: search and seizure, the right to privacy. I assume
you’ve taken a side in the civil liberties debate that’s come up in the
aftermath of 9/11?
It’s a disaster of unthinkable proportions — part of the downward spiral of
dumbness. Civil liberties are black and white issues. I don’t think people think
far enough to see the ramifications. The PATRIOT Act was a dagger in the heart,
really, of even the concept of a democratic government that is free, equal and
just. There are a lot more concentration camps right now than Guantanamo Bay.
But they’re not marked. Now, every jail, every bush-league cop can run a
concentration camp. It amounts to a military and police takeover, I think.
Well, as some have pointed out, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the
Civil War. Is some suspension of civil liberties ever appropriate or justified
in a time of war?
If there’s a visible, obvious threat like Hitler, but in my mind the
administration is using these bogeymen for their own purposes. This military law
is nothing like the Constitution. They’re exploiting the formula here: The
people are afraid of something and you offer a solution, however drastic, and
they go along with it. For a while, yeah. My suspicions are more justified every
day with this manufacturing of dangerous killer villains. The rest of the world
does not perceive, I don’t think, that some tin-horn dictator in the Middle East
is more of a danger to the world than the U.S. is. This country depends on war
as a primary industry. The White House has pumped up the danger factor because
it’s to their advantage. It’s to John Ashcroft’s advantage. There have always
been pros and cons about the righteousness of life in America but this just
seems planned, it seems consistent, and it seems traditional.
What do they get out of it?
They get control of the U.S. economy, their friends get rich. These are not
philosopher-kings we’re talking about. These are politicians. It’s a very sleazy
way of using the system. One of the problems today is that what’s going on today
is not as complex as it seems. The Pentagon just asked for another $14 billion
more in the budget, and it’s already $28 billion. [Defense spending in the 2003
budget rose $19.4 billion, to $364.6 billion]. That’s one sector of the economy
that’s not down the tubes. So, some people are getting rich off of this. It’s
the oligarchy. I believe the Republicans have never thought that democracy was
anything but a tribal myth. The GOP is the party of capital. It’s pretty basic.
And it may have something to do with the deterioration of educational system in
this country. I don’t think Bush has the slightest intention or concern about
educating the public.
Many people would say you’re un-American and unpatriotic.
I think I’m one of the most patriotic people that I’ve ever encountered in
America. I consider myself a bedrock patriot. I participate very actively in
local politics, because my voice might be worthwhile. I participate in a
meaningful way — not by donations, I work at it.
Well, what do you prescribe? What do you advocate?
All the blood is drained out of democracy — it dies — when only half the
population votes. I would use the vote. It would seem to me that people who have
been made afraid, if you don’t like what’s happening, if you don’t want to go to
war, if you don’t want to be broke, well for God’s sake don’t go out and vote
for the very bastards who are putting you there. That’s a pillar of any
democratic future in this country. The party of capital is not interested in
having every black person in Louisiana having access to the Ivy League. They
don’t need an educated public.
So what took place during this past election?
I believe the Republicans have seen what they’ve believed all along, which is
that this democracy stuff is bull, and that people don’t want to be burdened by
political affairs. That people would rather just be taken care of. The oligarchy
doesn’t need an educated public. And maybe the nation does prefer tyranny. I
think that’s what worries me. It goes back to Fourth Amendment issues. How much
do you value your freedom? Would you trade your freedom for some illusion of
security? Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used.
This is coming from someone who’s described himself as “an elderly dope
fiend who lives out in the wilderness” and also as a “drunken screwball.”
A dangerous drunken screwball.
Right. Sorry. So why would anybody listen to you?
I don’t have to apologize for any political judgments I’ve made. The stuff I
wrote in the ’60s and ’70s was astonishingly accurate. I may have been a little
rough on Nixon, but he was rough. You had to do it with him. What you believe
has to be worth something. I’ve never given it a lot of thought: I’ve never
hired people to figure out what I should do about my image. I always work the
same way, and talk the same way, and I’ve been right enough that I stand by my
But is there a sense in which your views are, by definition, going to be
seen as fringe views — views that can just be discarded?
