I doubt any book means more to a single professional sect than Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 means to American political journalists. It’s been read and reread by practically every living reporter in this country, and just as you’re likely to find a dog-eared paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop somewhere in every foreign correspondent’s backpack, you can still spot the familiar red (it was red back then) cover of Fear and Loathing ’72 poking out of the duffel bags of the reporters sent to follow the likes of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Barack Obama on the journalistic Siberia known as the Campaign Trail.
Decades after it was written, in fact, Fear and Loathing ’72 is still considered a kind of bible of political reporting. It’s given birth to a whole generation of clichés and literary memes, with many campaign reporters (including, unfortunately, me) finding themselves consciously or unconsciously making villainous Nixons, or Quislingian Muskies, or Christlike McGoverns out of each new quadrennial batch of presidential pretenders.
Even the process itself has evolved to keep pace with the narrative expectations for the campaign story we all have now because of Hunter and Fear and Loathing. The scenes in this book where Hunter shoots zingers at beered-up McGovern staffers at places like “a party on the roof of the Doral” might have just been stylized asides in the book, but on the real Campaign Trail they’ve become formalized parts of the messaging process, where both reporters and candidates constantly use these Thompsonian backdrops as vehicles to move their respective products.
Every campaign seems to have a hotshot reporter and a campaign manager who recreate and replay the roles of Hunter and Frank Mankiewicz (Karl Rove has played the part a few times), and if this or that campaign’s staffers don’t come down to the hotel bar often enough for the chummy late-night off-the-record bull sessions that became campaign legend because of this book, reporters will actually complain out loud, like the failure to follow the script is a character flaw of the candidate.