Leaf on HST — "To the Dead Only Truth"

Hunter Thompson was found of quoting Voltaire’s maxim: “To the living we owe respect; to the dead only the truth.”

Let’s bear this in mind with respect to Thompson’s own death. Yes, he killed himself. That doesn’t make him a martyr. It just marks him out as another victim of drugs and depression.

But what was he when he lived?

From 1965-1975 Thompson was one of the funniest and most imaginative humorists in America. His famed piece, rejected by Playboy, about Olympic gold medal skier Jean-Claude Killy remains a masterpiece of ironic reporting, and “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” is among the funniest books ever written. There’s much that was hilarious in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72”. And “Hell’s Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga” is interesting and compelling. But it’s also the only book he wrote that bears any close relation to objective reality.

Thompson wasn’t a serious journalist for more than a few years at the start of his career. He didn’t even write nonfiction for more than a few years. As a friend of mine who has been in re-hab three times once noted, if you did all the drugs Thompson claimed he’d had, you’d be dead.  And not in 2005. “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” is wildly amusing comedy, but virtually every scene in it was obviously made up by the author.

Thompson didn’t understand the 1960s, and he was coked out through the 1970s. Those who believe that Thompson had sensitive and nuanced observations about politics should go back and reread his writing.

He said that Hubert Humphrey campaigned while using the rare African hallucinogen ibogaine and called him a “shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack”.

He claimed that Jimmy Carter was the most qualified Democratic presidential candidate in 1976 because the Georgia Governor had referenced a Dylan song in his presence.

He continually compared Edwin Meese and Ronald Reagan to Hitler, sometimes giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt in the comparison.

Moreover, as his biographer E. Jean Carroll has noted, Thompson appears to have been a wife-beater. His constant attacks on other men as “swine” are interesting insofar as he himself was the classic sexist pig; when he could have gotten almost any magazine gig, he largely gave up writing to be the night manager of a strip joint.

It just happens that until he’d completely fried his brain he was a very funny guy.

For that let’s pay him homage. But let’s also admit that when he died yesterday he had nothing left to offer the world, and what he once had to offer was just the skills of the enormously gifted clown.

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