“Buy a ticket, take the ride.”
Better than sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie
Hunter S Thompson
This morning broke hot and still, the ocean a glassy lake unruffled by wind or swell. I had a very trying Thursday and decided to sleep in and catch the 7 AM Friday swim at Manly. My old mate Don McClean was also in the swim and we had a very leisurely race over to Shelly Beach and back. In his heyday, Don was one of the best swimmers at the Bilgola Surf Club when I first joined in 1971 as a callow recruit from the bush trying to learn to swim. We go back a fair way in the ocean. It’s great to see him still there.
I am sitting in Manly Wine Bar enjoying Friday morning breakfast, looking out at the sparkling ocean and pondering the year that is drawing to a close. Yesterday was one of those days. In the morning I saw Dr Tanya Gilmour to get the results of the four biopsies on my head. One came back positive for squamous cell carcinoma and it will have to come out. That’s a surgical procedure so I’m off to see my old friend, plastic surgeon, Dr Jonathan Stretch. I will end up with a big scar down my right cheek but that is minor-league compared to everything else this year.
In the afternoon, I saw Dr Ian Farey, the orthopaedic surgeon for a final prognosis on my neck. I had my list of questions and we had a very learned argument about the merits of cervical spine laminectomies, posterior cervical foraminotomies etc. It got pretty weird with some very big words, and a little bit of tension when I suggested to Dr Farey, tongue in cheek, that I now know more about cervical laminectomies than he does. Given that he is a world-renowned spinal surgeon I guess that’s understandable, but he doesn’t know how much I have read in the last month. Never mind, the end result is I’m not going to submit to surgery. I will have to participate in a management plan involving an annual MRI scan of my spine. I’ll probably have to do this for the rest of my life. Again, this is minor-league stuff.
More importantly, last night I finished the first step in my Hunter S Thompson retrospective: Better than sex: confessions of a political junkie. I’ve decided to read all of Thompson’s books again as I’m planning a road trip through the south-western United States in the latter part of 2016.
Better than sex details the 1992 presidential campaign when a young William Jefferson Clinton took on first-term Republican president George H. W. Bush. The election followed hot on the heels of operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait. Bush was expected to win waving his hat in the air. He lost. It is a very, very funny book. No one can match Thompson for vitriol and he was a very angry man, particularly about the state of US politics.
A pivotal part of this memoir is a lunch held in Does Cafe, Little Rock Arkansas, in 1992 when Bill Clinton was still governor but winding up for his grab at the presidency. For the first time, a member of the sixties generation was running for President of the United States. During the campaign the measure of the man was taken using a 1960’s yardstick of hip and cool, Rolling Stone magazine. Clinton broke new ground and agreed to a group interview with the sixties’ most influential and durable media voice. The interviewers were Jann Wenner who, as the founder and owner of Rolling Stone, had been top of the hip and cool scene for two decades; William Greider, a leftish political journalist who had quit The Washington Post to join Rolling Stone; Hunter S. Thompson, Mr Cool himself; and P J O’Rourke who was morphing into one of the great conservative writers in America. Bill faced them down over lunch on the vinyl topped tables.
The book brought back so many memories: Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the David Letterman show, Gennifer Flowers accusing Clinton of a long-running affair and the accusation that Clinton used his connections to avoid the draft. But the most memorable and most ridiculous jibe, now that time has passed, is that Clinton admitted smoking marijuana during his student days at Oxford University but that he had never inhaled. This dogged him through the election campaign and Thompson mercilessly lampooned him for it.
The title of Thompson’s book suggests that US presidential politics is even better than sex, although at the end of it he is not entirely convinced. At one point he reports on Dan Quayle, Bush’s VP running mate, attending a preschool in Manhattan. During a spelling lesson a young student writes the word “potato” on the board but Quayle corrects him saying that potato has an “e” on the end. No matter what you think about the United States, its presidential campaigns are pure theatre and very entertaining.
In the end, Thompson reserves his most biting sarcasm for someone who wasn’t even campaigning – former president Richard Nixon. At the end of the book is reproduced Thompson’s obituary for the former president.
Nixon was so aggressively evil that he almost glowed at night. His political instincts were so dangerous that he made politics of total opposition a very honourable trade for two generations of the best people in America. He gave no mercy and expected none. He was fun
He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a President. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning
He believed that Nixon had the fighting instincts of badger trapped by hounds. He described Nixon’s VP, Spiro Agnew, as a flat out knee crawling slug with the morals of a weasel on speed. This reminds me of when I wrote that a female friend’s fur coat resembled the pelt of a tubercular rodent or possibly a stoat that had died of venereal disease.
I think I would have liked Hunter S Thompson. It would have been an honour to meet him. His most famous quote, which first appeared in this book, and which referred to American politics – buy a ticket, take the ride – has since grown to describe our lives. Doesn’t it sum it all up? When we are born we buy the ticket and we take the ride, whether we like it or not. What a wild ride it has been for me this year.