No country is more obsessed with statistics than the United States. Just take a look at their two most popular sports: baseball and American football. To watch either of them on television is to track seven or eight different scorecards at the same time — how many points each team has, how many yards until the next “down,” how many yards has that running back covered this season, how many hits has that batter made this year and how does it compare with a similar batter who last played 30 years ago, how often has that quarterback been “sacked,” how will that last innings affect that pitcher’s shutout average.
And despite those hours and hours of waiting around for seven seconds of mildly exciting activity, the Yanks can’t get enough of it. Entire TV channels devote their 24 hours of air time to the discussion of sports. TV screens in my coworking space are eternally fixed on these channels, featuring wide men in suits lined up behind desks, endlessly talking about a single play. To my mind, free-flowing sports like soccer and rugby are far more entertaining to watch, but the lack of trackable statistics make them suspicious to the American mind.
For men across this country, the lingua franca is sports statistics. Groups of men with nothing to talk about — say, at a mediocre party — will find common ground in sports statistics. I have heard men with little or no real interest in sports suddenly begin spouting detailed statistics about some obscure linebacker’s performance on grass versus turf. Personally, I can’t see much joy in the act of sitting around all day watching baseball and its attendant hours of corporate sponsorship. Maybe there’s a vague sense of comfort having it on in the background, if you grew up with it. When I see men dutifully gazing at the screens in some bar, I think of them as doing their “man homework.”
I recently finished reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 by Hunter S. Thompson, an account of George McGovern’s hopeless defeat by Richard Nixon in the 1972 U.S. election. Thompson originally made his journalistic name as a sportswriter which, at first glance, makes him a curious candidate for political coverage. But for Americans, politics is just another sport: a long, drawn-out and essentially boring game puffed up to importance with pomp and pageantry and a maddening ocean of statistics. Every state, county, city, neighbourhood and household has its demographics of age, socioeconomic status, religion, race and gender. Each of those demographics can be extrapolated to determine which candidate they might vote for — if they vote at all — and which messages might reach them if they cared to listen. Journalists, pundits, commentators and tastemakers use this extremely flimsy material to amuse themselves over the airwaves and on our screens for years ahead of the final vote. Thompson, then, was a perfect candidate to cover the campaign.
Thompson is best-known for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which in turn is known for the 1998 Terry Gilliam movie adaption wherein Johnny Depp takes a bunch of drugs in hotel rooms throughout Sin City. Thompson always had a larger-than-life reputation — during his book about the presidential campaign he talks often about mescaline and speed, and usually has a joint or a tumbler of Wild Turkey in hand — that gives him the aura of a rockstar. He was a great lover of guns, an occasional political candidate and lover of narcotics who eventually committed suicide in 2005.
His debauchery usually makes him the center of any scene, and he inserts himself into the story in a way that traditional journalists never would. For example, during Democratic candidate Ed Muskie’s disastrous train tour through Florida in 1972 Thompson offered his press credentials to a fresh-out-of-jail “freak,” who later boarded the train and attacked Muskie during a campaign speech.
This made him a pioneer in a type of journalism he dubbed “gonzo,” wherein he often exaggerated or even made up events to hit at some kind of deeper literary truth. As Frank Mankiewicz — McGovern’s campaign manager and a main character in On the Campaign Trail ‘72 — later said of the book, it was the “the least factual, most accurate account” of the election.
The book spends very little time on the actual votes, and instead dwells in the day-to-day life of a journalist covering the campaign — the dreary hotels and constant flights back and forth across the continent, which must have seemed a frightfully claustrophobic existence for a man who usually lived in the woods outside the Colorado ski town of Aspen.
“Eight days in the Sheraton-Schroeder is like three months in the Cook County Jail,” he writes from Milwaukee. “They are doing everything possible to make sure that nobody unfortunate enough to be trapped here this week will ever forget the experience. The room radiators are uncontrollable, the tubs won’t drain, the elevators go haywire every night, the phones ring for no reason at all hours of the night, the coffee shop is almost never open and about three days before the election the bar ran out of beer.”
