Hunter S. Thompson
Confessions of a Political Junkie
Trapped Like a Rat in Mr. Bill’s Neighborhood
Confessions of a shootist: Cruel humor on the campaign trail, from the murder of JFK to the Crimes of Marquis de Sade
Trace a line of goose pimples up the thin young arm. slide the needle in and push the bulb watching the junk hit them all over. move right in with the shit and suck junk through all the hungry young cells.
-WIlliam S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine
John F. Kennedy, who seized the White House from Richard Nixon in a frenzied campaign that turned a whole generation of young Americans into political junkies, got shot in the head for his efforts, murdered in Dallas by some hapless geek named Oswald who worked for either Castro, the mob, Jimmy Hoffa, the CIA, his dominatrix landlady or the odious, degenerate FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. The list is long and crazy—maybe Marilyn Monroe’s first husband fired those shots from the Grassy Knoll. Who knows? A whole generation of American journalists is still embarrassed by their failure to answer that question.
JFK’s ghost will haunt the corridors of power in America for as long as the grass is green and the rivers run to the sea….Take my word for it, Bubba. I have heard his footsteps for 30 years and I still feel guilty about not being able to explain the biggest news story of my lifetime to my son.
At one point, not long ago, I went to the desperate length of confessing to the murder myself. We were finishing breakfast in a patio restaurant on a bright Sunday morning in Boulder. It was a stylish place near the campus, where decent people could meet after pretending they had just come from church and get fashionably drunk on mimosas and white wine. The tables were separated by ferns and potted palms. Bright orange impatiens flowers drooped from hanging urns.
Even I can’t explain why I said what I did. I had been up all night with my old friend Allen Ginsburg, the poet, and we had both slid into the abyss of whiskey madness and full-bore substance abuse. It was wonderful, but it left me a little giddy by the time noon rolled around.
“Son,” I said, “I’m sorry to ruin your breakfast, but I think the time has finally come to tell you the truth about who killed John Kennedy.”
He nodded but said nothing. I tried to keep my voice low, but emotion made it difficult.
“It was me,” I said. “I am the one who shot Jack Kennedy.”
“What?” he said, glancing quickly over his shoulder to see if others were listening. Which they were. The mention of Kennedy’s name will always turn a few heads, anywhere in the world—and god only knows what a tenured Professor of American Political History might feel upon hearing some grizzled thug in a fern bar confess to his own son that he was the one who murdered John F. Kennedy. It is one of those lines that will not fall on deaf ears.
My son leaned forward and stared into my eyes as I explained the raw details and my reasons for killing the President in cold blood, many years ago. I spoke about ballistics and treachery and my “secret work for the government” in Brazil, when he thought I was in the Peace Corps in the sixties.
“I gave up killing about the time you were born,” I said.
“But I could never tell you about it, until now.”
He nodded solemnly for a moment, then laughed at me and called for some tea. “Don’t worry, Dad,” he said.
“Good boy,” I said. “Now we can finally be honest with each other. I feel naked and clean for the first time in 30 years.”
“Not me,” he said. “Now I’ll have to turn you in.”
“What?” I shouted. “You treacherous little bastard!” Many heads had turned to stare at us. It was a weird moment for them. The man who killed Kennedy had just confessed publicly to his son, and now they were cursing each other. Ye gods, what next?
What indeed? How warped can it be for a child born into the sixties to finally be told that his father was the hired shootist who killed Kennedy? Do you call 911? Call a priest? Or act like a cockroach and say nothing?
No wonder the poor bastards from Generation X have lost their sense of humor about politics. Some things are not funny to the doomed, especially when they’ve just elected a President with no sense of humor at all. The joke is over when even victory is a downhill run into hardship, disappointment and a queasy sense of betrayal. If you can laugh in the face of these things, you are probably ready for a staff job with a serious presidential candidate. The humor of the campaign trail is relentlessly cruel and brutal. If you think you like jokes, try hanging around the cooler after midnight with hired killers like James Carville or the late Lee Atwater, whose death by cancer in 1991 was a fatal loss to the Bush reelection effort. Atwater could say, without rancor, that he wanted to castrate Michael Dukakis and dump him on the Boston Common with his nuts stuffed down his throat. Atwater said a lot of things that made people cringe, but he usually smiled when he said them, and people tried to laugh.
