A freewheeling conversation with the outlaw journalist and only man alive to ride with both Richard Nixon and the Hell’s Angels
by Craig Vetter
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and for the past 15 years he has worked as a free-lance writer. He began it all in the Air Force by lying his way into a job as sports editor of the base newspaper. He was fired and threatened with duty in Iceland when his superiors discovered that he was also writing about sports for a civilian paper under another name. After he was discharged, he took writing jobs and was fired from them in Pennsylvania (for destroying his editor’s car), in Middletown, New York (where he insulted an advertiser and kicked a candy machine to death), at Time magazine (for his attitude) and in Puerto Rico, where the bowling magazine he was working for failed and he decided to give up journalism. He moved to Big Sur, where his wife, Sandy, made motel beds while he wrote a novel that was never published.
His first real success as a writer came when he moved to South America and began sending stories on tin miners, jungle bandits and smugglers back to The National Observer, which was printing them on the front page and paying him well for them. He continued to write for it when he returned to the States but quit finally in a bitter dispute with his editors over coverage of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. After another try at a novel, this time in San Francisco, he wrote a story for The Nation on a gang of motorcycle outlaws that he turned into his first book, “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.” He continued to write for magazines, developing his wide-open, often-criticized style. Then, in 1971, he turned two abortive magazine assignments into a stunning romp called “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” which earned him an almost immediate reputation as one of the toughest and funniest writers in America.
Since then, he has written about football and power politics for Rolling Stone and his dispatches written during the 1972 Presidential campaign became his third book. “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”
Early in the year, Playboy sent Craig Vetter to interview Thompson. Vetter’s report:
“This interview was hammered and stitched together over seven months, on the road, mostly, in Mexico and Washington, San Clemente and Colorado, and as I write this, we are in Chicago, where tornado warnings are out, and we are up against a hell-fire deadline that has me seeing ghosts and has Dr. Thompson locked in a penthouse full of mirrors on the 20th floor of an Astor Street high-rise. He has the heavy steel window louvers cranked shut, there is a lamp behind him that has had its neck snapped off and he is bent over a coffee table cursing. We are trying to salvage this interview, making changes, corrections, additions—all of them unnecessary until nine days ago, when Richard Nixon quit. Thompson is mumbling that the motor control in his pen hand is failing and he is not kidding. You can’t read his Rs anymore and all five vowels may become illegible soon. We might have finished this thing like gentlemen, except for Richard Nixon, who might as well have sent the plumbers’ unit to torch the entire second half, the political half, of the manuscript we have worked on so long. All of it has had to be redone in the past few sleepless days and it has broken the spirit of nearly everyone even vaguely involved.
“Thompson is no stranger to this sort of madness. In fact, he has more than once turned scenes like this into art: Gonzo Journalism, his own wild and dangerous invention, was born in the fires of a nearly hopeless deadline crisis and although no one can storm his demons and win every time out, the mad and speedy Doctor does it more often and with more humor than any other journalist working today. He’s still talking to himself over there, chewing on his cigarette holder, and a few minutes ago he said, ‘When this is over, I’m going back to Colorado and sleep like an animal,’ and he wasn’t kidding about that, either. Because for the past two weeks, Nixon’s last few weeks, Thompson has suffered and gone sleepless in Washington with another deadline on an impeachment story that was finally burned to a cinder by the same fire storm that gutted the White House. Finally it has been too much even for the man they call ‘the quintessential outlaw journalist.’ We have been forced over the course of this epic to use certain drugs in such quantity that he has terminated his personal drug research for good and in the same desperate fit, he has severed all connection with national politics and is returning, for new forms of energy, to his roots.
“We’re well into the 30th hour now and there won’t be many more, no matter what. Thompson is working over his last few answers, still talking to himself, and I think I just heard him say, ‘The rest will have to be done by God,’ which may mean that he is finished.
“And though this long and killing project is ending here in desperate, guilty, short-tempered ugliness, it began all those months ago, far from this garden of agony, on a sunshine island in the Caribbean where Thompson and Sandy and I had gone to begin taping.
“The first time I turned on the tape recorder, we were sitting on a sea wall, in damp, salty bathing suits, under palm trees. It was warm, Nixon was still our President and Thompson was sucking up bloody marys, vegetables and all, and he had just paid a young newsboy bandit almost one dollar American for a paper that would have cost a straighter, more sober person 24 cents.”
* * *
PLAYBOY: You just paid as much for your morning paper as you might for a good hit of mescaline. Are you a news junkie, too?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I must have the news. One of these mornings, I’m gonna buy a paper with a big black headline that says, “Richard Nixon Committed Suicide Last Night.” Jesus . . . can you imagine that rush?
PLAYBOY: Do you get off on politics the same way you get off on drugs?
THOMPSON: Sometimes. It depends on the politics, depends on the drugs . . . there are different kinds of highs. I had this same discussion in Mexico City one night with a guy who wanted me to do Zihuatanejo with him and get stoned for about 10 days on the finest flower tops to be had in all of Mexico. But I told him I couldn’t do that; I had to be back in Washington.
PLAYBOY: That doesn’t exactly fit your image as the drug-crazed outlaw journalist. Are you saying you’d rather have been in the capital, covering the Senate Watergate hearings or the House Judiciary Committee debate on Nixon’s impeachment, than stoned on the beach in Mexico with a bunch of freaks?
THOMPSON: Well—it depends on the timing. On Wednesday, I might want to go to Washington; on Thursday, I might want to go to Zihuatanejo.
PLAYBOY: Today must be Thursday, because already this morning you’ve had two bloody marys, three beers and about four spoons of some white substance and you’ve been up for only an hour. You don’t deny that you’re heavily into drugs, do you?
THOMPSON: No, why should I deny it? I like drugs. Somebody gave me this white powder last night. I suspect it’s cocaine, but there’s only one way to find out— look at this shit! It’s already crystallized in this goddamn humidity. I can’t even cut it up with the scissors in my Swiss-army knife. Actually, coke is a worthless drug, anyway. It has no edge. Dollar for dollar, it’s probably the most inefficient drug on the market. It’s not worth the effort or the risk or the money—at least not to me. It’s a social drug; it’s more important to offer it than it is to use it. But the world is full of cocamaniacs these days and they have a tendency to pass the stuff around, and this morning I’m a little tired and I have this stuff, so . . .
PLAYBOY: What do you like best?
THOMPSON: Probably mescaline and mushrooms: That’s a genuine high. It’s not just an up—you know, like speed, which is really just a motor high. When you get into psychedelics like mescaline and mushrooms, it’s a very clear kind of high, an interior high. But really, when you’re dealing with psychedelics, there’s only one king drug, when you get down to it, and that’s acid. About twice a year you should blow your fucking tubes out with a tremendous hit of really good acid. Take 72 hours and just go completely amuck, break it all down.
PLAYBOY: When did you take your first acid trip?
