Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Fear, Loathing and Gonzo Journalism

Hunter Thompson and I owe our journalistic careers to drugs and alcohol. He lived them. I reported about them.

fear-and-loathing-in-las-vegas3After a troubled childhood, a short stint in jail for abetting a robbery and a tour of duty in the Air Force, Thompson turned to journalism. He went from a relatively conventional reporter to counter-culture icon, innovating what became known as gonzo journalism, where reporters live what they write.

Thompson loved firearms, hated authority figures and immersed himself in alcohol and drugs. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone,” Thompson said, “but they’ve always worked for me.”

I had a charmed childhood, avoided jail and was rejected as physically unfit for the Air Force Academy.  I turned to journalism because I needed a job.

I never fired a gun, am amused by authoritarian blowhards and kept running into guys who abused alcohol and drugs. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say drug addicts and drunks helped make my journalistic career.

Thompson earned his reputation by writing Hell’s Angels after living with the motorcycle gang for a year. He cemented his place in journalistic history with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. After Thompson committed suicide in 2005, his ashes were fired from a cannon at a ceremony attended by Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson and then-Senator John Kerry.

None of my writing about a drug addict and two drunks became hardcover books or earned celebrity attention. They did produce splashy headlines and compelling stories. As a result, the drug addict went to prison and the two alcoholics lost at their respective next elections.

Thompson ran unsuccessfully for office in 1970 – improbably as sheriff of Pitkin County in Colorado. I ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1992. Most people have forgotten both candidacies. I still have a few bad memories.

gonzo_journalist_bumper_sticker-r8351a60c59bb4e22936e130afd477e2c_v9wht_8byvr_512An admirer said Thompson became ugly so he could see and report about the ugliness around him. All I had to do was look around to see some pretty ugly stuff.

My first day on the job as a cub reporter in Port Angeles, Washington, I saw on the police blotter that the town marshal of Forks had been arrested. He was charged with sodomizing two teenage boys and having an attic stash of drugs.

His trial revealed the disgraced town marshal had fled Kansas City following a fire bombing of his car. Law enforcement officials believed he was “connected” and was part of a drug smuggling scheme that involved fishing boats. He never confirmed the rumors, but when I rode with him to the penitentiary to complete the story, he expressed doubt he would ever leave prison alive.

Covering court proceedings was part of my reportorial beat. One day I watched with amazement as the county prosecutor stood wobbly in court, arguing incongruously to imprison a defendant as an incorrigible drunk. It was mid-morning and the prosecutor was clearly drunk.

I interviewed the sheriff, deputy prosecutor, crime victims, defendants and county judge, himself a recovering alcoholic. Working with my editor, I wrote a story describing the prosecutor’s alcoholism that included comments from his colleagues about his fitness for the job. Voters apparently shared the concern and threw him out in the next election.

My second journalistic outpost was in Astoria, Oregon, where my duties included political coverage. At the time, the North Coast was represented by a capable, wheeler-dealer and often drunk state senator.

In those days, a lot of legislative business was transacted at Salem watering holes. Thanks to an Astoria-based lobbyist, this senator had his own private watering hole.

At his peak of power, when he could kill a bill by locking it into his desk drawer, things started to crumble. The tipping point came when a young female intern in his office suddenly quit amid rumors of inappropriate advances. Aides tried to hush up the incident, but the girl’s father was a prominent businessman back in the senator’s district. He didn’t hush up.

His free-wheeling antics, fueled by an abundance of  alcohol, formed the basis of my story. The senator was furious. So were voters as they rejected this once popular politician at the next election in favor of a largely unknown candidate who ran a shoestring campaign as an independent.

Thompson and I shared a love of sports and common admiration for Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. To sharpen his writing, Thompson hammered out typed copies of The Great Gatsby and Farewell to Arms. It was enough for me just to read the books.



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