It was Deep Background stuff, they figured; of course, he didn’t mean it. Hell, in some states you could go to prison for making treats like that. Felony menacing, two years minimum; Conspiracy to commit Murder and/or Felony Assault with Intent to commit Great Bodily Harm, minimum 50 years in Arkansas and Texas; also Kidnapping (death), Rape, Sodomy, Malicious Disfigurement, Treason, Perjury, Gross Sexual Imposition and Aggravated Conspiracy to Commit all of the above (600 years, minimum) …. And all of this without anybody ever doing anything. Ho, ho. How’s that for the wheels of justice, Bubba? Six hundred fifty-two years, just for downing a few gin-bucks at lunch and trading jokes among warriors….
Richard Nixon was not a Cook. Ho, ho. George Bush was innocent. Ho, ho.
Ed Rollins bribed every Negro preacher in New Jersey to hold down the black vote for the Governor in ’93. Hee-haw.
James Carville set Hamilton Jordan’s heart on fire and then refused to piss down his throat to save his life. Ho, ho.
That is the kind of humor that campaign junkies admire and will tell to their children—for the same perverse reasons that makes me confess to my son, over breakfast, that I blew John Kennedy’s head off in Dallas.
You have to be very mean to get a laugh on the campaign trail. There is no such thing as paranoia.
Not Everybody will get a belly laugh out of these things, but if you want to get elected, it is better to be Mean than to be Funny.
Cruel jokes are a big part of life in any environment where speed freaks, work addicts and obsessive-compulsive political junkies are ripped to the tits day and night for thirteen straight months on their own adrenaline and swollen more and more each day with the kind of hubris that comes when you try to cross Innocence and Ambition all at once and you start seeing yourself on the front page the New York Times in a photo with Washington, surrounded by a gang of hard-eye U.S. Secret Service agents escorting you through the cheering crowd….
It’s a rush that a lot of people will tell you is higher than any drug they’ve ever tried or even hear about, and maybe better than sex…which is a weird theory and often raises unsettling personal questions, but it is a theory nonetheless, and on some days I’ve even believed it myself.
But not really, and days like that are so rare that I usually can’t even remember them…. But when I do, it is like a nail in my eye. The pain goes away, but the wound stays forever. The scar never quite heals over—and whenever it seems like it’s going to, I pick at it. I have some scars that go back 33 years and I still remember how they happened, just like it was yesterday.
Not Everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal—like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics—especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts, and so am I. The fish hear their music and I hear mine. Politics is like the Guinea Worm. It sneaks into your body and grows like a cyst from within—until finally it gets so big and strong that it bursts straight through the skin, a horrible red worm with a head like a tiny cobra, snapping around in the air as it struggles to breathe.
This is true. There are pictures of it happening, in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Guinea Worm is real…and so is politics, for that matter. The only difference is that you can get rid of the worm by gripping its head and wrapping its body around a stick, then pulling it very slowly out of your flesh, like a bird pulls an earthworm out of the ground.
Getting rid of a political addiction is not so easy. The worm is smaller and tends to migrate upward, to the skull, where it feeds and thrives on the tissue. It is undetectable in the early stage, usually diagnosed as common “brain fluke”—which is also incurable—and by the time it gets powerful enough to bore its way through a soft spot in the skull, not even witch doctors will touch it.
The Guinea Worm problem is confined mainly to equatorial Africa, thank god. We are not ready for it in this country. A declining standard of living is one thing, but getting used to the notion that any lesion on your leg might be the first sign of a worm about to erupt is still unacceptable to the normal American. Even a single (confirmed) case of Guinea Worm in Washington would be taken as an omen and doom Bill Clinton’s presidency. An epidemic would finish the Democratic party and put Pat Buchanan in the White House for 20 years.
That is a horrible scenario, Bubba, and it probably won’t happen. We have enough trouble in Washington without the goddamn Guinea Worm—although many presidents have suffered from worse things, but these were always kept secret from the public.
That is the job of the Secret Service, and they are good at it. “Degenerates are our specialty,” one agent joked. “We cover up things every day of the week that would embarrass the Marquis de Sade.”