THOMPSON: It was while I was working on the Hell’s Angels book. Ken Kesey wanted to meet some of the Angels, so I introduced him and he invited them all down to his place in La Honda. It was a horrible, momentous meeting and I thought I’d better be there to see what happened when all this incredible chemistry came together. And, sure as shit, the Angels rolled in—about 40 or 50 bikes—and Kesey and the other people were offering them acid. And I thought, “Great creeping Jesus, what’s going to happen now?”
PLAYBOY: Had the Angels ever been into acid before that?
THOMPSON: No. That was the most frightening thing about it. Here were all these vicious bikers full of wine and bennies, and Kesey’s people immediately started giving them LSD. They didn’t know what kind of violent crowd they were dealing with. I was sure it was going to be a terrible blood, rape and pillage scene, that the Angels would tear the place apart. And I stood there, thinking, “Jesus, I’m responsible for this, I’m the one who did it.” I watched those lunatics gobbling the acid and I thought, “Shit, if it’s gonna get this heavy I want to be as fucked up as possible.” So I went to one of Kesey’s friends and I said, “Let me have some of that shit; we’re heading into a very serious night. Perhaps even ugly.” So I took what he said was about 800 micrograms, which almost blew my head off at the time . . . but in a very fine way. It was nice. Surprised me, really. I’d heard all these stories when I lived in Big Sur a couple of years before from this psychiatrist who’d taken the stuff and wound up running naked through the streets of Palo Alto, screaming that he wanted to be punished for his crimes. He didn’t know what his crimes were and nobody else did, either, so they took him away and he spent a long time in a loony bin somewhere, and I thought, “That’s not what I need.” Because if a guy who seems levelheaded like that is going to flip out and tear off his clothes and beg the citizens to punish him, what the hell might I do?
THOMPSON: No . . . and I didn’t scourge anybody else, either, and when I was finished, I thought, “Jesus, you’re not so crazy, after all; you’re not a basically violent or vicious person like they said.” Before that, I had this dark fear that if I lost control, all these horrible psychic worms and rats would come out. But I went to the bottom of the well and found out there’s nothing down there I have to worry about, no secret ugly things waiting for a chance to erupt.
PLAYBOY: You drink a little, too, don’t you?
THOMPSON: Yeah . . . obviously, but I drink this stuff like I smoke cigarettes; I don’t even notice it. You know—a bird flies, a fish swims, I drink. But you notice I very rarely sit down and say, “Now I’m going to get wasted.” I never eat a tremendous amount of any one thing. I rarely get drunk and I use drugs pretty much the same way.
PLAYBOY: Do you like marijuana?
THOMPSON: Not much. It doesn’t mix well with alcohol. I don’t like to get stoned and stupid.
PLAYBOY: What would you estimate you spend on drugs in a year?
THOMPSON: Oh, Jesus . . .
PLAYBOY: What the average American family spends on an automobile, say?
THOMPSON: Yeah, at least that much. I don’t know what the total is; I don’t even want to know. It’s frightening, but I’ll tell you that on a story I just did, one of the sections took me 17 days of research and $1,400 worth of cocaine. And that’s just what I spent. On one section of one story.
PLAYBOY: What do you think the drugs are doing to your body?
THOMPSON: Well, I just had a physical, the first one in my life. People got worried about my health, so I went to a very serious doctor and told him I wanted every fucking test known to man: EEG, heart, everything. And he asked me questions for three hours to start with, and I thought, “What the hell, tell the truth, that’s why you’re here.” So I told him exactly what I’d been doing for the past 10 years. He couldn’t believe it. He said, “Jesus, Hunter, you’re a goddamn mess”—that’s an exact quote. Then he ran all the tests and found I was in perfect health. He called it a “genetic miracle.”
PLAYBOY: What about your mind?
THOMPSON: I think it’s pretty healthy. I think I’m looser than I was before I started to take drugs. I’m more comfortable with myself. Does it look like it’s fucked me up? I’m sitting here on a beautiful beach in Mexico; I’ve written three books; I’ve got a fine 100-acre fortress in Colorado. On that evidence, I’d have to advise the use of drugs. . . . But of course I wouldn’t, never in hell—or at least not all drugs for all people. There are some people who should never be allowed to take acid, for instance. You can spot them after about 10 minutes: people with all kinds of bad psychic baggage, stuff they haven’t cleaned out yet, weird hostilities, repressed shit—the same kind of people who turn into mean drunks.
PLAYBOY: Do you believe religious things about drugs?
THOMPSON: No, I never have. That’s my main argument with the drug culture. I’ve never believed in that guru trip; you know, God, nirvana, that kind of oppressive, hipper-than-thou bullshit. I like to just gobble the stuff right out in the street and see what happens, take my chances, just stomp on my own accelerator. It’s like getting on a racing bike and all of a sudden you’re doing 120 miles per hour into a curve that has sand all over it and you think, “Holy Jesus, here we go,” and you lay it over till the pegs hit the street and metal starts to spark. If you’re good enough, you can pull it out, but sometimes you end up in the emergency room with some bastard in a white suit sewing your scalp back on.
PLAYBOY: Is that what you call “edge work”?
THOMPSON: Well, that’s one aspect of it, I guess—in that you have to be good when you take nasty risks, or you’ll lose it, and then you’re in serious trouble.
PLAYBOY: Why are you smiling?
THOMPSON: Am I smiling? Yeah, I guess I am . . . well, it’s fun to lose it sometimes.
PLAYBOY: What kind of flack do you get for being so honest about the drugs you use?
THOMPSON: I’ m not too careful about what I say. But I’m careful in other ways. I never sell any drugs, for instance; I never get involved in the traffic or the marketing end of the drug business. I make a point of not even knowing about it. I’m very sensitive about maintaining my deniability, you know—like Nixon. I never deal. Simple use is one thing—like booze in the Twenties— but selling is something else: They come after you for that. I wouldn’t sell drugs to my mother, for any reason . . . no, the only person I’d sell drugs to would be Richard Nixon. I’d sell him whatever the fucker wanted . . . but he’d pay heavy for it and damn well remember the day he tried it.
PLAYBOY: Are you the only journalist in America who’s ridden with both Richard Nixon and the Hell’s Angels?
THOMPSON: I must be. Who else would claim a thing like that? Hell, who else would admit it?
THOMPSON: The Angels. Nobody can throw a gut-level, king-hell scare into you like a Hell’s Angel with a pair of pliers hanging from his belt that he uses to pull out people’s teeth in midnight diners. Some of them wear the teeth on their belts, too.
PLAYBOY: Why did you decide to do a book on the Hell’s Angels?
THOMPSON: Money. I’d just quit and been fired almost at the same time by The National Observer. They wouldn’t let me cover the Free Speech thing at Berkeley and I sensed it was one of the biggest stories I’d ever stumbled onto. So I decided, “Fuck journalism,” and I went back to writing novels. I tried driving a cab in San Francisco, I tried every kind of thing. I used to go down at five o’clock every morning and line up with the winos on Mission Street, looking for work handing out grocery-store circulars and shit like that. I was the youngest and healthiest person down there, but nobody would ever select me. I tried to get weird and rotten-looking; you know—an old Army field jacket, scraggly beard, tried to look like a bad wino. But even then, I never got picked out of the line-up.
