"Actually, I've been pushing Clinton all along, even though I've denounced him. He's the first candidate I've seen in a while who has a really wicked sense of humor. And he could beat Bush, he might just win, which is the point of politics. I have to admire the way Clinton sort of shot through the slings and arrows. It may be good that he got that stuff out of the way. He's pretty clean now, unlike George Bush. George has not yet answered for his role in Iran-Contra, but Caspar Weinberger will be his John Dean. Lawrence Walsh was right."
Over the days we spent together, Hunter often spoke fondly of Patrick Buchanan. Their friendship goes back more than 20 years and has been for me the most vivid proof of the old saw that politics makes strange bedfellows.
"Patrick's a friend," is the way Hunter explains it. "He invited me on his campaign plane, gave me total access. And I knew what he was doing. He has his agenda and I have mine and sometimes they coincide...like that night he put me in the car with Nixon."
That was 1968, in New Hampshire, on the night before Richard Nixon's pivotal victory in the primary there. Hunter was covering the campaign for Pageant magazine and had spent two weeks trying to get access to the candidate, with no luck. He had, however, used his eccentric charm to begin a friendship with Ray Price and Pat Buchanan, a couple of young Nixon speechwriters. That night, their boss wanted the company of somebody from the press corps who could talk football on the two-hour drive back to Manchester, where a Lear waited for him. But just football, Price and Buchanan warned Hunter. No political talk at all—and especially no liberal bullshit about Vietnam, tear gas and riots, or they would throw him out of the car in the middle of cold, dark, nowhere New Hampshire. Once these ground rules were agreed to, Price and Buchanan climbed into the front seat of the yellow Mercury, and Hunter sat in the back with the clever, seedy little man who was later to assume and disgrace the Presidency.
Hunter has always described that ride as relaxed and friendly, and he was impressed by Nixon's football savvy. And whatever Buchanan overheard from the front seat, it must have convinced him that Hunter was trustworthy and likable, a sparring partner worthy of the ring.
"Patrick is a deranged imperialistic fascist," Hunter told me. "His positions are monstrous. But I have to admire the way he's dealt with me over the years. He could have really hurt me. As it is, the Democrats have done me more harm than he has. But I like Patrick, he's a warrior."
Preparations for making a piece of target art took several days. We began in the garage among the antlers and mounted animal heads by finding two posters that had already been glued to sheets of plywood. The first was a smiling campaign portrait of George McGovern that had been shot, but only once, right between the eyes.
"A quick, clean, merciful shot for George, it looks like," I said.
"Yeah," said Hunter. "He's a good one."
Next to McGovern stood a poster photo of Bobby Kennedy in a leather jacket on a beach somewhere. It always makes me angry and sad and cynical to look at pictures of Bobby and his brother. It reminds me of a time when it seemed that a strong, compassionate Democratic Party was on a roll that was going to last for decades. If not for a few bullets. Hunter and I didn't say anything about it that afternoon in his garage, but we've talked about those heady days many times before. So it didn't surprise me that, although the poster of Bobby had been mounted and was ready for shooting, Hunter hadn't shot it.
On first search, nothing in the Owl Farm poster archives turned up a face that seemed quite right, so I headed into Aspen to see if I could find a Clinton campaign office that might have a likeness of the Arkansas governor that would provide canvas for a 12-gauge brush. But there was no Clinton campaign headquarters in town, and none for Bush, though we had already ruled him and Dan Quayle out of the exercise on the theory that shooting a picture of the sitting President would probably attract art critics who carry Secret Service badges.
Ironically, only noncandidate Ross Perot had a campaign office in Aspen. It was staffed by four smiling people who greeted me warmly and offered me coffee. They told me they were sorry, but there were no Perot posters yet. I didn't sign their petition, but I gave them a buck for a button and wore it back to Woody Creek.
"I don't know," said Hunter when he saw it. "He's the wild card. What do you think of him?"
"He has a certain Harry Truman give'em-hell kind of charm," I told him. "And he's something of an outsider."
"Balls," said Hunter. "He's no outsider. He's one of Reagan's cronies and Nixon's. In fact, it may be that Nixon's behind this whole thing. He can't be President himself, so he sent Perot to haunt us. Any friend of Nixon's is an enemy of mine." He smiled. "No, old Ross is a credentialed insider...part of the corporate branch of the government, the successful free-enterprisers who have been running this country, like Charles Keating and Michael Milken."
"He just beat Bush and Clinton in a Texas poll," I said.
"He's considered an honest man in Texas," said Hunter. "And he's right on some issues. He's pro-choice and he was against the slaughter in Iraq."