The Marquis was not a pastoral man. He preferred to live in the city, where people were closer together and the fine arts flourished. The Marquis was an artist, and artists roamed free in the city…for a while, at least. It depended on what kind of artist you were, and the Marquis was one of a kind…
He had a style all his own, they said, and he hated to be interfered with. With his artist’s love of life, he disdained politicians as scum. He was also a serious drinker with a keen taste for laudanum and other opiates that occasionally drove him wild and attracted unwanted attention from the local police, no matter where he lived.
They always interfered, even in Paris, and soon he came to hate them—even fear them—when he saw that they not only hated his art, they hated him, and they wanted to lock him up. Which they did, more than once—and even when he was loose, they hounded him. By the spring of 1788 his reputation was so foul that he was often chased through the streets like a midnight rat.
His friends tried to intercede: The Marquis was, after all, a French nobleman, and also a working artist. So what if his art was a little weird? If he didn’t do it, somebody else would. So leave him alone and mind your own business.
Which was not bad advice, at the time. The law enforcement in Paris had been pretty stable for most of that century, but in the final years it got strange. The police were no longer feared. Angry mobs set police stations on fire and had to be gunned down by soldiers. Nobody seemed to give a fuck.
The mood of the city was so ugly that even the Marquis de Sade became a hero of the people. On July 14, 1789, he led a mob of crazed rabble in overrunning a battalion of doomed military police defending the infamous Bastille Prison, and they swarmed in to “free all political prisoners,” as the Marquis later explained.
It was the beginning of the French Revolution, and de Sade himself was said to have stabbed five or six soldiers to death as his mob stormed the prison and seized the keys to the Arsenal. The mob found only eight “political prisoners” to free, and four of those were killed by nightfall in the savage melee over looting rights for the guns and ammunition.
And that is the story, folks, of how the Marquis de Sade was finally forced into politics. They pushed him too far. So he decided to control his environment…. And the moral of the story is never lean on the weird. Or they will chop your head off. And perverts will eat your brains.
Take my word for it, Bubba. I am an expert on these things. I have been there.
On Election night in 1972, for instance, I was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with George and Eleanor McGovern—and Frank Makiewicz and John Holum and Sandy Berger and Gary Hart and Barbara Shailor and Bob McNeely and Eli Segal and Carl Wagner and Rick Stearns and Bill Greiger and Johnny Apple and Connie Chung and Tim Crouse and John Gage and Don Pennebaker and Julie Christie and Warren Beatty and—
(Whoops! Was Warren there? Had he jumped ship by then? Did he wait in the stretch and not show up at all in November, when the deal went down and we were all alone out there in that goddamn joyless, sexless humpbacked stupid little city that was suddenly a million miles away from the Beverly Wilshire and another grim million from the White House?
But he was not in Sioux Falls that night, unless he was hiding in some dingy penthouse on the outskirts of town. I remember every person who was there, and I can still see them frantically doing their jobs all the way to the brutal end.)
Twenty-Two Points. Try that for a bad night on the campaign trail. It was horrible. The landslide started early and never let up. Nixon won 49 states. Not even South Dakota went for McGovern. It was like being in the Alamo. We were surrounded by the armies of Nixon—even in our candidate’s hometown, long before the polls closed in California, they were starting to close in like hyenas. The scent of blood was dangerously thick in the air.
I was laying low with Frank Mankiewicz in a dark corner of the Feedlot Lounge, when the tab he’d been running for six months was abruptly “closed.”…
No more credit. No more Margaritas.
The Joke was Over. The dream was dead. It was like going down on the good ship Reuben James. About six o’clock that night, Frank got a call from the credit manager at United Airlines, wanting to talk to whoever was “in charge” of paying the bill for six months of chartered 727s and myriad smaller aircraft from the UAL Presidential Charter Fleet, at five dollars per mile, as contracted, for something like 16 million passenger-miles in all 50 states and 9,000 hours of triple-overtime pay for pilots and crew. “Who knows what they might say if they’re not paid?” the man asked Frank. “They have, as I’m sure you know, been witness to many horrible and dangerous things in the course of their work and their duties while employed by this doomed and clearly ill-advised farce of a presidential campaign. Do you know how many people would go to jail for the rest of their lives, Frank? If our pilots were ever deposed? Or the stewardesses? Jesus. Some of it makes me sick, Frank, and nobody wants to talk about it, eh?
