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The Unmaking of the President 1992
  • October 09, 2011 : 20:10
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This article was originally published in the October 1992 issue of Playboy magazine.

"Billy Crystal had his say. So did Phil Donahue. Even Regis Philbin found it hard to refrain from commenting when Governor Bill Clinton insisted that he had never inhaled the marijuana that touched his lips 25 years ago.

"So why haven't we heard from the man who carried a black bag filled with drugs on every campaign he ever covered, the man who invented and perfected gonzo journalism, the missing link between politics and the pharmaceutical industry?

"`It's just a disgrace to an entire generation,' said Hunter S. Thompson when asked about Clinton's decision not to inhale. Thompson, reached at home in Woody Creek, Colorado, was clearly astounded by Clinton's reserve. But he had to get off the phone in a hurry, he said, because local police were accusing him of firing a military rocket at a snowmobile."

—THE NEW YORK TIMES, APRIL 7, 1992

I got Hunter's answering machine when I called. Hunter rarely answers his constantly ringing phones, though, if it's late enough--if vampire bats and werewolves are in the middle of their workday—he often sits in his kitchen beside the phone, in front of the big TV, over his old IBM electric typewriter, drinking, smoking, monitoring the calls as those on the line are assaulted by a recorded message that he changes often to reflect his mood.

"`As a dog returns to his vomit,'" said the tape in Thompson's unmistakable cigarette baritone, "`so a fool returns to his folly.' That's from Proverbs 26... [then a shout, a signature outburst that blew the phone away from my ear]. Where's that fucking book ?"

"Eleven," answered a female voice somewhere in the background.

"Proverbs 26:11," said Hunter, dropping back into his mock clerical tone. Then a final outburst, "Goddamn it."... Beeeep.

I said my name and he picked up. "Terrible," he told me when I asked how he was. "Cops all over the place. Fucking sheriff won't answer my calls...they're closing in."

Something about a military rocket and a snowmobile? I asked him.

"No, fuck. It wasn't a rocket...these bastards. A meteorite landed in Woody Creek and they're blaming me."

That wasn't exactly true, but if it had been, if a meteorite were to slam into the turbulent valley of Woody Creek, no one would have blamed Hunter's neighbors for thinking of him before they thought of God. They had, after all, suffered many other nights when the sky was lit by flames, when the ground shook, when champagne flutes leapt off their shelves because of Hunter's fascination with pyrotechnics.

But not this time, he said. This was a misunderstanding, a pack of vicious lies, and he'd made the remark about Clinton in the chaos that followed.

"It was Easter Sunday. A friend and I were out driving and she fired a couple of those little screamers you use to scare away birds, and all of a sudden they were threatening to arrest me. I was hiring lawyers and investigators, and right in the middle of the whole goddamn nightmare, Pat Cadell called from New York to ask me about the Clinton thing. I didn't know he was drinking with a bunch of reporters. I had no idea that what I said was going to show up in every edition of The New York Times the next day."

"Well," I told him, "no matter what, it was great to have your commentary, short as it was, on this dismal campaign. A lot of us miss your wise political voice." Then I suggested that the two of us spend a few days together and have a long, rambling conversation about all the players in the presidential burlesque of 1992.

"Why not?" he said. "Sounds like fun, and, as you know, fun is all that matters to me. But I gotta go. I'm going to call the sheriff again, then I'm going to go out and stuff my stomach with crack until I don't know the difference between a snowball and a human head, and then I'm going shooting."

Hunter and I have known each other for 20 years, and we'd done this sort of thing before: me with the tape recorder, him talking, smoking, drinking, sharing his salves and powders, making me laugh, making me angry. In 1974 we spent seven months struggling out a Playboy Interview, on the road mostly, between Cozumel and Aspen, San Clemente and Chicago. We ended the summer in Washington, D.C., for what turned out to be the final siege of Richard Nixon's White House.

I landed in Aspen on the Wednesday after Easter. Bill Clinton and George Bush had won the New York primaries. But neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were celebrating. Voter turnout had been pitiful. Paul Tsongas, who had declared himself out of the race, garnered nearly 29 percent of the Democratic total, which made it look as if the voters were trying to say that the only good candidate was a former candidate. Then there was Ross Perot: the only-if-I'm-gonna-win candidate. The day I arrived in Colorado, the Lone Star gazillionaire—who hadn't even declared himself in or out of the race--finished ahead of both Bush and Clinton in a Texas poll.