That is a problem and I guess “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” might have
colored the way people perceive me. But I haven’t worried that people see me as
“dope fiend,” I’d rather get rid of the “elderly” rather than the “dope fiend.”
What’s the best example of something you were right about?
Christ, the Hell’s Angels certainly. Police agencies regarded that book as a
major primary resource on motorcycle gangs. I started covering presidential
politics after I realized how easy it was to manipulate the political machinery
in this county — or almost officially doing it — by running for sheriff. I saw
that there might be some serious fun in politics. I covered Goldwater’s
convention in 1964. And I went from Nixon to Kennedy to Nixon. I wanted to have
some say in events, just for my own safety.
You have famously attached yourself to the word “fear” since you wrote
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Now you’ve written “Kingdom of Fear.” Will you
This country has been having a nationwide nervous breakdown since 9/11. A
nation of people suddenly broke, the market economy goes to shit, and they’re
threatened on every side by an unknown, sinister enemy. But I don’t think fear
is a very effective way of dealing with things — of responding to reality. Fear
is just another word for ignorance.
You write in “Kingdom of Fear” about the passing of the American century
That’s official, by the way. The American century was the 20th, so sayeth
Henry Luce. And when it ends, Christ, you can’t avoid thinking: “Ye Gods!”
To whom or what is the 21st century going to belong?
That’s something I have not divined yet. Goddammit, I couldn’t have told you
in 1960 what 1980 was going to be like.
You’ve also referred to your beat as the “Death of the American Dream.”
That was the ostensible “subject” of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Has it
just sort of been on its deathbed since 1968?
I think that’s right.
A lot of people would argue with you about that anyway, and believe that
the American Dream is alive and well.
They need to take a better look around.
But in a way, haven’t you lived the American Dream?
Goddammit! [pause] I haven’t thought about it that way. I suppose you could
say that in a certain way I have.
You said back in 1991 that you were “as astounded as anybody” that you
were still alive. Still drinking, smoking and doing drugs?
I guess I’d have to say I haven’t changed. Why should I, really? I’m the most
stable neighbor on the road here. I’m an honest person. I don’t regret being
honest. I did give up petty crime when I turned 18, after I got a look at jail
– I went in there for shoplifting — because I just saw that this stuff doesn’t
work. There’s a line: “I do not advocate the use of dangerous drugs, wild
amounts of alcohol and violence and weirdness — but they’ve always worked for
me.” I think I said that at a speech at Stanford. I’ve always been a little
worried about advocating my way of life, or gauging my success by having other
people take up my way of life, like Tim Leary did. I always quarreled with Leary
about that. I could have started a religion a long time ago. It would not have a
majority of people in it, but there would be a lot of them. But I don’t know how
wise I am. I don’t know what kind of a role model I am. And not everybody is
made for this life.
In fact, you’ve experienced more than your share of dangerous situations.
You’ve been beaten by the Hell’s Angels. You were in the middle of the 1968
Democratic Convention riots. You’ve been shot at. What’s going on with that?
By any widely accepted standard, I have had more than nine lives. I counted
them up once and there were 13 times that I almost and maybe should have died —
from emergencies with fires to violence, drowning, bombs. I guess I am an action
junkie, yeah. There may be some genetic imperative that caused me to get into
certain situations. It’s curiosity, I guess. As long as I’m learning something I
figure I’m OK — it’s a decent day.
Is there anything you regret?
That goes to the question of would you do it again. If you can’t say you’d do
it again, it means that time was wasted — useless. The regrets I have are so
minor. You know, would I leave my Keith Richards hat, with the silver skull on
it, on the stool at the coffee shop at LaGuardia? I wouldn’t do that again. But
overall, no, I don’t have any regrets.
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