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,
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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,
smell it through the pages.
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
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.