PLAYBOY: You couldn’t even get wino’s work?
THOMPSON: No, and at that point I was stone-broke, writing fiction, living in a really fine little apartment in San Francisco—looking down on Golden Gate Park, just above Haight Street. The rent was only $100 a month—this was 1965, about a year before the Haight-Ashbury madness started—and I got a letter from Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation, and it said, “Can you do an article on the Hell’s Angels for us for $100?” That was the rent, and I was about ready to get back into journalism, so I said, “Of course. I’ll do anything for $100.”
PLAYBOY: How long did the article take?
THOMPSON: I worked about a month on it, put about $3,000 worth of effort into it, got no expenses—and about six weeks after the fucker came out, my mailbox piled up with book offers. My phone had been cut off by then. I couldn’t believe it: editors, publishers, people I’d never heard of. One of them offered me $1,500 just to sign a thing saying that if I decided to write the book, I’d do it for them. Shit, at that point I would have written the definitive text on hammer-head sharks for the money—and spent a year in the water with them.
PLAYBOY: How did you first meet the Angels?
THOMPSON: I just went out there and said, “Look, you guys don’t know me, I don’t know you, I heard some bad things about you, are they true?” I was wearing a fucking madras coat and wing tips, that kind of thing, but I think they sensed I was a little strange—if only because I was the first writer who’d ever come out to see them and talk to them on their own turf. Until then, all the Hell’s Angels stories had come from the cops. They seemed a little stunned at the idea that some straight-looking writer for a New York literary magazine would actually track them down to some obscure transmission shop in the industrial slums of south San Francisco. They were a bit off balance at first, but after about 50 or 60 beers, we found a common ground, as it were . . . Crazies always recognize each other. I think Melville said it, in a slightly different context: “Genius all over the world stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” Of course, we’re not talking about genius here, we’re talking about crazies—but it’s essentially the same thing. They knew me, they saw right through all my clothes and there was that instant karmic flash. They seemed to sense what they had on their hands.
PLAYBOY: Had you been into motorcycles before that?
THOMPSON: A little bit, not much. But when I got the advance on the book, I went out and bought the fastest bike ever tested by Hot Rod magazine: a BSA 650 Lightning. I thought, “If I’m gonna ride with these fuckers, I want the fastest bike known to man.”
PLAYBOY: They all rode Harley-Davidsons, right?
THOMPSON: Yeah, and they didn’t like it that I was riding a BSA. They kept offering to get me hot bikes. You know—a brand-new Harley Sportster for $400, stuff like that. No papers, of course, no engine numbers—so I said no. I had enough trouble as it was. I was always getting pulled over. Jesus, they canceled my car insurance because of that goddamn bike. They almost took my driver’s license away. I never had any trouble with my car. I drove it full bore all over San Francisco all the time, just wide open. It was a good car, too, a little English Ford. When it finally developed a crack in one of the four cylinders, I took it down to a cliff in Big Sur and soaked the whole interior with ten gallons of gasoline, then executed the fucker with six shots from a .44 magnum in the engine block at point-blank range. After that, we rolled it off the cliff—the radio going, lights on, everything going—and at the last minute, we threw a burning towel in. The explosion was ungodly; it almost blew us into the ocean. I had no idea what ten gallons of gas in an English Ford could do. The car was a mass of twisted, flaming metal. It bounced about six times on the way down—pure movie-stunt shit, you know. A sight like that was worth the car: it was beautiful.
PLAYBOY: It seems pretty clear you had something in common with the Angels. How long did you ride with them?
THOMPSON: About a year.
PLAYBOY: Did they ever ask you to join?
THOMPSON: Some of them did, but there was a very fine line I had to maintain there. Like when I went on runs with them, I didn’t go dressed as an Angel. I’d wear Levis and boots but always a little different from theirs; a tan leather jacket instead of a black one, little things like that. I told them right away I was a writer, I was doing a book and that was it. If I’d joined, I wouldn’t have been able to write about them honestly, because they have this “brothers” thing . . .
PLAYBOY: Were there moments in that year when you wondered how you ever came to be riding with the meanest motorcycle outlaws in the world?
THOMPSON: Well, I figured it was a hard dollar—maybe the hardest—but actually, when I got into it, I started to like it. My wife, Sandy, was horrified at first. There were five or six from the Oakland and Frisco chapters that I got to know pretty well, and it got to the point that they’d just come over to my apartment any time of the day or night—bring their friends, three cases of stolen beer, a bunch of downers, some bennies. But I got to like it; it was my life, it wasn’t just working.
PLAYBOY: Was that a problem when you actually started to write?
THOMPSON: Not really. When you write for a living and you can’t do anything else, you know that sooner or later that the deadline is going to come screaming down on you like a goddamn banshee. There’s no avoiding it—not even when you have a fine full-bore story like the Angels that’s still running . . . so one day you just don’t appear at the El Adobe bar anymore; you shut the door, paint the windows black, rent an electric typewriter and become the monster you always were—the writer. I’d warned them about that. I’d said, “It’s going to come, I’m not here for the fun of it, it’s gonna happen.” And when the time came, I just did it. Every now and then, somebody like Frenchy or Terry would drop by at night with some girls or some of the others, but even when I’d let them read a few pages of what I’d written they didn’t really believe I was actually writing a book.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take?
THOMPSON: About six months. Actually it took six months to write the first half of the book and then four days to write the second half. I got terrified about the deadline; I actually thought they were going to cancel the contract if I didn’t finish the book exactly on time. I was in despair over the thing, so I took the electric typewriter and about four quarts of Wild Turkey and just drove north on 101 until I found a motel that looked peaceful, checked in and stayed there for four days. Didn’t sleep, ate a lot of speed, went out every morning and got a hamburger at McDonald’s and just wrote straight through for four days—and that turned out to be the best part of the book.
PLAYBOY: In one of the last chapters, you described the scene where the Angels finally stomped you, but you described it rather quickly. How did it happen?
THOMPSON: Pretty quickly . . . I’d been away from their action for about six months, I’d finished most of the writing and the publisher sent me a copy of the proposed book cover and I said, “This sucks. It’s the worst fucking cover I’ve seen on any book”—so I told them I’d shoot another cover if they’d just pay the expenses. So I called Sonny Barger, who was the head Angel, and said, “I want to go on the Labor Day run with you guys; I’ve finished the book, but now I want to shoot a book cover.” I got some bad vibes over the phone from him. I knew something was not right, but by this time I was getting careless.
PLAYBOY: Was the Labor Day run a big one?