Hunter and I and his new editorial assistant, Nicole, had dinner that first night at the Snowmass Lodge. The subject of politics didn't come up until we made our first trip to the lobby bathroom. We'd finished our business, I was washing my hands, Nicole was laughing and Hunter was in front of the big mirror putting on lipstick. I don't know why he's taken to wearing lipstick these days, and I don't ask such things. He has always accessorized himself—with strange hats, shades, cigarette holders, war clubs, rubber rats—as if he were some sort of clown from hell, and actually, lipstick sort of rounds out the look. I'm never sure how others are going to take it, however. So when Bob Maynard, president of the Aspen Ski Co. and owner of the lodge, walked through the bathroom door looking tan and rich and powerful, I braced myself for something awkward. I needn't have worried.

"Hi, Bob," said Hunter. "What's happening?" He introduced Nicole and me, but Maynard seemed not to notice.

"Hunter," he said, "I'm just back from Georgia. I bring you greetings from Jimmy Carter!"

"Hot damn," said Hunter. "Good old Jimmy—that bastard." He finished with the lipstick, then offered it to Maynard, who instead preferred to talk about the ex-President.

"He's a great guy," said Maynard from the urinal. "He said you were the first one to tell him that he ought to run for President."

"Jimmy's too kind," said Hunter. "He's also dumb. The bastard embarrassed me. He cost us the control that we had bled for in Watergate. The Republicans were doomed before he fucked up. We'd beaten them like dogs. We had been tried in battle and by God it was our time...and Jimmy blew it. The first job of any President is to be reelected. If he'd been reelected, we wouldn't have had twelve years of Reagan and Bush and the triumph of the rich. He made it possible for these right-wing yo-yos and their gangs to come out of nowhere and seize the country. On election day in 1980, that motherfucker conceded one or two hours before the polls closed on the West Coast. So the voters gave up, just didn't go out, which cost all kinds of Congressmen and local officials their jobs. The Democratic Party's been demoralized ever since."

Just before we said good night, Hunter gave me his notes from a phone conversation he'd had the night before with actor John Cusack. The two of them had become friends when 25-year-old Cusack directed a stage version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at a Chicago theater. It was 3 a.m. when he called, and the young actor wanted to talk about the campaign with the man he thinks of as the ultimate political swami.

"Hunter," he said, "I need to know what's ahead in this campaign, because three months ago you told me that Pat Buchanan was running point for Bush and you were dead on."

"It was very shrewd," said Hunter. "These guys are good. They all have their jobs. Pat Buchanan came in as a stalking horse for Bush. His job was to knock David Duke out of the race, and he did it."

"So you think Bush is going to win?" asked Cusack.

"It looks that way right now," said Hunter. "But I don't know. Clinton may have a chance. He's a tough bugger. He's been severely flogged in public and it may be that he's come through the worst of it. But things are never what they seem in politics. It's a long way from April to November. There's hope."

"I don't know," said Cusack. "I think maybe the difference between my generation and your generation is that Reagan was elected when we were in high school, which means we went from Watergate to the sabotage of Carter to Irancontra, and the whole thing has left us with a deep-seated cynicism. It just seems we're doomed."

"You're always doomed when people don't participate, Johnny," said Hunter. "People have to get pissed off enough to vote. That's what happened at the end of the Fifties. I thought John Kennedy was kind of a wimp when he started running. When it dawned on me that here was a guy who could beat Nixon, it became a holy crusade and I signed on. And we beat the bastard, but only by a hundred thousand votes. Clinton might make it."

"Clinton's smart," said Cusack. "I guess that should give me some hope. He seems to have a plan and he might have a good heart. Trouble is, he's also a slick fucking hustler."

"So was Kennedy," said Hunter.

We met the next morning at Owl Farm. Hunter had stayed up all night and was perched on his fighting chair at the working center of his cabin-style house—the kitchen—a room that hasn't changed much in 20 years and has always felt to me like the bridge of a pirate scow. Telephones, tape decks, satellite TV, fax and video cams are banked around the countertop desk. Curtains and shades are drawn against the light. Cattle prods and Tasers hang near the stove. The refrigerator door is hung with a large black-and-white photo of one of the massive front-yard explosions that have rattled his neighbor's glassware—and their nerves—over the years.

