In 1970, the late Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson famously threw his hat into the political ring, running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., on the radical Freak Power Party ticket.
He narrowly lost that race — despite an unorthodox platform that included, among other things, decriminalizing drugs, ripping up Aspen’s streets with jackhammers and rechristening the popular skiing town “Fat City.”
[IMGCAP(1)] But for all his celebrity, Thompson, who died last month from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, may have had other political ambitions that few people knew about. The man sometimes known as “Dr. Thompson” considered trading in that moniker for a slightly loftier title: Senator from Colorado.
Toward the end of his book “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” which chronicles that year’s tumultuous presidential campaign, Thompson makes repeated references to his desire to run for Senate in 1974.
“I’m organizing a campaign for U.S. Senate,” Thompson tells the pilot of a small plane as they circle Manhattan not long after President Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over then-Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), according to an account in the book. If he runs, Thompson confides, he would want McGovern’s former political director Frank Mankiewicz, who was with them on the flight, to head his effort.
Later in the book, Thompson mentions the idea in passing to McGovern, and also writes that he is discussing it with former McGovern advisers Rick Stearns, Sandy Berger and Carl Wagner.
But what of that erstwhile dream? Not one of myriad obituaries published in the wake of Thompson’s February suicide so much as mentioned any potential Senate bid.
Was it just another ginned-up detail in a book already known for occasionally stretching the truth? This is the same tome, after all, in which Thompson says that Mankiewicz once attacked him in New Hampshire with a tire iron — something Mankiewicz does not remember.
Not at all, said Wagner, a veteran Democratic strategist and longtime Thompson confidant.
“In 1973, it was his view that ’74 would produce an enormous victory for a very new group of people in the Senate,” Wagner recalled of the post-Watergate period. “The question before him was not whether it would happen but whether he could give voice to it, and he chose not to.
“The spirit of him doing that and the spirit of politics generally in the 1970s was sort of complete faith that if the right argument was put forth it would prevail,” Wagner said. Thompson, he added, was motivated by a sense of the “moral and generational choice” he felt was confronting the nation when it came to issues such as the Vietnam War and corruption in government.
“It wasn’t like to end capital gains taxes or anything like that,” Wagner said.
“We did talk about his running for the Senate,” agreed Mankiewicz, who said he would have considered running a potential Thompson for Senate effort had he been asked. “I never thought for a minute he was going to do it. … I don’t think he could have raised the filing fee.
“He was talking about a lot of things on the flight,” Mankiewicz added, including “what drug he thought the pilot was on.”
By the fall of 1973, however, the notion had largely faded from Thompson’s mind — long before any formal steps, such as the launching of a campaign committee, had been taken, Wagner said. By then, there were already five well-known candidates, including ex-McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart, vying for the Democratic nomination, said Tom Hoog, who served as political director for Hart’s 1974 Senate campaign.
“It was a pretty crowded field already,” Hoog said.
Hal Haddon, a Denver attorney who served as Hart’s campaign manager during that Senate bid, said the idea of a Thompson candidacy was never much of a concern around Hart headquarters — at least not by the time he arrived in early 1974.
“Hunter was supporting Hart and was a good friend,” Haddon said, adding that Thompson was constantly offering advice to the Hart campaign. “I wouldn’t call him a consultant, more like a nag,” quipped Haddon, who is also a personal representative of Thompson’s estate. “Two or three times he talked about running [for political office], mostly to express protest with whomever was running.”
Given his passion for the democratic process, why didn’t Thompson, who once titled a book about the 1992 presidential race “Better Than Sex,” take the plunge himself?
“The crushing defeat we suffered in 1972 must have been a great blow to him, as it was to me,” suggested McGovern, who believes that disappointment may have dimmed Thompson’s desire to put himself through a similar experience.
Or maybe Thompson realized there was room for only one former star of the McGovern odyssey in the race that year.
In the “Epitaph” of “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” Thompson notes that at one point after the McGovern defeat, he flew to Denver to meet with Hart, whom he tried to convince “to organize Denver for me.” When he hears “later that night” that Hart was planning to run for Senate himself, Thompson, who earlier in the book had mentioned the possibility of challenging Hart in the Democratic primary, lets loose an outburst of what can only be interpreted as feigned outrage.
“Was Gary so blinded with bile that he would actually run against me in The Primary? Would he risk splitting the ‘Three A’s’ vote and maybe sink us both?” Thompson writes.
The three A’s were amnesty (for draft dodgers), abortion (rights) and acid (LSD) — three things that McGovern’s opponents accused the Senator of supporting.
Hart, who is currently out of the country, was not available for comment about any discussions the two may have had.
But seen in this light, maybe the whole Senate campaign idea was little more than the drug-induced ramblings of a man who wanted to extend the political high of the McGovern campaign for as long as possible.
“After two years on The Edge, involuntary retirement is a hard thing to cope with,” Thompson writes. “Three weeks without even a hint of a crisis left me so nervous that I began gobbling speed and babbling distractedly about running for the U.S. Senate.”
Former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who was first elected to Congress in 1972, said she has no recollection of Thompson ever considering a Senate bid.
“Maybe it was a Western Slope thing that never got over the mountains to Denver,” she mused.
“I think more and more he began to see that his role was as a political analyst, not as a participant,” added Mankiewicz, now vice chairman of the communications firm Hill and Knowlton. Mankiewicz, who occasionally put Thompson up at his home, said he always knew Thompson was about to descend when he started receiving the author’s forwarded mail.
Whatever the ultimate reason for forgoing the race, Thompson had clearly caught the political bug. Roughly a year after McGovern’s ill-fated campaign — the South Dakotan won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — Thompson organized a political conference in Elko, Nev., with former McGovernites and other liberals to discuss the future of the progressive movement.
Over the years, Thompson remained involved in presidential politics. During Hart’s 1984 presidential bid, Thompson “moved in” to a less-than-stellar hotel in downtown Philadelphia, which was housing campaign staff in the area, said Hoog, who headed Hart’s Pennsylvania effort and now serves as senior counselor to the chairman of Hill and Knowlton. “At night he’d hold court in the hotel bar, and morale was sky high.”
In recent years, Thompson had become an acidic critic of the Bush administration, which he delighted in heaping with explicit pejoratives. He also made at least one campaign appearance with then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) during the 2004 election.
While Thompson’s death at age 67 closes the door on any further political forays, the very idea of a Sen. Hunter Thompson presents an intriguing theoretical to former friends and associates.
“He was a good horsetrader,” said McGovern, who still treasures the blue denim jacket with a red fist printed on it that Thompson gave him on his 75th birthday. “Once in office he would have become more pragmatic about what you have to do to get something accomplished.”
He would have been “a modern-day Lincoln,” said Haddon, pointing to Thompson’s proclivity for debating and writing.
But others, such as Melinda Paterson, a Democratic fundraiser who worked with Thompson’s Fourth Amendment Foundation and periodically stayed at his guest house in Colorado, said Thompson would have been rejected by the august chamber.
“He wouldn’t be accepted,” she said. “To be blunt, he’s just too offbeat.”
So would he have run as a Democrat? Most who knew him believe so, despite his suggestion in the book that he’d prefer to run on a third-party ticket.
“I didn’t see how it could go anywhere,” McGovern said of Thompson’s Freak Power Party.
That it didn’t was perhaps one of Thompson’s regrets. Now, we’ll never know.
“I know Hunter wanted to change the world,” Paterson said. “That was kind of his plight in life.”