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Hunter S. Thompson, dead eight years and a day, still missed for his political insights

Hunter S. Thompson – political junkie, writer extraordinaire, American icon – has been dead eight years and a day. In the United States, that’s one day longer than two full presidential terms.

Anniversaries, by definition, are yearly occurrences. But some anniversaries – the first, the 10th, the 25th – tend to generate more reflection and recollections than others. An eighth anniversary generally doesn’t fall into the high-attention category. Wednesday's anniversary of Thompson’s 2005 suicide was no exception.

A Feb. 20 Google News search for “Hunter Thompson” returned but a single mention, in the “This Day in History” section beneath “Celebrity birthdays” on opposingviews.com. “2005 – Journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson shot himself to death at age 67.” Simple and to the point, it conveys the kind of grim finality one feels visiting graveyards or mausoleums or museums devoted to the memory of terrible, gruesome battles.

His self-inflicted death is not the only item on the Feb. 20 list. Other notable events include Congress prohibiting dueling in the District of Columbia in 1839 and John Glenn, on a truly heroic mission for America aboard Friendship 7, orbiting the Earth in 1962. Random historical tidbits, to be sure, but the kind of superficially disparate material HST could re-contextualize in the riveting process of making some larger point, the way a master chef can intuitively add one or two ingredients in an inspired moment and – viola! – a masterpiece emerges. With Thompson among the departed, what he might have dished up will have to be left to our imaginations.

It’s not that farfetched to imagine that Thompson would have appreciated someone noting the eighth anniversary of his death and tying it to the length of two presidential terms. His own short-lived political career may have been more than just a footnote had he won his race for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., on the Freak Power ticket in 1970. But he lost, and instead of taking office, he took a “savage journey into the heart of the American Dream,” giving the world “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and several other works that remain classics in the American literary canon.

Astute political observer that he was, Thompson would have had strong opinions about the presidency of Barack Obama. He was alive when Obama burst onto the national scene with the electrifying keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, but Thompson wasn’t around to witness Obama’s meteoric rise to the White House. Obama had been in the Senate less than two months when Thompson decided he’d had enough.

Journalist Matt Taibbi, who wrote the introduction for the 40th anniversary edition of “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72," speculated on what Thompson would think of Obama in a 2012 interview with Village Voice:

“I think he'd be disappointed. I think he would've liked him at first. I think he would've wanted to believe in him. Obama would've been his McGovern in '08. And I think he would've been disappointed afterwards. I hope. That's my impression. He went through that cycle with a number of politicians, I guess Carter comes to mind. He really liked Carter at first, but then he got turned off to Carter over time. His tendency was to fall in love with politicians and then fall out of love after he got a good look at them.”

In that regard, he would have had plenty of company. Despite winning re-election, Obama received about 4 million fewer votes than he did in 2008. Thompson would no doubt have plenty to say about Obama's swift ascension and why he became mired in the noxious afterglow of expectations that all too often lead to perceptions of ineptitude or mediocrity among the disappointed electorate, regardless of who they elect.

Politics is a strange and vicious game, Bubba, as Thompson might have written, especially in his later years when his skills as a writer had obviously diminished. Taibbi summed up his decline succinctly: “He drifted into self-plagiarism a little bit, where what he was doing was trying to sound like Hunter Thompson rather than saying what he felt.” That observation rings true on multiple levels, and those of us who remember him at the top of his game would be lying to ourselves if we disputed Taibbi’s observation.

Still, it can be a worthwhile exercise in perspective to step back from our present-day political landscape and ask, “What would Hunter have to say about this?” Definitive answers will prove elusive, as they must when trying to put words in the mouths of the dead, but the act of imagining allows room for whatever it is that remains when a life has ended to continue to grow in a way that not even death itself can kill.

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Sources and Resources:

Q&A: Matt Taibbi on the 40th Anniversary of “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72,” Hunter S. Thompson's influence, and Why Barack Obama Isn't a Great Shark, Village Voice, June 27, 2012

Hunter S. Thompson’s Wikipedia entry

2008 US presidential election, Wikipedia entry

2012 US presidential election, Wikipedia entry

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