“Fuck no! So pay the goddamn bill, Frank. Or at least part of it…please. Just write me a check. So what if it’s bad? Who cares? You write the paper, boss, and I’ll hang it.”
Frank was talking to the man on a boom box in the press room, where they’d finally tracked him down, so we all heard the threats and the ugly squeeze that came next: “No more planes for you, big boy. Not tonight and not tomorrow. You’re canceled! And so is the plane back to Washington. Ho, ho. Good luck with no crew and no pilots. The bus leaves twice a day.”
Which it did—but we were not on it. We took the 727, which had been topped off with premium jet fuel before noon on Election Day and charged to UAL, as always. Frank wrote the check and I signed it and we had it hand-delivered to the United credit office in Chicago by a woman they called The Sioux City Gobbler. And that was the last we heard of it.
We fled in our jet before noon, just ahead of the writ of seizure. It was getting dark when we finally taxied up to a dimly lit hangar at the far end of National Airport, just across the river from Washington, where the national staff had gathered to meet the dead and the wounded and carry them off to wherever failures get carried off to in Washington, after they get brutally beaten in public.
Another thing I still remember from that horrible day in November of ’72 was that some dingbat named Clinton was said to be almost single-handedly responsible for losing 222 counties in Texas—including Waco, where he was McGovern’s regional coordinator—and was “terminated without pay, with prejudice,” and sent back home to Arkansas “with his tail between his legs,” as an aid put it.
“We’ll never see that stupid bastard again,” one McGovern aide muttered. “Clinton—Bill Clinton. Yeah. Let’s remember that name. He’ll never work again, not in Washington.”
Late-nineteenth-century people developed a powerful attitude toward drug abuse, resting on conceptions of individual worth and the national purpose. Medical, pharmaceutical, and other influential organizations understood the threats addiction posed for special groups such as women, professionals, and young people. Yet while loathing and fearing addiction, many late nineteenth-century people sympathized with addicts. They condemned the use of drugs for escape or sensual pleasure, but many people believed that addiction was a form of physiological slavery, which alleviated the user’s guilt….
– H. Wayne Morgan, Yesterday’s Addict
O, Ye Of Little Faith…. Politics is like a death match when you lose too many times, and it sure as hell isn’t the losers who tell you stupid things like “Politics is better than sex.” Winning is an addiction, and Bill Clinton is a pure junkie.
Most people will deny their addictions—but not me. I have an addictive personality, and medical experts agree that I can’t be cured—which used to worry people running for President of the United States when I showed up with no warning at their homes late at night for random confrontations on issues of national security or regressive taxation or rumors of ugly personal scandals in the family….
But that was a long time ago, and things are different now. Once I became a registered compound-addict, there were no more problems with red tape or fears of public exposure and disgrace just for being seen with me.
No candidate will risk being linked with a “suspected” addict—but a registered, admitted addict is a whole different thing. As long as I’d confessed, I was okay. Nobody really cared about the countless criminal addictions that preyed on me day and night—just as long as I was not in denial.
That was the key. As long as they knew that I knew I was sick and guilty, I was safe. They were only trying to help me.
Look at Bill Clinton. He sent his own brother to prison “for his own good”; Bill was a New Age sensitive guy, and poor Roger was the evil dunce of the family, the black sheep kid brother who was always getting in trouble. While his brilliant big brother was shaking hands with President Kennedy in the Rose Garden, Roger was hanging out at the Toddle House in Little Rock and getting to know the local police…. And when Bill went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Roger went to Memphis and got himself involved with what was then called “the criminal element.” Soon he was running wild and getting his name in the newspapers. Some people said he was a dope fiend and needed to be protected, for his own good.
It was only a few years later, when the State Police came to Governor Clinton and told him the bad news—his little brother was about to be busted for drugs in a sting operation—that Bill did what he had to do. Roger was a criminal, and Bill was not—Roger went to the Big House, and Bill went to the White House.
I Knew I Had no choice but to be a part of the 1992 election. Even though I realized it was not going to be much fun, win or lose—except briefly for the campaign staff of the lone survivor, who would be the next president of the United States and move, with his people, to the White House, where many would drown or be bashed to death on the dark reefs of the fast lane.
The only other sector of the electorate who would feel any joy on election night were the junkies like me, who understood in their hearts that the only real priority in 1992 was beating George Bush. Nothing else mattered.