High Times Greats: Gonzo King Hunter S. Thompson

The godfather of gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson on war, drugs, and other subjects.
High Times Greats: Gonzo King Hunter S. Thompson
Jonathan Becker/High Times/Vanity Fair

From the September, 2003 issue of High Times comes Matt Higgins’ interview with the incomparable Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005), who would have been 84 years old on July 18.

Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a survivor. During his career of 40-odd years, Thompson has survived a stamping by the Hell’s Angels, a running feud with Richard Nixon, and a dubious sexual-assault and drug case, all while consuming superhuman quantities of drugs and alcohol. At age 66, this heavyweight of American letters is still fighting, still smoking, and still churning out humorous and propulsive prose.

His latest memoir is Kingdom of Fear Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (Simon & Schuster). His weapons are his words, and his victims are those who would cheapen the American Dream. Thompson talked to High Times, as bombs were being dropped on Iraq, about subjects dear to him: pot, politics, war, and the law.

How are you doing?

I won a big legal case today. I didn’t win it. We won it, of course. You asked, “How are you doing,” and I’m saying, “We won a big legal case today.” I think High Times would be real interested in it. Well, shit, it’s pretty quick. Maybe two years ago, I decided to get involved with what was then a murder case in Denver. A cop was killed. A skinhead committed suicide, they say. A girl, Lisl Auman, who was only vaguely connected to the skinhead, if that, was put in prison for murder for the rest of her life, with no parole.

You write about this in Kingdom of Fear.

Yes. Well, the Supreme Court in Colorado yesterday agreed to hear her case soon, based on one question in the appeal, which was turned down by the appeals court, so we appealed it higher, to the state Supreme Court. To my surprise, really, they agreed that they would hear it. Which means that our chances of success have gone from zero—prison for life—to about fifty-fifty. Pretty good.

That’s great.

Yeah, we got on that case with the lawyers from the National Association for Christian… what is it? It’s not Christian. I’m watching these goddamn Jesus freaks raving all over television. Christ, where was I? I just smoked some hash, actually. Oh yes, the NACDL, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. I’m the poet laureate of the NACDL.

How did you get involved with them?

Shit, I was on the board of NORML. On the national advisory board, and I got to know these people. Needless to say, a lot of criminal lawyers there. When I got busted about ten years ago, these guys, along with my master lawyer, Hal Haddon from Denver, came and rescued me. These guys have one way or another come out of NORML and the politics of the ’70s and ’80s. They helped me completely and totally destroy a nasty case against me. We got to know each other, and we got to be friends. It’s very much like a political campaign, with horrible stakes for the losers. If I had lost this, I would no doubt have ended up in prison doing time.

I really appreciate the guys who came over the hill, like Keith Stroup from NORML. I came to know these guys through the Mitchell brothers [Artie and Jim], and we formed the Fourth Amendment Foundation. The purpose was to have a lawyer—a big one—available at all times in all fifty states. We did a lot of thinking about it, but our purpose was to make it a fact in law that the state had to pay the legal expenses of anybody the state accused of a crime and failed to convict.

The case we took on in Denver was a convicted cop-killer. They don’t get much worse than that. But all these cases… the mind is running at top speed here. Stop! Get a grip on yourself! I was thinking that since we do have a choice of winning the coin toss, pick a good case, a winnable case. The NACDL filed a friend-of-the-court brief, they brought their muscle to the appeal. This was the public defender’s office in Denver, a broad coalition of people, including Benicio Del Toro and Warren Zevon.

Does this relate to the dictum that appears in Kingdom of Fear: “All that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”? Do the Lisl Auman case and your interest in protecting the Fourth Amendment lie in that sentiment?

Well, my thinking is, that’s where all of our interests lie. Bobby Kennedy used it the first time I noticed it. It’s a universal sentiment. How the shit did I get myself involved in all this? To say, “for evil to prevail” sounds like a distant possibility. It’s not going to happen right away—but no! It’s happening right now in this fucking savage year. Evil is triumphing. It’s right in front of us, and it’s on us as individuals personally and collectively. It’s not going to be down the line. You know, civil rights aren’t just for Negroes. Oh, shit, where did that come from? Bobby Kennedy said that.

That’s what Kingdom of Fear was based on. It all came true much faster than I thought it was going to. It started off as a benign kind of memoir. And in a very short period of time, events like politics… That’s us. That’s you and me fighting over there, paying for those bombs. I guess I’m a little embarrassed of my generation as the first one in a long time in America, maybe forever, to leave the world, the country, the nation, in worse shape than when we inherited it.

