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HST & the Clinton Monkey

Before I get started, I just wanted to share that I read one of those questionnaires that help you get to the bottom of who you are. The first question was, “If you were an animal, what kind would you be? Pick one.” You-know-what wasn’t on the list. Ho, ho, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say. Now, onward.

I haven’t read everything Hunter Thompson ever wrote, but I’ve read most of it. It’s not easy — he wrote thousands of letters, some very bad novels, and in his later days, he started repeating and debasing his earlier work. I consider his last significant piece of political writing to be the account of his visit with soon-to-be president Bill Clinton in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1992 with some of his old pals — the great reporter Bill Greider and Rolling Stone editor in chief Jann Wenner.

Hunter Thompson delivered some serious truth in his day, but came up in Little Rock against some heavy stuff himself: for a short span of time he saw that Bill Clinton was a monkey.

Looking over the rest of Thompson’s stuff, I don’t think he quite had it figured out before this point. And looking at the way he wrote about it, it got under his skin quite a bit differently than the emotional wreck he was reduced to after Nixon’s 1972 blowout of McGovern.

Their encounter took place at a mock ol’ fashuned diner called Doe’s. Clinton sat down next to Thompson, who had brought a saxophone reed in a hotel envelope as a gift for the future president. Clinton was hesitant to pick it up. When he did, well, I’ll just quote Thompson:

“What happened next was so strange that I would have shrugged it off as one of those random, paranoid hallucinations that occur now and then, even to sane people — except that I have the whole long moment on Sony Hi8 Metal-E60 videotape, and there were also five or six witnesses who later recalled the incident with stark clarity and a creepy sense of dismay that none of them wanted to talk about or even acknowledge at the time. But it was true.

“Clinton lifted the small Carlyle Hotel envelope toward his face and stared balefully at the reed for what seemed like a very long time, like a chimp peering into his mirror....There was a sense of puzzlement on his face as he silently pondered the thing.”

Now I don’t want to be accused of either selling HST short, or finding my interests in his work, so I’m going to back it up, best I can. No doubt, there are hundreds of passages where you might find Hunter using “paranoid hallucinations” or “creepy sense of dismay.” But everything tells me Thompson wasn’t writing purple in the least here.

For starters, it’s interesting that Bill Greider spent a large portion of his HST obituary in 2005 on this visit to Little Rock, and that he took the time to paraphrase Thompson’s account of his very brief encounter with Clinton: Thompson “had gotten these special French reeds which he regarded as really extraordinary. They were actually pretty routine. He gave them to Clinton and Clinton kind of looked at them, rolled them around in front of his face. Hunter later described the future president as ‘Sniffing the saxophone reeds like a chimp.’ Which is just right.” Greider had known Thompson for at least 20 years, but he devoted considerable space to share that anecdote about Bill Clinton.

Then there’s HST’s physical description of Clinton that I can personally relate to (1st person is Thompson, 3rd is Clinton): Clinton fixed Thompson with a “sleepy looking stare that made me feel uneasy. His eyes narrowed to slits, and first I thought he was dozing off....But he appeared to be very alert, very tense, as if he were ready to pounce.” That’s as monkey as it gets, folks.

You can smell it through the pages.

It makes perfect sense that Clinton was the first president to start behaving in keeping with what he is, and that Thompson — in the last presidential race that he gave any serious attention to — would be the first journalist to describe the high-stakes reality of seeing the presidential candidate stripped from the monkey.

I’m not so sure Thompson really registered much more beyond what he wrote in that article. We often send signals and say things out loud to ourselves that we haven’t fully grasped the meaning of. That’s what it looks like here. Greider, I think, was aware of it even less, but he knew something quite potent went down in Little Rock, and has been thinking about what exactly that was for the past 14 years.

 
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