THOMPSON: Shit, yes. This was one of these horrible things that scare the piss out of everybody—200 bikes. A mass Hell’s Angels run is one of the most terrifying things you’ll ever hope to see. When those bastards come by you on the road, that’s heavy. And being a part of it, you get this tremendous feeling of humor and madness. You see the terror and shock and fear all around you and you’re laughing all the time. It’s like being in some kind of horror movie where you know that sooner or later the actors are going to leap out of the screen and burn the theater down.
PLAYBOY: Did the Angels have a sense of humor about it?
THOMPSON: Some of them did. They were running a trip on everybody. I mean, you don’t carry pliers and pull people’s teeth out and then wear them on your belt without knowing you’re running a trip on somebody. But on that Labor Day, we went up to some beach near Mendocino and I violated all my rules: First, never get stoned with them. Second, never get really drunk with them. Third, never argue with them when you’re stoned and drunk. And fourth, when they start beating on each other, leave. I’d followed those rules for a year. But they started to pound on each other and I was just standing there talking to somebody and I said my bike was faster than his, which it was—another bad mistake—and all of a sudden, I got it right in the face, a terrific whack; I didn’t even see where it came from, had no idea. When I grabbed the guy, he was small enough so that I could turn him around, pin his arms and just hold him. And I turned to the guy I’d been talking to and said something like, “Jesus Christ, look at this nut, he just hit me in the fucking face, get him away from here,” and the guy I was holding began to scream in this high wild voice because I had him helpless, and instead of telling him to calm down, the other guy cracked me in the side of the head—and then I knew I was in trouble. That’s the Angels’ motto: One on all, all on one.
PLAYBOY: Were there police around or other help?
THOMPSON: No, I was the only nonbiker there. The cops had said, “All right, at midnight we seal this place off and anybody who’s not a part of this crowd get the hell out or God’s mercy on him.” So here I was, suddenly rolling around on the rocks of that Godforsaken beach in a swarm of stoned, crazy- drunk bikers. I had this guy who’d hit me in a death grip by now, and there were people kicking me in the chest and one of the bastards was trying to bash my head in with a tremendous rock . . . but I had this screaming Angel’s head right next to mine, and so he had to be a little careful. I don’t know how long it went on, but just about the time I knew I was going to die, Tiny suddenly showed up and said. “That’s it, stop it,” and they stopped as fast as they started, for no reason.
PLAYBOY: Who was Tiny?
THOMPSON: He was the sergeant at arms and he was also one of the guys who I knew pretty well. I didn’t know the bastards I was fighting with. All the Angels I might have counted on for help—the ones I’d come to think of as friends by that time—had long since retired to the bushes with their old ladies.
PLAYBOY: How badly were you hurt?
THOMPSON: They did a pretty good job on my face. I went to the police station and they said, “Get the fuck out of here—you’re bleeding in the bathroom.” I was wasted, pouring blood, and I had to drive 60 miles like that to Santa Rosa, where I knew a doctor. I called him, but he was in Arizona and his partner answered the phone and said something like, “Spit on it and run a lap”; you know, that old football-coach thing. I’ll never forgive him for that. So then I went to the emergency room at the Santa Rosa hospital and it was one of the worst fucking scenes I’d ever seen in my life. A bike gang called the Gypsy Jokers had been going north on Labor Day and had intersected with this horrible train of Angels somewhere around Santa Rosa and these fuckers were all over the emergency room. People screaming and moaning, picking up pieces of jawbones, trying to fit them back in, blood everywhere, girls yelling, “He’s dying, please help us! Doctor, doctor! I can’t stop the bleeding!” It was like a bomb had just hit.
PLAYBOY: Did you get treatment?
THOMPSON: No. I felt guilty even being there. I had only been stomped. These other bastards had been cranked out with pipes, run over, pinned against walls with bikes—mangled, just mangled. So I left, tried to drive in that condition, but finally I just pulled over to the side of the road and thought, “I’d better set this fucking nose, because tomorrow it’s going to be hard.” It felt like a beanbag. I could hear the bone chips grinding. So I sat there and drank a beer and did my own surgery, using the dome light and the rearview mirror, trying to remember what my nose had looked like. I couldn’t breathe for about a year, and people thought I was a coke freak before I actually was, but I think I did a pretty good job.
PLAYBOY: Who are the Hell’s Angels, what kind of people?
THOMPSON: They’re rejects, losers—but losers who turned mean and vengeful instead of just giving up, and there are more Hell’s Angels than anybody can count. But most of them don’t wear any colors. They’re people who got moved out—you know, musical chairs—and they lost. Some people just lie down when they lose; these fuckers come back and tear up the whole game. I was a Hell’s Angel in my head for a long time. I was a failed writer for 10 years and I was always in fights. I’d do things like go into a bar with a 50- pound sack of lime, turn the whole place white and then just take on anyone who came at me. I always got stomped, never won a fight. But I’m not into that anymore. I lost a lot of my physical aggressiveness when I started to sell what I wrote. I didn’t need that trip anymore.
PLAYBOY: Some people would say you didn’t lose all your aggressiveness, that you come on like journalism’s own Hell’s Angel.
THOMPSON: Well, I don’t see myself as particularly aggressive or dangerous. I tend to act weird now and then, which makes people nervous if they don’t know me—but I think that’s sort of a stylistic hangover from the old days . . . and I suppose I get a private smile or two out of making people’s eyes bulge once in a while. You might call that a Hell’s Angels trait—but otherwise, the comparison is ugly and ominous. I reject it—although I definitely feel myself somewhat apart. Not an outlaw, but more like a natural freak . . . which doesn’t bother me at all. When I ran for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, that was the point. In the rotten fascist context of what was happening to America in 1969, being a freak was an honorable way to go.
PLAYBOY: Why did you run for sheriff?
THOMPSON: I’d just come back from the Democratic Convention in Chicago and been beaten by vicious cops for no reason at all. I’d had a billy club rammed into my stomach and I’d seen innocent people beaten senseless and it really jerked me around. There was a mayoral race a few months later in Aspen and there was a lawyer in town who’d done some good things in local civil rights cases. His name is Joe Edwards and I called him up one midnight and said, “You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but you’ve got to run for mayor. The whole goddamn system is getting out of control. If it keeps going this way, they’ll have us all in pens. We have to get into politics—if only in self-defense.” Now, this guy was a bike rider, a head and a freak in the same sense I am. He said, “We’ll meet tomorrow and talk about it.” The next day, we went to see The Battle of Algiers and when we came out, he said, “I’ll do it; we’re going to bust these bastards.”
PLAYBOY: How close did you come?
THOMPSON: Edwards lost by six votes. And remember, we’re talking about an apolitical town and the hardest thing was to get our people to register. So one of the gigs I used to get people into it was to say, “Look, if you register and vote for Edwards, I’ll run for sheriff next year, if he wins.” Well, he didn’t win, but when the next county elections came up, I found myself running for sheriff anyway. I didn’t take it seriously at first, but when it began to look like I might win, everybody took it seriously.
PLAYBOY: As a matter of fact, you announced you were going to eat drugs in the sheriff’s office if you won, didn’t you?
