I’ve been thinking about George McGovern lately, in the wake of his death. I cast my first vote for him. That was in 1972. Other than I’ve lost most of my hair, it’s gray, I weigh 40 pounds more and I’m half-blind and deaf, things haven’t changed much since then. I was reading Rolling Stone then, and I’m reading it now.
I loved the magazine’s long-form journalism. The magazine took you to places, explained ideas and, in the case of Hunter Thompson, made words bounce off the page like jumping beans. He sometimes made me laugh out loud. Thompson had something to do with my sideways stroll into journalism, and, somewhat later, my move to Denver in 1998. About this latter lateral, I’ll explain in a column posted below.
In the Rolling Stone eulogy (Nov. 22 issue), writer Mikal Gilmore recalls what Thompson wrote about McGovern’s candidacy: “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. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem like almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.”
Keep in mind, Thompson wrote this long before all of Nixon’s greasy, smelly ways became perfectly clear through the transcripts of his tapes with Kissinger, Halderman and the rest. It still causes me pause to consider that Nixon won the vote by a landslide such as has rarely occurred. More bizarre, McGovern had been a legitimate war hero. Yet the Republican campaign painted him — successfully — as weak. You may remember that the same thing happened all over again in 2004 when John Kerry ran for president.
As for Thompson, I never met him and wonder whether he ever heard of me. But I’ve always intuitively felt I had a role in his final days. He committed suicide in February 2005 in his home near Aspen. I wrote this column a day or two after I learned of his death:
by Allen Best
I killed Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not something I am proud of. Who possibly would want to say, “I killed a man.” I once dreamed such a deed and woke up in a sweat. I have not touched a gun in decades, and it’s been at least 10 years since I drove past his house. Nor did we ever meet. Yet, in my gut, I know that I nudged his finger on the handgun that Sunday evening in Woody Creek, Colo.
I heard the news a day after his death, which does not lessen my own complicity. My companion and I had stopped for newspapers in Glenwood Springs, about 45 miles from where Thompson lived. “Hunter Thompson committed suicide,” she blurted. Dully, I glanced at the headline, seeing the words but not comprehending. I could understand a terrorist attack. But I fumbled to understand what twisted – that was one of Thompson’s favorite words – joke had provoked this headline. April Fool’s Day was still more than a month off. Newspapers often got mean-spirited with their spoofs, but this crossed anybody’s line.
Then the realization hit. The stuff about Hemingway had tipped him over his edge. I had not pulled the trigger, nor even put him in the suicidal frame of mind. Just the same, I had been part of his story – just as he had been part of mine.
Among my various writing gigs is something called Mountain Town News. I follow news from ski towns of the West, compressing the stories of common interest and distributing them to other ski town papers. For two weeks I had dispatched stories from Ketchum, Idaho, where the novelist Ernest Hemingway was a second-home owner for better than 20 years until, in 1961, beset by both physical and mental illness, he blew his brains out in the front room of his house. The latest story from Ketchum had been of plans for a long weekend focused on Hemingway, with scholars talking about his significance as a writer and even a short-story contest. Among my subscribers was The Aspen Times, published near Thompson’s home.
In the days that followed, I read all the papers avidly. The New York Times alone had four articles and essays about Thompson, and it remained front-section news in Denver all week. Whatever the general public may have thought, if they even knew who Thompson was, people in the popular press have always been awestruck by Thompson’s writing. We were all the literary equivalent of jock-sniffers.
In the early ‘70s I had read and re-read his dispatches in Rolling Stone magazine, mesmerized by his vivid images such as the one of jack rabbits zig-zagging in the glare of a car’s lights, gripped by his choice of words like “atavistic” and “savage,” and his pairing of words like “fear and loathing” and “strange and terrible.” Few among us have ever made sentences so exciting.
Then, as almost every writer must who hopes to make a living, I drifted into the formulaic writing that Thompson had scorned. Even so, Thompson continued to influence me. In fact, although we never met, and he probably never heard of me, he had something to do with me moving to Denver in the late 1990s. A mutual acquaintance who was, like Thompson, Kentucky reared, planned a national chain of newspapers called Pigs Eye, or something similarly bold but ludicrous. A weekly column from Thompson was to be the hook.
This grandiose scheme sputtered, and as something of an afterthought an alternative weekly was planned for Denver. I signed on as the editor. If indirectly, I now live in Denver because of Hunter Thompson.
And now, if indirectly, I have played a role in the suicide of Thompson. Thompson had so admired Hemingway that once he had even gone to Idaho to visit the house where Hemingway had died, to sit by the grave, to study the glistening, trout-laden waters.
Lately, contemplating his own life, Thompson had increasingly talked about ending it like Hemingway before, but instead when he still felt reasonably good, while he was still writing well. His loving bride, a woman 35 younger than he, objected, but he was adamant. It was just a matter of when.
After his death, I discovered that, just as I had suspected, my story about Hemingway had appeared in the Aspen newspaper a few days before his suicide. I have no way of knowing for sure, but my gut tells me Thompson read the story as an omen, then a few days later took the bullet. I killed Hunter Thompson.