This is legal, of course. Colorado ranchers are allowed to possess and use dynamite, and the rest of Hunter's arsenal—shotguns, rifles, assault rifles, pistols, even a .22 caliber Gatling gun—is protected under his NRA Charter as the Woody Creek Rod and Gun Club, a loose group of friends and visitors who show up for the pure recreational gaiety of putting the local hillsides around here to withering fire.

And lately, Hunter has found a way to turn his passion for things that go boom into something of a cottage industry.

"Have you seen these?" he asked. "My art." He handed me Polaroids of his portfolio, which included poster portraits of Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater, Marx and J. Edgar Hoover, each of which had been glued to a large plywood board, blasted with gunfire and bombs, carefully painted, then signed and sold. "As you know, I've been doing this for twenty years. It's about time I got paid for it. You'll notice...the marksmanship is important," he told me as I flipped through the photos.

"The theme here seems to be the deconstruction of political faces," I said. "Shoot 'em, mutilate 'em and paint 'em. What you do with words, you're also doing with bullets and pigment."

"I've been experimenting with different kinds of paint," he said. "I started with spray paint, which didn't have enough body. But I've sold everything I've ever done. The last one went for twenty-five thousand. I am the most successful beginning artist in the history of man."

"Nothing like notoriety," I said.

"Jesus, man," he said, "it's art. We ought to make some while you're here. Shoot somebody, use it as an illustration for the story. Maybe a picture of Reagan. Yes, marksmanship is the key. All kinds of blasts around him, but no fatal wounds...the ultimate professional."

"That's a little disturbing," I said. "A professional marksman inflicting fatal wounds on the President."

"Nonsense," he said. "He's not the President." Then he laughed and made a screwing motion with his finger, whirling it in circles against his skull.

"You're crazy, Hunter," I said. "Crazy as a loon."

"At least I get paid for it," he said. "You, on the other hand, are a sniveling, half-bright, underpaid rat in the jungle of capitalism. But you're right about one thing. This is the end. This is the final ten years of the century and the end of the world as we know it."

He chuckled again and made the same loopy motion with his finger against his head and pointed across the room at Nicole, who was strapped to a leather couch. Nicole still, somehow, transcribed our conversation on a Hogan 4000 Voicewriter.

"Don't worry about Reagan," said Hunter. "He's utterly bulletproof. They called him the Teflon President, but they didn't know the half of it. He's at least 88 percent bionic. He will live for a thousand years."

That afternoon we took Hunter's car out for a drive. It's a red 1972 Chevrolet Caprice Classic V8 convertible with a rebuilt 454-cubic-inch short-block highperformance engine that will run about 130 mph with no noise at all except for the tinny rumble of honky-tonk music on its original AM radio. There is a lot of machinery on the far-flung grounds of Owl Farm, but the big red car is the centerpiece. It was a gift from his friend Jim Mitchell, who personally tightened the coil springs to almost preterhuman tension so that the car will go from 0 to 80 in 9.2 seconds and from 45 to 90 in four seconds flat.

Hunter got his giant dead wolverine—a truly fierce piece of taxidermy—and stood it on the back seat of the car in a way that would show tooth and claw to those we passed. He then clipped a radar detector to his sun visor and we fishtailed off toward Aspen.

On the way, we talked about Bill Clinton again. When I asked him about his response to the governor's claim that he hadn't inhaled the marijuana he'd smoked, Hunter went into a long narrative about the night Cadell had ambushed him over the telephone. Something in his explanation sounded as if he regretted the Times quote.

"I'm not sorry for what I said," he told me. "Clinton was dumb. I understand the gantlet he's been running and I think he's done a tremendous job. I wasn't trying to destroy him. When he said he didn't inhale, it was the first verbal mistake I've heard him make. I thought he handled the Vietnam thing very well. He didn't deny his opposition to the war. But on the marijuana thing he left me no choice. He did disgrace a whole generation. And my integrity was on the line. I was on the national board of NORML. We fought to legalize marijuana. We've all smoked it. When they asked him about it, he should have told them to crawl back where they came from.... `What do you mean did I inhale?...I inhale everything...it is my business to inhale...I'd die if I didn't inhale.' Every intelligent person in this country who ever smoked marijuana would have laughed with him—instead of at him.

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