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Sundermann writes: "Matt Taibbi, like many journalists, grew up idolizing Hunter S. Thompson. But Taibbi, unlike many journalists, got Hunter S. Thompson's job."

Portrait, Rolling Stone contributing editor and author, Matt Taibbi. (photo: Robin Holland)
Portrait, Rolling Stone contributing editor and author, Matt Taibbi. (photo: Robin Holland)

Matt Taibbi: On Hunter Thompson and Why Barack Obama Isn't a Great Shark

By Eric Sundermann, Village Voice

27 June 12


att Taibbi, like many journalists, grew up idolizing Hunter S. Thompson. But Taibbi, unlike many journalists, got Hunter S. Thompson's job.

The similarities between the two Rolling Stone scribes do not stop there, even though Taibbi himself argues he's nothing like Thompson. Both made their name pointing out hypocrisies and flaws in the U.S. government. Both thrived (one still is) at a time of turmoil in our country's history. Both even managed to love the same sport, the game of football. And now both have their name on the cover of the same book. Taibbi was given the responsibility of writing a new introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition of one of Thompson's seminal works, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, which releases today.

In his introduction, Taibbi highlights the importance of Thompson's writing, calling him the "most instantly trustworthy" American narrator since Mark Twain, and argues that the book still continues to define the way we think about the dramas of politics. Taibbi stopped by The Village Voice office (where he was a summer intern in 1987) to chat about Thompson's influence, how Thompson lives up to his own cliche, and why Obama would disappoint Thompson, were Thompson still alive.

When did you first read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72?

I remember my father [Emmy-winning journalist Mike Taibbi] telling me about when Thompson was writing the pieces in Rolling Stone at the time--not the book, but the monthly dispatches. It was such a unique thing because everybody was waiting for it at the end of every month. I didn't read the book till I was pretty old. I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was in high school, and I probably read this when I was a senior in college.

Did you ever meet him?

No, but I talked to him on the phone once. That was close as I came. I was going to be hired by a publishing company to edit a compilation of gonzo journalism, and I was really broke at the time. So I sat down to really think about this project, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that gonzo journalism just means Hunter Thompson. There aren't other examples of gonzo journalism. I tried to put something together, but then I called Thompson up and basically explained the dilemma: "I got stuck with this assignment, and what do you think of it, because if you're not into it, I'm probably not into it." And he goes [adopting a deep, gravelly voice], "That's a shitty assignment. How badly do you need the money?" And I said, "Pretty badly." And he said, "Well, I don't envy you." And that's how he left it, so I decided not to do it.

You wrote in the introduction that Campaign Trail has become the bible for political reporting. Do you think it was the writing, the campaign itself, or did the stars just align?

I think it's a lot of different reasons. Obviously, the writing has something to do with it, but as I talk about in the introduction, he created these archetypal characters that everyone has sort've used since as templates to compare each new slate of candidates and characters to. Almost every campaign has the bad guy, the hopeless do-gooding ideologue. I caught myself doing it when I covered the 2004 campaign, when Dennis Kucinich became my McGovern character. No writer wants to be caught copying another writer, but it just bleeds into your consciousness because we've all read that book so many times. There have been some other campaign books, like The Boys on the Bus, The Selling of the President, and all that, but none of them really, none of them really...

None of them start with a guy driving down a highway with a gun.

Right, exactly. It just made the whole thing accessible to people who don't even care about politics. It's iconic.

In the intro, you say Thompson is the most trustworthy American narrator since Mark Twain. What is it about his prose that gives you that feeling? I think many people feel that way, yet everyone always wonders if he's making some stuff up.

Oh, he's definitely embellishing. That's not what you care about. I have no doubt that a lot of the things in that book didn't happen that way. Writing is all about feeling your audience and maintaining a connection with them, and being able to anticipate what they're going to respond to, what they're going to think is funny, what they're going to find sympathetic, what they're going to find unsympathetic. Hunter just had this unbelievable innate ability--like a lot of great public speakers do. If you've ever seen somebody who's a great public speaker, they can feel the crowd and they know exactly how to move people this way or that way. And he's kind of like that. He had this ability to grab his whole audience, drag them through this story, and you never really find yourself stepping back and saying, "Eh, well." Once you're in, you're in the whole way through with him.

You've admitted in past interviews to writing in a hyperbolic manner about something you hoped people would pay more attention to. Do you think Thompson did the same? That he was aware of his intense voice on the page?

He's definitely hyperbolic. There's no question about it. He likes to use maximalist expressions, like [the enemy] is the "most disgusting, depraved, corrupt," you know? Every villain is the worst villain of all time. But [Thompson makes them] live up to it. He sets a bar somewhere, where he says this person is this, but then he makes the case. Within the internal logic of the story, it's true. Even if it's not factually true, it's psychologically, artistically true. It all fits. Again, I don't look at his books as historical works. I look at them more as novels. They're like novels where everything fits and nothing is overstated.

In your own writing, what's more important to you? Creating something that is factual or something that will resonant with the reader--like stretching the truth in order to tell a greater truth?

Well, I'm a little different than Hunter. I think he can get away--well, it's not that he's getting away, he's just doing something different than I am. He's an artist. Again, I think of his books as being more novels, whereas what I'm doing is more classic, straightforward journalism and editorial commentary. I have to stick to the facts. Also, we're in a different era, and my career just evolved into the direction where I am sticking to the actual factual truth. He didn't do that, but it worked for him. If I tried that, it wouldn't work. your social media marketing partner


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+23 # ronnewmexico 2012-06-27 11:26
HT had a almost intuitive ability. Reminds me of one book of his(I forget which)...he narrates a story of Jean Claud K the great skier of the day, being used by GM in various add campaigns.
And expresses his human side JCK wanting to take Hunter to Singapore I think it was.... where he knew the chief of police...Hunter remarking how remarkable that would be...and what it said.