THOMPSON: Yeah and that scared a lot of people. But I’d seen the ignorant hate vote that the Edwards campaign brought out the year before. You know, when the freaks get organized, the other side gets scared and they bring out people on stretchers who are half dead, haven’t voted for 25 years. And I thought. “Well, if they want somebody to hate, I’ll give them one they can really hate.” And meanwhile, on the same ticket, I figured we could run a serious candidate for a county commissioner, which is the office we really wanted. Hell, I didn’t want to be sheriff, I wanted to scare the piss out of the yahoos and the greed-heads and make our county-commissioner candidate look like a conservative by contrast. That’s what we did, but then this horrible press coverage from all over the goddamn world poured in and we finally couldn’t separate the two races.
PLAYBOY: There was a whole Freak Power slate, wasn’t there?
THOMPSON: Yeah, a friend of mine, who lived next door at the time, ran for coroner, because we found out the coroner was the only official who could fire the sheriff. And we decided we needed a county clerk, so we had somebody running for that. But finally, my lightning-rod, hate-candidate strategy back lashed on them, too. It got a little heavy. I announced that the new sheriff s posse would start tearing up the streets the day after the election— every street in Aspen, rip ’em up with jackhammers and replace the asphalt with sod. I said we were going to use the sheriff s office mainly to harass real-estate developers.
THOMPSON: Indeed. The greedheads were terrified. We had a series of public debates that got pretty brutal. The first one was in a movie theater, because that was the only place in town that could hold the crowd. Even then, I arrived a half hour early and I couldn’t get in. The aisles were jammed, I had to walk over people to get to the stage. I was wearing shorts, with my head shaved completely bald. The yahoos couldn’t handle it. They were convinced the Anti-Christ had finally appeared—right there in Aspen. There’s something ominous about a totally shaved head. We took questions from the crowd and sort of laid out our platforms. I was not entirely comfortable, sitting up there with the incumbent sheriff and saying, “When I drive this corrupt thug out of office, I’m going to go in there and maybe eat a bit of mescaline on slow nights. . . .” I figured from then on I had to win, because if I lost, it was going to be the hammer for me. You just don’t admit that kind of thing on camera, in front of a huge crowd. There was a reporter from the New York Times in the front row, NBC, an eight-man team from the BBC filming the whole thing, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post—incredible.
PLAYBOY: You changed the pitch toward the end, toned it down, didn’t you?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I became a creature of my own campaign. I was really surprised at the energy we could whip up for that kind of thing, latent political energy just sitting around.
PLAYBOY: What did your platform finally evolve into?
THOMPSON: I said I was going to function as an Ombudsman, create a new office—unsalaried—then turn my sheriff’s salary over to a good experienced lawman and let him do the job. I figured once you got control of the sheriff s office, you could let somebody else carry the badge and gun—under your control, of course. It almost worked.
PLAYBOY: What was the final vote?
THOMPSON: Well, there were six precincts that mattered and I won the three in town, broke even in number four and then got stomped brutally in the two precincts where most of the real-estate developers and subdividers live.
PLAYBOY: Are you sorry you lost?
THOMPSON: Well, I felt sorry for the people who worked so hard on the campaign. But I don’t miss the job. For a while, I thought I was going to win, and it scared me.
PLAYBOY: There’s been talk of your running for the Senate from Colorado. Is that a joke?
THOMPSON: No. I considered it for a while, but this past year has killed my appetite for politics. I might reconsider after I get away from it for a while. Somebody has to change politics in this country.
PLAYBOY: Would you run for the Senate the same way you ran for sheriff?
THOMPSON: Well, I might have to drop the mescaline issue, I don’t think there’d be any need for that—promising to eat mescaline on the Senate floor. I found out last time you can push people too far. The backlash is brutal.
PLAYBOY: What if the unthinkable happened and Hunter Thompson went to Washington as a Senator from Colorado? Do you think you could do any good?
THOMPSON: Not much, but you always do some good by setting an example— you know, just by proving it can be done.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you think there would be a strong reaction in Washington to some of the things you’ve written about the politicians there?
THOMPSON: Of course. They’d come after me like wolverines. I’d have no choice but to haul out my secret files—all that raw swill Ed Hoover gave me just before he died. We were good friends. I used to go to the track with him a lot.
PLAYBOY: You’re laughing again, but that raises a legitimate question: Are you trying to say you know things about Washington people that you haven’t written?
THOMPSON: Yeah, to some extent. When I went to Washington to write Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, I went with the same attitude I take anywhere as a journalist: hammer and tongs—and God’s mercy on anybody who gets in the way. Nothing is off the record, that kind of thing. But I finally realized that some things have to be off the record. I don’t know where the line is, even now. But if you’re an indiscreet blabber-mouth and a fool, nobody is going to talk to you—not even your friends.
PLAYBOY: What was it like when you first rode into Washington in 1971?
THOMPSON: Well, nobody had ever heard of Rolling Stone, for one thing. “Rolling what? . . . Stones? I heard them once: noisy bastards, aren’t they?” It was a nightmare at first, nobody would return my calls. Washington is a horrible town, a cross between Rome, Georgia, and Toledo, Ohio—that kind of mentality. It’s basically a town full of vicious, powerful rubes.
PLAYBOY: Did they start returning your calls when you began writing things like “Hubert Humphrey should be castrated” so his genes won’t be passed on?
THOMPSON: Well, that was a bit heavy, I think—for reasons, I don’t want to get into now. Anyway, it didn’t take me long to learn that the only time to call politicians is very late at night. Very late. In Washington, the truth is never told in daylight hours or across a desk. If you catch people when they’re very tired or drunk or weak, you can usually get some answers. So I’d sleep days, wait till these people got their lies and treachery out of the way, let them relax, then come on full speed on the phone at two or three in the morning. You have to wear the bastards down before they’ll tell you anything.
PLAYBOY: Your journalistic style has been attacked by some critics—most notably, the Columbia Journalism Review—as partly commentary, partly fantasy and partly the ravings of someone too long into drugs.
THOMPSON: Well, fuck the Columbia Journalism Review. They don’t pay my rent. That kind of senile gibberish reminds me of all those people back in the early Sixties who were saying, “This guy Dylan is giving Tin-Pan Alley a bad name— hell, he’s no musician. He can’t even carry a tune.” Actually, it’s kind of a compliment when people like that devote so much energy to attacking you.
PLAYBOY: Well, you certainly say some outrageous things in your book on the 1972 Presidential campaign; for instance, that Edmund Muskie was taking Ibogaine, an exotic form of South American speed or psychedelic, or both. That wasn’t true, was it?
THOMPSON: Not that I know of, but if you read what I wrote carefully, I didn’t say he was taking it. I said there was a rumor around his headquarters in Milwaukee that a famous Brazilian doctor had flown in with an emergency packet of Ibogaine for him. Who would believe that shit?
PLAYBOY: A lot of people did believe it.