Most election coverage we read today centres around an analysis of the game’s statistics. Who’s rising, who’s falling, which vaguely defined group this candidate is counting on to carry them across the line, an ongoing experiment in mass psychology conducted by professional Narrative Makers on a populace that, generally speaking, doesn’t seem to care one way or another. And while On the Campaign Trail ‘72 is chock-full with the kind of horse-race thinking and analysis that must have surrounded him at the time, Thompson’s coverage is unique because it zooms out a little. For me, its best passages read a little like a travelogue about the most boring journey imaginable.
“…I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I can stand it: this endless nightmare of getting up at the crack of dawn to go out and watch the candidate shake hands with workers coming in for the day shift at the Bilbo Gear & Sprocket factory, then following him across town for another press-the-flesh gig at the local Slaughterhouse … then back on the bus and follow the candidate’s car through traffic for forty-five minutes to watch him eat lunch and chat casually with the folks at a basement cafeteria table in some high-rise Home for the Aged.”
There are some surface similarities between the 1972 and 2020 campaigns: a polarizing candidate (Nixon/Trump) mired in allegations of criminal activity and electoral meddling (soliciting Ukrainian interference/bugging the Democratic National Convention), a challenger with some serious flaws (McGovern/Biden) and the bitter wind-down of a long and rather pointless war (Vietnam/Afghanistan).
Despite his irreverence, Thompson does at times wrap himself in the hope he finds in George McGovern, a mild-mannered senator from South Dakota who was the favourite among the holdover dregs of 1960’s counterculture. He maintains a kind of hopeless faith in the so-called Youth Vote. “If you give 25 million people a new toy, the odds are pretty good that a lot of them will try it at least once,” he offers at one point.
I think Thompson didn’t so much believe in McGovern himself — who comes off as a bit feckless both in Thompson’s glowing reviews and in speeches I’ve seen on YouTube — as the coalition of kids and misfits who came together to get him the nomination.
But aside from those little morsels, hope is conspicuously absent from Thompson’s account of life on the campaign trail. The Watergate break-in had already occurred when Nixon won with the widest ever popular vote margin in American history. Nixon had promised to end the Vietnam War in 1968, then authorized indiscriminate carpet bombing of North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. McGovern ended up turning to the center in the general election, but simultaneously failed to win over Nixon voters while alienating himself from the coalition Thompson dubs the “Freak Power Ticket” that got him there in the first place. McGovern lost every single state except Massachusetts and Washington D.C.
“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable,” Thompson wrote.
Things seem equally bleak now. The U.S. government’s response to the current coronavirus pandemic has public health officials smacking their foreheads, but Trump’s approval ratings have actually risen since the outbreak. Then and now, it seems a majority of U.S. voters prefer their outdated political apparatus and gradual shift toward authoritarianism — from Reagan’s dirty wars through Clinton’s crime bill, Bush’s mass surveillance-enabling “Patriot Act” and Obama’s use of drones for assassinations to the current administration’s brazen lies and anti-intellectualism — than taking a chance on an actual reformer like Eugene McCarthy, Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
“…it is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise,” Thompson wrote the month before the 1972 vote. “Our Barbie doll President, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close…”
Usually I’m suspicious of these “history repeats itself” cliches, but sub “Trump” in for “Nixon” in the above passage and it reads just as true and grimly entertaining.
Our Barbie doll President, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children…”
Despite popular culture’s focus on Thompson’s drug taking and hip irreverence — the book provides some entertaining allegations that Democratic candidate Ed Muskie spent much of the campaign high as a kite on a hallucinogen called ibogaine — he was, at heart, a true believer in the ideals his country aspires to.
“The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about “new politics” and “honesty in government,” is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon,” Thompson wrote.
Or, as history podcaster Dan Carlin often puts it: “I want a country that matches the marketing material.”