"He scares me," I said. "His remark about 'that danged Constitution'—"
"He's probably a Nazi," said Hunter. "If he's elected we could all wake up to find that the front doors have been taken off our houses. He seems to think that the Fourth Amendment is a loophole for dope fiends and sodomites. Then again, you have to ask yourself, How much worse could he be than Ronald Reagan and George Bush? When they got in, it was like: If you thought the Republicanism of Richard Nixon was the dark underbelly of the American dream, wait until you see this. What they've done makes Watergate look like a tap dance. Bush is such a truthless pigfucker, such a guilty bastard. He was guilty in Iran-contra, guilty in the looting of the Treasury. And the price has been high. There are no jobs. No houses. We've become slaves in the world's service market. And the only reason these rotten bastards got away with any of it is that they had no opposition. The Democrats just rolled over while this greedy bunch of lying swine wrecked the country."
Whenever Hunter got going on the Democrats, there was as much vitriol in his voice as when he talked about the Republicans. "There are two things on my agenda in this election," he told me as we gathered the shotguns, pistols, highpowered rifles and ammunition we were going to use to make art. "I want to defeat George Bush and I want to destroy the Democratic Party as we know it. The party pros—the city, state and regional coordinators, the horrible slugs who ran Mondale and Dukakis—have spent the past twelve years trading the White House for the statehouse and Congress. They think that's a fair and equal trade. It's not. They've forgotten about the Supreme Court, for one thing. But they still have their wretched little jobs and that's all they care about. They're powerful people, utterly corrupt, and they don't want to give up their perks, their footholds in the network of power. They know if they had a real candidate, they'd all be out of work. If Gary Hart had been nominated in 1984, there would have been a housecleaning from top to bottom in the party. Instead, what we have is a network of virtually unbearable incumbents who run the Democratic Party as if it were some kind of permanent minority. They've destroyed the party from the inside. They sold it out."
When we talked about the way voters, especially young voters, were staying away from the polls in record numbers: Hunter said it didn't surprise him.
"We've lost a whole generation of activists," he said, "because they've never known the fun of winning. Johnny Cusack's generation, the 20-to-40-year-olds, have never had any sense that they could have an effect the way we did. You have to win sometimes or it begins to seem like somebody else's game. Politics is the art of controlling your environment, which is why I've been involved, why I'm still involved. It's my personal freedom that's on the line. It's too important and it's too much fun. It was fun to run Richard Nixon out of the White House. Do you remember the joy I took standing at the end of that red carpet, being the last person to see that bastard get on the helicopter?"
I do remember, I told him, and it was fun, probably more political fun than we'll ever have again. But things are never what they seem in politics. We thought we were watching the end of the war that Watergate summer. Ronald Reagan, William Casey and Oliver North knew better. And the death of all our fun followed shortly.
But the spirit they killed seemed to be stirring that week after Easter. "Among the Perot forces," I suggested to him. "They're out on the street corners with their petitions. They're renting storefronts all over the country, they're charged up with that fuck-you sort of energy that just might make a successful end run around the party system, the conventions, the media. They're the ones having fun right now."
"You bet," he said. "They're whooping it up. They're party people. Perot headquarters will be a fun place to be on election night. But I wouldn't want to be there on April Fool's Day. He is like a ferret in heat. He is a monster. It's one thing to bypass the two-party system, and another to bypass the Constitution. I don't think he knows the difference."
By the time Deborah, Hunter's longtime secretary, leaned a mounted poster of Ronald Reagan against an aluminum beer keg, late afternoon shadows were creeping over the beautiful greensward that is the front yard and shooting range at Owl Farm. The poster was an enlarged black-and-white photo of the movie star and he was standing tough about 15 yards downrange from the picnic table that was carefully arranged with shotguns, pistols, a .223-caliber assault rifle, a .22 rifle, shells and bullets for all of them, a bottle of Scotch and a single red geranium in a terra-cotta pot.
It had taken all afternoon to prepare the shoot. Two video cameras were set up and music was chosen (the Cowboy Junkies). Hunter parked a Jeep Wagoneer, a John Deere tractor and his big red car on the lawn so that their headlights illuminated the target. Then he disappeared to choose his costume.
"There is no art until it's sold," he said as he made his entrance. Then he blew a duck call that hung around his neck, and the peacocks, huddled in the trees, screeched as if they'd been called into concert by Satan. He was wearing khakis and a plaid shirt, lipstick and eyeliner, a tightly curled blond wig and an earflap hat made of unborn wolf. Darkness had fallen and there was no moon yet. Then again, it always feels as if there's a full moon when you're with Hunter.
"Who you gonna vote for, Doc?" I asked him as he loaded the 12-gauge and sat on the grass a few yards from the smiling cowboy.
"I knew you'd get to that one," he said. "I've wrestled deeply with this thing. There is a lust for revenge on Reagan and Bush that courses through my blood. But I'm not sure just what politicai move will accomplish that right now. The Democrats look strong for 1996 with Quayle the likely Republican candidate by then, and it may be that none of them really wants to be elected this year. Not with the terrible economic shit-rain that's coming. The smart thing might be to just stand back and let the fuckers have it, let the roof collapse on them. Then Clinton or Cuomo or whatever Democrat can go into 1996 without the hideous baggage that's going to attach to whoever is elected this year."