THOMPSON: Obviously, but I didn’t realize that until about halfway through the campaign—and it horrified me. Even some of the reporters who’d been covering Muskie for three or four months took it seriously. That’s because they don’t know anything about drugs. Jesus, nobody running for President would dare touch a thing like Ibogaine. Maybe I would, but no normal politician. It would turn his brains to jelly. He’d have to be locked up.
PLAYBOY: You also said that John Chancellor took heavy hits of black acid.
THOMPSON: Hell, that was such an obvious heavy-handed joke that I still can’t understand how anybody in his right mind could have taken it seriously. I’d infiltrated a Nixon youth rally at the Republican Convention and I thought I’d have a little fun with them by telling all the grisly details of the time that John Chancellor tried to kill me by putting acid in my drink. I also wrote that if I’d had more time, I would have told these poor yo-yos the story about Walter Cronkitef and his white-slavery racket with Vietnamese orphan girls— importing them through a ranch in Quebec and then selling them into brothels up and down the East Coast . . . which is true, of course; Collier’s magazine has a big story on it this month, with plenty of photos to prove it . . . What? You don’t believe that? Why not? All those other waterheads did. Christ, writing about politics would paralyze my brain if I couldn’t have a slash of weird humor now and then. And, actually, I’m pretty careful about that sort of thing. If I weren’t, I would have been sued long ago. It’s one of the hazards of Gonzo Journalism.
PLAYBOY: What is Gonzo Journalism?
THOMPSON: It’s something that grew out of a story on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s magazine. It was one of those horrible deadline scrambles and I ran out of time. I was desperate. Ralph Steadman had done the illustrations, the cover was printed and there was this horrible hole in the interviews. I was convinced I was finished, I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work. So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody. Then when it came out, there were massive numbers of letters, phone calls, congratulations, people calling it a “great breakthrough in journalism.” And I thought, “Holy shit, if I can write like this and get away with it, why should I keep trying to write like the New York Times?” It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.
PLAYBOY: Is there a difference between Gonzo and the new journalism?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think so. Unlike Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, for instance, I almost never try to reconstruct a story. They’re both much better reporters than I am, but then I don’t really think of myself as a reporter. Gonzo is just a word I picked up because I liked the sound of it—which is not to say there isn’t a basic difference between the kind of writing I do and the Wolfe/Talese style. They tend to go back and re-create stories that have already happened, while I like to get right in the middle of whatever I’m writing about—as personally involved as possible. There’s a lot more to it than that, but if we have to make a distinction, I suppose that’s a pretty safe way to start.
PLAYBOY: Are the fantasies and wild tangents a necessary part of your writing?
THOMPSON: Absolutely. Just let your mind wander, let it go where it wants to. Like with that Muskie thing; I’d just been reading a drug report from some lab in California on the symptoms of Ibogaine poisoning and I thought, “I’ve seen that style before, and not in West Africa or the Amazon; I’ve seen those symptoms very recently.” And then I thought, “Of course: rages, stupors, being able to sit for days without moving—that’s Ed Muskie.”
PLAYBOY: Doesn’t that stuff get in the way of your serious political reporting?
THOMPSON: Probably—but it also keeps me sane. I guess the main problem is that people will believe almost any twisted kind of story about politicians or Washington. But I can’t help that. Some of the truth that doesn’t get written is a lot more twisted than any of my fantasies.
PLAYBOY: You were the first journalist on the campaign to see that McGovern was going to win the nomination. What tipped you off?
THOMPSON: It was the energy; I could feel it. Muskie, Humphrey, Jackson, Lindsay—all the others were dying on the vine, falling apart. But if you were close enough to the machinery in McGovern’s campaign, you could almost see the energy level rising from one week to the next. It was like watching pro-football teams toward the end of a season. Some of them are coming apart and others are picking up steam; their timing is getting sharper, their third-down plays are working. They’re just starting to peak.
PLAYBOY: The football analogy was pretty popular in Washington, wasn’t it?
THOMPSON: Yes, because Nixon was into football very seriously. He used the language constantly; he talked about politics and diplomacy in terms of power slants, end sweeps, mousetrap blocks. Thinking in football terms may be the best way to understand what finally happened with the whole Watergate thing: Coach Nixon’s team is fourth and 32 on their own ten, and he finds out that his punter is a junkie. A sick junkie. He looks down the bench: “OK, big fella—we need you now!” And this guy is stark white and vomiting, can’t even stand up, much less kick. When the game ends in disaster for the home team, then the fans rush onto the field and beat the players to death with rocks, beer bottles, pieces of wooden seats. The coach makes a desperate dash for the safety of the locker room, but three hit men hired by heavy gamblers nail him before he gets there.
PLAYBOY: You talked football with Nixon once, didn’t you, in the back seat of his limousine?
THOMPSON: Yeah, that was in 1968 in New Hampshire; he was just starting his comeback then and I didn’t take him seriously. He seemed like a Republican echo of Hubert Humphrey: just another sad old geek limping back into politics for another beating. It never occurred to me that he would ever be President. Johnson hadn’t quit at that point, but I sort of sensed he was going to and I figured Bobby Kennedy would run—so that even if Nixon got the Republican nomination, he’d just take another stomping by another Kennedy. So I thought it would be nice to go to New Hampshire, spend a couple of weeks following Nixon around and then write his political obituary.
PLAYBOY: You couldn’t have been too popular with the Nixon party.
THOMPSON: I didn’t care what they thought of me. I put weird things in the pressroom at night, strange cryptic threatening notes that they would find in the morning. I had wastebaskets full of cold beer in my room in the Manchester Holiday Inn. Oddly enough, I got along pretty well with some of the Nixon people—Ray Price, Pat Buchanan, Nick Ruwe—but I felt a lot more comfortable at Gene McCarthy’s headquarters in the Wayfarer, on the other side of town. So I spent most of my spare time over there.
PLAYBOY: Then why did Nixon let you ride alone with him?
THOMPSON: Well, it was the night before the vote and Romney had dropped out. Rockefeller wasn’t coming in, so all of a sudden the pressure was off and Nixon was going to win easily. We were at this American Legion hall somewhere pretty close to Boston. Nixon had just finished a speech there and we were about an hour and a half from Manchester, where he had his Learjet waiting, and Price suddenly came up to me and said, “You’ve been wanting to talk to the boss? OK, come on.” And I said, “What? What?” By this time I’d given up; I knew he was leaving for Key Biscayne that night and I was wild-eyed drunk. On the way to the car, Price said, “The boss wants to relax and talk football; you’re the only person here who claims to be an expert on that subject, so you’re it. But if you mention anything else—out. You’ll be hitchhiking back to Manchester. No talk about Vietnam, campus riots— nothing political; the boss wants to talk football, period.”
THOMPSON: No, he seemed very relaxed. I’ve never seen him like that before or since. We had a good, loose talk. That was the only time in 20 years of listening to the treacherous bastard that I knew he wasn’t lying.
