February 3, 2003 By Marty Beckerman
NEW YORK CITY | "WHAT'S THIS GOING TO DO TO ME?" my beautiful girlfriend asks, looking nervously from the Doctor to the small black ball zipped in the tiny plastic baggie. We're sitting across from each other in a luxury suite on the fourteenth story of the five-star Manhattan Carlyle Hotel—the main room is adorned with a glossy grand piano, and the surroundings as a whole most likely cost more to rent per night than I'll ever make in my entire lifetime.
"Nothing, nothing," says Hunter S. Thompson—the aging mastermind behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the godfather of Gonzo journalism—removing the hash from the plastic baggie and slicing it with a bread knife courtesy of room service. "You'll be fine, my darling," Thompson says, packing the processed greenery into the compact pipe he demanded—along with a quarter-bag of marijuana—before consenting to this 2 a.m. interview.
"Well, okay…" my beautiful girlfriend says, taking the pipe and sucking down the potent vapors, coughing after the first inhalation.
"You're going to go completely crazy now," 65-year-old Thompson says, grinning like a sadistic hyena and putting his arm lecherously around my girlfriend's shoulder. "Completely fucking psychotic. You're doomed, all right. Jesus."
Good fucking Lord, how did this happen? I ask myself, trying to recall the events of this insane night through the cerebral haze of marijuana and hashish presently clouding my 20-year-old mind. I remember the anticipation, the cancelled plane out of Aspen, the excruciating 24 hours of telephoning clueless publicity agents to reschedule the meeting, and finally the desperate late-night call to Thompson's room, begging for an in-person audience… The mad rush through my girlfriend's NYU dorm, searching for a student majoring in street pharmacology (we couldn't find that goddamn Dell dude)… Christ, is this actually happening? Am I actually smoking Mexican hashish with the greatest writer of my parents' generation? The man who made Rolling Stone magazine actually worth reading at one point long, long ago?
But so much for the past, eh? Thompson's latest book, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, was published in January by Simon & Schuster, and if the title sounds familiar, don't expect anything different from the message. Surprisingly, it's Thompson's lack of anything new to say that makes him more relevant than he's been in decades.
A recent nationwide CBS News/New York Times survey found that 82 percent of Americans believe another terrorist attack is imminent, and sales of survival supplies and duct tape (which apparently protects against nuclear fallout) have been tripling around the Washington, D.C. area, according to CNN. From all appearances, most Americans seem to be living in the "Culture of Fear" Thompson predicted thirty years ago.
Although Thompson's ravings about the Apocalypse may have gotten stale in the relatively peaceful '90s—during which time he released collections of old letters, occasional ESPN.com columns and The Rum Diary, his excellent "long lost" novel from the 1950s—the Gonzo mentality works best against a cultural milieu of paranoia and uncertainty. With recent developments in North Korea and Iraq (the use of nuclear weapons has been authorized in the Middle East should the conflict reach biological proportions), it's no wonder the Bush-bashing Kingdom of Fear reached #9 on the New York Times bestseller list.
"You write in the new book that Bush is a bigger threat to democracy than Nixon was," I say, trying to ignore the terrible drugs coursing through my cerebellum and crippling any possibility of presenting myself as a Professional Journalist as opposed to a drooling, stoned post-adolescent fan-boy. "Those are big words coming from you."
(Go Q. & A. format! Go!)
HST: Nixon looks like a liberal compared to this guy. I never thought I'd say that. It's a horrible thought.
MB: [Legendary White House reporter] Helen Thomas called him the worst president in American history a couple weeks ago. Would you agree with that assessment?
HST: That's what I said to Charlie Rose today. Easily the worst.
MB: You compare him to Hitler [in Kingdom of Fear].
HST: Yeah. Easy comparison. You can't compare him to Nazi Germany? Wait a minute, of course we can. What else can we compare it to? Two years, he took America from a billion dollar surplus into a poor country. In two years everybody's going broke and we've gotten into this desperate, stupid war. In two years! I mean, who are the Americans doing this?
MB: Bush is already rich and he can't actually want Armageddon on Earth. What's going through his mind?
HST: Hey, that's what I've stumbled on. You have to remember—and I forgot it until I watched him in the State of the Union—you watched it? He was scheduled for 41 minutes. He went 60. The last 30 were creepy. It just got weirder and weirder. He began to glisten and talk about Jesus. What was it? "The American Dream is God's gift to humanity"? We are God's gift to humanity. Our country is basically getting into depression, and [Bush] is still going to start the war.