Hunter rolled onto his back, raised his legs like a capsized turtle, then put the gunstock to shoulder and paused a few seconds. The plywood jumped when the shotgun blast hit it. Paint spattered.
A minute later, as we used a big flashlight to examine the holes in the image of the old cowboy, I asked him again.
"Who you gonna vote for, Hunter?"
"I'm going to have to ponder that," he said.
I received his answer two months later, in the middle of June. It came as a fax addressed to me. By the tone of the message, he had not only pondered the question, he had prayed over it, consulted his Bible and then composed his response as a kind of epistle. He headed it with one of his favorite quotes:
"Just how weird can you stand it, brother, before your love will crack?"
This is a hard one to call, Bubba—especially from two thousand miles away and eight thousand feet high and nineteen weeks before the election.... But what the hell, we are, after all, professionals, and we do our finest work, our highest and keenest thinking, under conditions of extreme pressure.
Ho, ho. So try this: Only a fool would vote this year. The smart people will hunker down like dazed rabbits—quivering and staring and shitting on one another while they hop back and forth in their cages. The smart will ignore politics this year. They will pretend to be dumb, like the bunny rabbit, and they will really be acting smart.
There are too many whores in politics these days, but the night of the whorehopper is coming. Many will be called, and nine out of ten will be chosen—to be herded down the long, slippery ramp and into the bottomless sheep-dip, where they will wallow and struggle helplessly, some of them drowning, until their bodies are disinfected by powerful acids, vapors and the fumes of terrible lice medicines that will fry their brains like bacon left too long in the microwave. Ronald Reagan was right, back in 1983, when he told a reporter that this generation may be the one that will have to face the end of the world.
Well, maybe so, Bubba, maybe so. But I'll believe it when I see it. Those bastards have been promising the apocalypse for as far back as I can remember, but they always weasel out of it—and, frankly, I've just about given up hope. Fuck them. They lie. It's worse than a roofing-and-siding racket.
No. We will not be that lucky. The end will not come quickly. First will come the shit-rain, then the sheepdip and after that, the terrible night of the whorehopper, which might last a thousand years.
"And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison."
That's Revelations 20:7, which is only the tip of the iceberg. The bad news comes in the last two verses of Chapter 20—14 and 15—where it says: "And death and hell were cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the Lake of Fire."
Yeah. How's that for a sneak preview of yr. golden years, Bubba? Cast into the Lake of Fire, with Satan trying to drag you under....
Horrible. It is a grim prospect for Jesus freaks, because they know the Bible says that Satan is a cross between a crocodile & a huge hyena. He has seven heads, six hundred teeth & he weighs a thousand pounds—a nasty thing to feel getting hold of yr. leg when you're trying to stay afloat in a Lake of Fire.
That is what a vote for Ross Perot will get you. And a vote for George Bush will get you cast into the great winepress of the wrath of God...which is more or less where we are now, if you believe the newspapers.
So that leaves Clinton, I guess. Yeah, good old Bill. At least he has a sense of humor, and he doesn't mind ducking behind a hedge now and then for a bit of suckee-suckee in the course of his afternoon jog.
The Bible says, "The tortoise shall overtake the hare, kill him and eat him."
So who are we to argue, Bubba? This ain't no normal election year. A man would have to be crazy not to hit the streets with his vote in his hand on November 3, if only to cast it where it can do the most damage-preferably to George Bush. Why not? It may be the last fun we'll have for a while. Death to the weird.
A few weeks later, another fax was dropped at my door.
Well, shucks.... What can I say? Perot just quit the goddamn race! That swine! That cheap little treacherous bastard.
Never mind that election-night party we were talking about...no. We will have no fun on election night this year; or at least not the kind we were looking for.
Shit. I was cranking up for some kind of king-hell atavistic endeavor like we knew in the good old days, when we howled and jabbered and bounced around the room all night long like human golf balls every time the numbers came in from weird places like Pensacola and Butte and Sacramento, and the balance would swing back and forth.
That might happen this time—but it won't come near the kind of craziness that was guaranteed to happen with a three-way race.
Forget the House of Representatives. That was pie in the sky. They were only fucking with us, Bubba, and now they are going to fuck with citizen Ross Perot, you bet. Remember Lyndon La Rouche? He took the bastards on and was never seen again. They arrested his followers and put him away for 15 years for fraud, stupidity and hubris.
Sorry. We almost had our hands on it—but they double-crossed us once again. Both Buchanan and Perot were working for George Bush, who will probably win by five or six points and then have us all locked up. Good luck, Bubba. It's every man for himself now. Welcome to the passing lane. Res Ipsa Loquitor.