PLAYBOY: Did you feel any sympathy as you watched Nixon go down, finally?
THOMPSON: Sympathy? No. You have to remember that for my entire adult life, Richard Nixon has been the national boogeyman. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around—always evil, always ugly, 15 or 20 years of fucking people around. The whole Watergate chancre was a monument to everything he stood for: This was a cheap thug, a congenital liar. . . . What the Angels used to call a gunsel, a punk who can’t even pull off a liquor-store robbery without shooting somebody or getting shot, or busted.
PLAYBOY: Do you think a smarter politician could have found a man to cover it up after the original break-in? Could Lyndon Johnson have handled it, say?
THOMPSON: Lyndon Johnson would have burned the tapes. He would have burned everything. There would have been this huge wreck out on his ranch somewhere—killing, oddly enough, all his tape technicians, the only two Secret Servicemen who knew about it, his executive flunky and the Presidential tapemeisters. He would have had a van go over a cliff at high speed, burst into flames and they’d find all these bodies, this weird collection of people who’d never had any real reason to be together, lying in a heap of melted celluloid at the bottom of the cliff. Then Johnson would have wept—all of his trusted assistants—“Goddamn it, how could they have been in the same van at the same time? I warned them about that.”
PLAYBOY: Do you think it’s finally, once and for all, true that we won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore?
THOMPSON: Well, it looks like it, but he said an incredible thing when he arrived in California after that last ride on Air Force One. He got off the plane and said to his crowd that was obviously rounded up for the cameras—you know: winos, children, Marine sergeants . . . they must have had a hell of a time lashing that crowd together. No doubt Ziegler promised to pay well, and then welshed, but they had a crowd of 2,000 or 3,000 and Nixon said: “It is perhaps appropriate for me to say very simply this, having completed one task does not mean that we will just sit and enjoy this marvelous California climate and do nothing.” Jesus Christ! Here’s a man who just got run out of the White House, fleeing Washington in the wake of the most complete and hideous disgrace in the history of American politics, who goes out to California and refers to “having completed one task.” It makes me think there must have been another main factor in the story of his downfall, in addition to greed and stupidity; I think in the past few months he was teetering on the brink on insanity. There were hints of this in some of the “inside reports” about the last days; Nixon didn’t want to resign and he didn’t understand why he had to; the family never understood. He probably still thinks he did nothing wrong, that he was somehow victimized, ambushed in the night by his old and relentless enemies. I’m sure he sees it as just another lost campaign, another cruel setback on the road to greatness; so now it’s back to the bunker for a while—lick the wounds and then come out fighting again. He may need one more whack. I think we should chisel his tombstone now and send it to him with an epitaph, in big letters, that says, Here Lies Richard Nixon: He Was a Quitter.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that his resignation proves that the system works?
THOMPSON: Well, that depends on what you mean by “works.” We can take some comfort, I guess, in knowing the system was so finely conceived originally— almost 200 years ago—that it can still work when it’s absolutely forced to. In Nixon’s case, it wasn’t the system that tripped him up and finally destroyed his Presidency; it was Nixon himself, along with a handful of people who actually took it upon themselves to act on their own—a bit outside the system, in fact; maybe even a bit above and beyond it. There were a lot of “highly respected” lawyers, for instance—some of them alleged experts in their fields— who argued almost all the way to the end that Judge Sirica exceeded his judicial authority when he acted on his own instinct and put the most extreme kind of pressure on the original Watergate burglars to keep the case from going into the books as the cheap-Jack “third-rate burglary” that Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichmanf told Ziegler to call it when the news first broke. If Sirica had gone along with the system, like the original Justice Department prosecutors did, McCord would never have cracked and written that letter that opened the gates to the White House. Sirica was the flywheel in that thing, from start to finish, when he put the final nail in the coffin by forcing James St. Clair, Nixon’s lawyer of last resort, to listen to those doomsday tapes that he had done everything possible to keep from hearing. But when he heard the voices, that pulled the rip cord on Nixon, once St. Clair went on record as having listened to the tapes—which proved his client guilty beyond any doubt—he had only two choices: to abandon Nixon at the eleventh hour or stay on and possibly get dragged down in the quicksand himself. Sirica wasn’t the only key figure in Nixon’s demise who could have played it safe by letting the system take its traditional course. The Washington Post editors who kept Woodward and Bernstein on the story could have stayed comfortably within the system without putting their backs to the wall in a showdown with the whole White House power structure and a vengeful bastard of a President like Nixon. Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor, couldn’t even find a precedent in the system for challenging the President’s claim of “Executive privilege” in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hell, the list goes on and on . . . but in the end, the Nixon Watergate saga was written by mavericks who worked the loneliest outside edges of the system, not by the kind of people who played it safe and followed the letter of the law. If the system worked in this case, it was almost in spite of itself. Jesus, what else could the Congress have done—faced with the spectacle of a President going on national TV to admit a felony? Nixon dug his own grave, then made a public confession. If his resignation somehow proves the system works, you have to wonder how well that same system might have worked if we’d had a really blue-chip, sophisticated criminal in the White House—instead of a half-mad used-car salesman. In the space of ten months, the two top executives of this country resigned rather than risk impeachment and trial; and they wouldn’t even have had to do that if their crimes hadn’t been too gross to ignore and if public opinion hadn’t turned so massively against them. Finally, even the chickenshit politicians in Congress will act if the people are outraged enough. But you can bet that if the public-opinion polls hadn’t gone over 50 percent in favor of his impeachment, he’d still be in the White House.
PLAYBOY: Is politics going to get any better?
THOMPSON: Well, it can’t get much worse. Nixon was so bad, so obviously guilty and corrupt, that we’re already beginning to write him off as a political mutant, some kind of bad and unexplainable accident. The danger in that is that it’s like saying, “Thank God! We’ve cut the cancer out . . . you see it? . . . It’s lying there . . . just sew up the wound . . . cauterize it . . . No, no, don’t bother to look for anything else . . . just throw the tumor away, burn it,” and then a few months later the poor bastard dies, his whole body rotten with cancer. I don’t think purging Nixon is going to do much to the system except make people more careful. Even if we accept the idea that Nixon himself was a malignant mutant, his Presidency was no accident. Hell, Ford is our accident. He’s never been elected to anything but Congress . . . But Richard Nixon has been elected to every national office a shrewd mutant could aspire to: Congressman, Senator, Vice President, President. He should have been impeached, convicted and jailed, if only as a voter-education project.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that over the course of the Watergate investigation, Congress spent as much energy covering up its own sins as it did in exposing Richard Nixon’s?
THOMPSON: Well, that’s a pretty harsh statement; but I’m sure there’ve been a lot of tapes and papers burned and a lot of midnight phone calls, saying things like, “Hello, John, remember that letter I wrote you on August fifth? I just ran into a copy in my files here and, well, I’m burning mine, why don’t you burn yours, too, and we’ll just forget all about that matter? Meanwhile, I’m sending you a case of Chivas Regal and I have a job for your son here in my office this summer—just as soon as he brings me the ashes of that fucking letter.”