MB: And people love him.
HST: Yeah… Fuck, if that's not Nazi Germany—you've got Hitler and the good Germans running around—then I don't know what is.
MB: You write passionately about the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. Was that the death of the American Dream for you? [Protests against the convention were met with unprecedented police brutality]
HST: No, it was just the beginning of the fight. I would say right about now, boy, we're losing. They've got this country turned into a police state. I'm not sure how that term would resound with you, but a police state is a heavy situation.
MB: Well, Bush just authorized the U.S. military to kill American citizens overseas if they're suspected of being terrorists. ["THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Dec. 4, 2002—American citizens working for al-Qaida overseas can legally be targeted and killed by the CIA under President Bush's rules for the war on terrorism, U.S. officials say."]
HST: Yeah, suspected of terrorism. It's not so bizarre that our conversation tonight could be seen by someone in the police station as sympathy for terrorists. What's going on here? Valhalla. All you have to do is keep moving west, and you'll still get arrested.
MB: Bush Sr. has been very quiet these days. Do you think he's still running the show?
HST: The answer is yes, but I wouldn't go out looking for a boogeyman. He's running it in the figurehead sense that his son is the president. I still remember the night, that horrible night I watched the Bush family [on the evening of the 2000 election], the old man laughing like a hyena. I believed Gore could win, and when they called—the whole family, gathered together in Texas—they looked like little piggies, and then the old man and that horrible laugh…
MB: The Bush family history is terrifying. They've been in business with Hitler, Saddam, Osama… [George W. Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, had his stocks in Nazi steel manufacturing removed by Congress in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act.]
HST: And they're Jesus freaks on top of it. Carter was one and I loved Jimmy Carter—we're still good friends—but this is a stupid Jesus freak. Carter deserved the Nobel Prize.
MB: Do you believe the end of the world is coming?
HST: Yeah, it is the end of the world. What, do you think it's going to come on a TV show, right on schedule? Shit. They've been digging this for a long time. Read the fucking Book of Revelations… The end of the world is not just coming; it's here. Until Bush came in it was still possible to be successful, happy. That was two years ago, but now the wheel is turning and I don't think what we're in now will possibly get any better.
MB: So are you excited to be here for the apocalypse at all? Of all the generations in human history, we might be the ones around for the end.
HST: It's not going to happen like a thunderclap. I would like that, really. Why not? A gigantic fucking thunderclap… Yeah, the floods, the nightriders, the marauders… It's going to be pretty grim.
MB: Do you think there'll ever be another draft after Vietnam?
HST: Oh God… Jesus, I hope so. The draft was a disaster. The Army has become a pack of vicious, predatory, mercenary hired killers, and a draft would democratize the Army as it always has. That's why Vietnam turned out to be a victory for our side—for the antiwar folks. You think jail's better than going into the Army? If you don't like it, then you don't enlist. Enough people felt that way, and lo and behold. It was an all-bullshit war from the start.
MB: Kingdom of Fear is your first book of new material in ten years. What have you been up to in the last decade?
HST: Oh, the same old thing, I suppose… Yeah, I've worked the same stories.
MB: In Kingdom of Fear you claim that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is as good as The Great Gatsby and better than The Sun Also Rises. That's quite the claim.
HST: [Laughs] In a moment of hedonism, yeah. It's better than Sun Also Rises, better than Gatsby.
MB: It's studied in colleges now. You're part of the canon of American literature.
HST: Yeah, that's good. Yeah…
MB: Why do you think Las Vegas is the book that resonates the most with people over the years? When people think you, they think that book.
HST: Oh God… I know, I know. Why do I think it resonates over and over again with different aged people? Well, I'll play with you on that. I don't really know. I could say it's fun, but it's more than that. Why do you think it is? Why do you think it's true?
MB: Well, the book's a ride. On the surface it's this cartoonish, ether-chugging adventure, but then there are all these darker themes—the death of the American Dream, instant gratification, how Americans find happiness—all that's underneath. So it's like a thrill ride to read the book, but then you pick up other messages along the way.
HST: [Laughs] Yeah, well, that's good enough for me. Weird. It's like Huckleberry Finn or something like that, you know? Travel journalism. I just wrote it down in my fucking notebook. … There's still that controversy whether Mark Twain wrote fiction or not.
MB: Do you ever feel pressure from your fans to live up to the cartoonish image you projected in the old days?