Then Hunter remarking about the other pitchman who happened to be OJ Simpson....and how he seemingly had no human side....simply spouting the corporate GM line in response to any questions journalists may throw at him.....

Telling in retrospect. I wonder whatever happened to JCK...some fat old man probably who hardly ever skies a bit I'd guess....OJ.... is it to have not a publicly perceivable human side....? To what extent did that flow, that thing of no humanness, how intigrated was it, and are those that are complete corporatists is their heart similar to OJ's?

Significant that he contrasted the two that way and how it impacted the american psyche the second.

In any event MT....political ly by my take strictly speaking and not to HT's writing skills.....has exceeded HT.
HT blazed the trail MT followed it to a further place.
HT however was at times...intuiti ve beyond known reason why.
+16 # ayfkm? 2012-06-27 13:09
Hunter Thompson had the ability to "gut the fish", to actually look inside of it, to see what it ate, where it ate, why it and and even where it shat. By comparison Matt has arrived at the brave point of looking at the gills to see how the creature breaths. Matt's work is wonderful given the bleak landscape of "journalism" in the present age. When I hear of him marching out on the 7th fairway at an exclusive club to confront a group of "masters of industry, finance and politics" (who will no doubt be dressed in clothing not approved by the "color counsel"-yes, there IS such a thing!)about matters concerning our nation at its root will I be as impressed by him as I am by the late Mr. Thompson. I do hope Mr. Taibbi continues his work. I also hope he finds a shovel with a longer handle to really get to the bottom of the mess we are enduring. Godspeed!
+6 # mesechabe 2012-06-27 13:19
Killy is still alive, looks hardly fat, but did retire from skiing at the age of twenty-five. He signed some endorsement contracts and lives on. Oh, he share a birthday with Roland Barthes, R. Crumb, and Tug McGraw, the baseball player.
+15 # MJnevetS 2012-06-27 13:42
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.” ― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.” ― Hunter S. Thompson

No other author compares!
+12 # wrknight 2012-06-27 15:32
Not only do we not have writers like Hunter Thompson, we don't have investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein or the "Deep Throats" that help to expose government wrong-doing. All we get today is regurgitated pablum. It's like the entire reporting community has bowed down to the golden calf of corporate government.
+15 # Vardoz 2012-06-27 16:00
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) speaks at a news conference after a vote on the transportation bill she co-sponsored on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 14, 2012. There are reports that Congress is at last about to reach a deal on a transportation bill, exactly 1,001 days after the expiration of the last transportation reauthorization bill that Congress passed. What's still unclear is what kind of deal this will be.

The right deal would create 1 million jobs desperately needed by the construction and other blue-collar workers disproportionat ely hit by our long-running jobs crisis. But if House Republicans continue to play their role as economic and political saboteur, the country could instead be hit with the layoffs of 2 million workers.

Still want to vote for Romney?
+9 # Howard T. Lewis III 2012-06-27 16:11
I have known about the publishing of details concerning the preset demolition systems at the WTCs I, II, and 7 as well as the Chicago Sears & Roebuck(Willis) and I have published in many comments columns as to their existence. NOBODY has checked and published more on these materials that I can find. Hunter Thompson would have found copies, published, and had Steadman make up T-shirts. Journalism has had the bar lowered to the satisfaction of dumb beasts.
+2 # Howard T. Lewis III 2012-06-27 18:12
Very importantly, someone accessed the elevator towers in the weeks before 9-11-2001 to cut the cores using nanothermate (See Ryan Dawson's '911: The Cover-up'), or at least give considerable evidence to logically conclude that this was the application of the nanothermate blasted all over Manhattan Island on 9-11-2001. Although an explosive was spray painted all over the steel panels of the perimeter walls during construction, nanothermate was not available at that time. And the walls and ceilings were panelled in, prohibiting its widespread application at any later date.
+9 # tomo 2012-06-27 19:15
"He never put up a fight...and he expressly said he would when he was campaigning." That's Taibbi on Obama. It's as true as any political comment I've ever read. Why are so many Democrats so slow to acknowledge it?
+6 # Richard Raznikov 2012-06-27 19:28
I used 'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail' as the textbook for political science classes I taught in the 'seventies. It remains the truest expression of what politics is really like.

The style may not be there any longer but Hunter's spirit can be found in plenty of places. Check this out:
+5 # ronnewmexico 2012-06-27 19:55
Well talking personal opinion has been that Woodward and Bernstein were played by those to the right of Nixon to discredit and remove Nixon who though having their best interests at heart had overstepped his bounds....price controls and such..... environmental laws and things like that...he feared the left so much he did those things..but they hated him for it.

So they used a inner source to get at him.
And those writers were played.

Woodward is still putting out books. Not a whole lot of changing things or the world in them however. A tale about Bush was the last one I heard about. Pretty conservative actually he is.
Bernstein much more to the left. But not as much is he heard of.

Hunter seemed to swing a bit but in the end was firmly progressive. Similar to Bill Burroughs were his ideas of gun control I surmise...BB sleeping even with loaded guns in his bed.
A conservative writer of a great great artistry before he passed away at a very early age...Jack Kerouac. A firm supporter of vietnam and even the McCarthy hearings. Surprisingly as he means counter culture to many. Not his politics however.

In any case MT..he's top of the game in the US right now.
Everyone knows and respects him even on the right they do.
Not the artist of HT but more of substance as I read it.
He knows what is going on always.. Hunter was not quite as financially astute.
+8 # MCORNISH 2012-06-28 12:39
Thank you Matt Taibbi for your brutally honest, and wickedly funny, exposés of the depredations of politicians and the new robber barons. You lighten a dark world.

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