PLAYBOY: Does Gerald Ford epitomize the successful politician?
THOMPSON: That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Somehow he got to be President of the U.S. without ever running for the office. Not only that but he appointed his own Vice President. This is a bizarre syndrome we’re into: For six years we were ruled by lunatics and criminals, and for the next two years we’re going to have to live with their appointees. Nixon was run out of town, but not before he named his own successor.
PLAYBOY: It’s beginning to look as if Ford might be our most popular President since Eisenhower. Do you think he’ll be tough to beat in 1976?
THOMPSON: That will probably depend on his staff. If it’s good, he should be able to maintain this Mr. Clean, Mr. Good Guy, Mr. Reason image for two years; and if he can do that, he’ll be very hard to beat.
PLAYBOY: Will you cover the 1976 campaign?
THOMPSON: Well, I’m not looking forward to it, but I suspect I will. Right now, though, I need a long rest from politics—at least until the ’76 campaign starts. Christ, now there’s a junkie talking—“I guess I’ll try one more hit . . . this will be the last, mind you. I’ll just finish off what’s here and that’s it.” No, I don’t want to turn into a campaign junkie. I did that once, but the minute I kicked it, I turned into a Watergate junkie. That’s going to be a hard one to come down from. You know, I was actually in the Watergate the night the bastards broke in. Of course, I missed the whole thing, but I was there. It still haunts me.
PLAYBOY: What part of the Watergate were you in?
THOMPSON: I was in the bar.
PLAYBOY: What kind of a reporter are you, anyway, in the bar?
THOMPSON: I’ m not a reporter, I’m a writer. Nobody gives Norman Mailer this kind of shit. I’ve never tried to pose as a goddamn reporter. I don’t defend what I do in the context of straight journalism, and if some people regard me as a reporter who’s gone bad rather than a writer who’s just doing his job— well, they’re probably the same dingbats who think John Chancellor’s an acid freak and Cronkite is a white slaver.
PLAYBOY: You traveled to San Clemente with the White House press corps on the last trip Nixon made as President, and rumor had it that you showed up for one of the press conferences in pretty rocky shape.
THOMPSON: Rocky? Well, I suppose that’s the best interpretation you could put on it. I’d been up all night and I was wearing a wet Mexican shirt, swimming trunks, these basketball shoes, dark glasses. I had a bottle of beer in my hand, my head was painfully constricted by something somebody had put in my wine the night before up in L.A. and when Rabbi Korff began his demented rap about Nixon’s being the most persecuted and maligned President in American history, I heard myself shouting, “Why is that, Rabbi? . . . Why? . . . Tell us why . . . ” And he said something like, “I’m only a smalltime rabbi,” and I said, “That’s all right, nobody’s bigoted here. You can talk.” It got pretty ugly—but then, ugliness was a sort of common denominator in the last days of the Nixon regime. It was like a sinking ship with no ratlines.
PLAYBOY: How did the press corps take your behavior?
THOMPSON: Not too well. But it doesn’t matter now. I won’t be making any trips with the President for a while.
PLAYBOY: What will you do? Do you have any projects on the fire other than the political stuff?
THOMPSON: Well, I think I may devote more time to my ministry, for one thing. All the hellish running around after politicians has taken great amounts of time from my responsibilities as a clergyman.
PLAYBOY: You’re not a real minister, are you?
THOMPSON: What? Of course I am. I’m an ordained doctor of divinity in the Church of the New Truth. I have a scroll with a big gold seal on it hanging on my wall at home. In recent months we’ve had more converts than we can handle. Even Ron Ziegler was on the brink of conversion during that last week in San Clemente, but the law of karma caught up with him before he could take the vows.
PLAYBOY: How much did it cost you to get ordained?
THOMPSON: I prefer not to talk about that. I studied for years and put a lot of money into it. I have the power to marry people and bury them. I’ve stopped doing marriages, though, because none of them worked out. Burials were always out of the question; I’ve never believed in burials except as an adjunct to the Black Mass, which I still perform occasionally.
PLAYBOY: But you bought your scroll, didn’t you?
THOMPSON: Of course I did. But so did everybody else who ever went to school. As long as you understand that. . . .
PLAYBOY: What’s coming up as far as your writing goes?
THOMPSON: My only project now is a novel called “Guts Ball,” which is almost finished on tape but not written yet. I was lying in bed one night, the room was completely black, I had a head full of some exotic weed and all of a sudden it was almost as if a bright silver screen had been dropped in front of me and this strange movie began to run. I had this vision of Haldeman and Ehrlich- man and a few other Watergate-related casualties returning to California in disgrace. They’re on a DC-10, in the first-class cabin; there’s also a Secret Serviceman on board whose boss has just been gunned down by junkies in Singapore for no good reason and he’s got the body in the baggage bowels of the plane, taking it home to be buried. He’s in a vicious frame of mind, weeping and cursing junkies, and these others have their political disaster grinding on them, they’re all half crazy for vengeance—and so to unwind, they start to throw a football around the cabin. For a while, the other passengers go along with it, but then the game gets serious. These crewcut, flinty-eyed buggers begin to force the passengers to play, using seats as blockers; people are getting smacked around for dropping passes, jerked out of the line-up and forced to do pushups if they fumble. The passengers are in a state of terror, weeping, their clothes are torn . . . And these thugs still have all their official White House identification, and they put two men under arrest for refusing to play and lock them in the bathroom together. A man who can’t speak English gets held down in a seat and shot full of animal tranquilizer with a huge hypodermic needle. The stewardesses are gobbling tranquilizers . . . You have to imagine this movie unrolling: I was hysterical with laughter. I got a little tape recorder and laid it on my chest and kept describing the scene as I saw it. Just the opening scenes took about 45 minutes. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but I like it that way. If I knew how it ended, I’d lose interest in the story.
PLAYBOY: When you actually sit down to start writing, can you use drugs like mushrooms or other psychedelics?
THOMPSON: No. It’s impossible to write with anything like that in my head. Wild Turkey and tobacco are the only drugs I use regularly when I write. But I tend to work at night, so when the wheels slow down, I occasionally indulge in a little speed—which I deplore and do not advocate—but you know, when the car runs out of gas, you have to use something. The only drug I really count on is adrenaline. I’m basically an adrenaline junkie. I’m addicted to the rush of the stuff in my own blood and of all the drugs I’ve ever used, I think it’s the most powerful. [Coughing] Mother of God, here I go. [More coughing] Creeping Jesus, this is it . . . choked to death by a fucking . . . poisoned Marlboro. . . .
PLAYBOY: Do you ever wonder how you have survived this long?
THOMPSON: Yes. Nobody expected me to get much past 20. Least of all me. I just assume, “Well, I got through today, but tomorrow might be different.” This is a very weird and twisted world; you can’t afford to get careless; don’t fuck around. You want to keep your affairs in order at all times.
Playboy, November 1974