HST: What do you mean I projected? You mean [Doonesbury creator Garry] Trudeau. Try to make a living as a writer and you're turned into the lead character in a fucking popular cartoon… Shit, I don't even know Trudeau. I was never looking for publicity and said, "Hey Garry, why don't you put me in that strip of yours? That's a pretty good idea." [Laughs]
MB: Let's talk about The Rum Diary for a minute. Was it weird to put something out 40 years after you started it?
HST: Well, I like the book. If I thought about it much, it might be weird. Yeah, I didn't worry about it. You can't afford to worry about it.
MB: Was the novel complete before it was published, or did you do touch-up work on it?
HST: [Laughs] Cut out everything. There were scenes in there that the American public isn't ready to handle, to put it lightly.
MB: There was that famous fax you sent to a woman executive overseeing the Rum Diary movie in which you threatened to chop off her hands if things didn't get rolling. How'd that turn out?
HST: Oh yeah… Whoop! Whoop!
MB: [Rolling Stone founder] Jann Wenner is notably missing from the Kingdom of Fear "Honor Roll." What in God's name happened to Rolling Stone magazine?
HST: God… This is the same thing Bob Dylan and I were talking about recently. What happened? I don't know… Generic. Goddamn.
MB: Are you ever going to write for Rolling Stone again?
HST: I doubt it. As a gambler, I'd probably say not likely.
MB: How does it feel to have multiple biographies written about you? Flattering? Terrifying?
HST: Well, there are three or four out there, right? Of course, it's like reading reviews. With Jean Carroll's book [Hunter], what happened was every old friend of mine had been contacted—friends I'd forgotten about—and I got calls from all my friends telling me this lady had come by trying to get quotes for her book. My ex-wife called me a wife-beater and a thief, that crazy bitch. Yeah… That's a long story, but people I hadn't heard from in 30 years called me to ask if it was okay to talk to this lady, and some didn't even call me. I didn't want to say, "No, you can't," but God… that creepy bitch.
MB: You're becoming an elder statesman of the counterculture. What's that like?
HST: I have no idea what it's like… Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Yo! Yo! Eeeek! Eeeek!
MB: Okay, stupid question. So do any of the modern drugs interest you at all, or have you slowed down on that?
HST: Well, ecstasy isn't as elevating… The quality of drugs has gone down with the quality of life. You expect the drugs to get better? No… There are some new drugs around that are extreme downers. Heavy nerve damage, psychotic episodes… You have to prepare to be very out of body, out of your mind. It's a fact—I've enjoyed these drugs for a long time. Drugs will rot your brain. You masturbate all your life and die.
MB: Have you ever overdosed on anything?
HST: [Laughs] Vitamin A. I did beta-carotene and—I'm trying to think of the others—I did a super-overload of like thirty-five or -six vitamin tabs. I'd been up for two days working on this story, on deadline and I'd almost finished it, and I was definitely tired and worn-out. So instead of drugs I did vitamins. I thought, well, fuck—I'm too tired to do speed; it would be too dangerous. Why not go healthy, you know? So I starting eating these vitamins—C, D, E—and I figured if vitamins are good for you in an emergency, why not just double-up, quintuple-up? And I ate vitamins by the handful for like two minutes without stopping, thinking these would pump me up. And if vitamins are good, the more the better… Holy shit. I was turning beet-red, sweating, paralyzed—it's a little bit like hashish, actually.
MB: In the new book you admit you secretly pray to God.
HST: No, this is far beyond God.
MB: God can't save us now?
HST: There is no God.
MB: A lot of the figures from the '60s have passed on in the last 10 years—Ginsberg, Leary, Kesey—how does it feel to see that era fading away?
HST: You morbid little bastard… Yeah, how does it feel to be the last buffalo? Fuck, I don't know. I don't think anybody knows… When you talk about the '60s, you're talking about people who were scared out of their senses, trying to get the feeling for what the fuck was going on.
[Thompson suddenly screams for his assistant to turn the television volume up to eardrum-shattering levels. The History Channel is airing former U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson's Oct. 25, 1962 address to the United Nations General Assembly, demanding that the U.S.S.R. immediately withdraw its nuclear warheads from Cuba. The address on behalf of JFK is widely credited as having prevented the Cold War from going nuclear.]
"This one always gets to me," Thompson says wistfully, captivated for the entire duration of the speech. "You know, it haunts me that I never pursued the 'who killed Kennedy' story. I believe it's the one story I consider a failure. Yeah, I failed, and now the assumption is that obedience is normal—the president is king."