Hunter S. Thompson on Drugs, Politics and War

You wrote about the death of the American Dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The country is currently at war, and the Constitution is under attack by the Justice Department. Do you feel like it was a prophecy when you wrote about these things 30 years ago?

That’s exactly what I’m saying. Prophecy—it kind of looks like that now. What did Edward Albee call me, a seer? It’s one of the highest compliments ever been paid by Albee or by anybody. A seer: one who sees things. But there’s really nothing mystic about it. We could all see it coming. Some saw it and some not. I don’t know if we wanted to get into this war with Iraq. Let’s save that question for later. As you can see I’m very sped up here and acting wild.

Do you still smoke marijuana?

Of course I do. Why would I quit? Smoking prevents Alzheimer’s. That’s why I’m still smoking.

As someone who’s reputed to have tried every drug out there, is there one that’s your favorite?

I would say that acid is still walking with the king. After all these years, it’s almost always pleasant. I would say acid is my favorite. I don’t do it that often. You might want to be careful with it. But it is the real thing. Now, I’m talking LSD-25, not what you might buy on some market today. Real LSD-25 is the king of drugs. I use it. I don’t necessarily recommend it. I don’t recommend anything that I do.

Is there a drug that you would absolutely never try again?

Oh shit, yes. One that particularly comes to mind is PCP. Hell, I hear about a drug I would not try every day—drugs I cannot even tell you about or repeat the names of, or something that puts you into a steroid rage. Oh, yeah. That’s the newest one. It’s a supreme downer. It’s like a ’roid rage. Downers in general and drugs like that just get you fucked up. I always said that drugs are no excuse and neither is booze. I hold myself to that standard and other people too.

There was a referendum last year that would have legalized marijuana in Nevada. I think people were optimistic, but it was defeated. Why do you think there’s still resistance to decriminalizing marijuana?

Well, what you’re telling me is old news. That’s in the NORML files. We fought that battle a long time ago. That’s the same thing we were talking about earlier. I’m surprised, shocked, really. Christ, we got marijuana decriminalized in like twenty-five states in a very short time. [Actually, it was 11.—Ed.] We kicked Nixon out of the White House, ended the war in Vietnam. It was a bitch of a time—a very special twenty years. At the time, my war with Nixon was a symbol of a larger war, what Nixon brought in with him. All of that now is being trashed by the Justice Department—everything that we stood for.

It seems that the Justice Department has zeroed in on the medical-marijuana movement in California.

Wait a minute. California’s worked, and then that goddamn shithead… what’s his name? Ashcroft. They overruled the California Supreme Court, and it was still a federal crime in California, even though it wasn’t a crime in state law. So they went in and busted all these medical-marijuana growers. The marijuana laws are getting tougher. It all has the look of a glaze of Nazism, and it looks very much like the Third Reich. I’ve been rereading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Have you ever read it?

No.

It will scare the shit out of you. Maybe it won’t. This country has never been invaded or bombed. That’s one of the reasons, of course. The Pentagon thinking started during World War I: If you must go to war, make sure it’s not on our soil. So they decided we must go to war.

You mentioned Nixon. I know you’re no fan of the current president. How do you think George W. Bush compares with Nixon?

This administration makes Nixon and his people look like a gang of liberals. Almost goofy, childlike. The mentality, the atmosphere around the Watergate trial… boy, that was a long fucker. That was fun. Yeah, I’m proud of my fight.

Well, you won.

Lots of people were resigned in the ’60s to the Vietnam War. It took a while to turn even the president around on that. We did run Lyndon Johnson out of office. I was quite proud of that. And then Nixon. That was two in a row. Winning got to be a habit in a lot of ways. Winning is a habit, and failing is, too, or losing. The McGovern defeat in ’72 didn’t seem like the end of the world. We knew we were going to get Nixon. Watergate had already happened. It was like a pause in the real war. Shit, George McGovern is still saying the same thing, saying it eloquently, and is still right. I talk to him all the time.

It started with Reagan, this deconstruction of everything we had fought for and achieved since World War II. Yeah, I’m shocked, and I have to look around me. I know how much more progress we had made, and the difference between that and the mood of the nation now is one universe away.

This afternoon I was talking to Gary Hart and some other people on that kind of subject. My mind is going wild now. It was just a good focused time. We weren’t winning, it turns out. How that happened in twenty years is really an interesting question. It’s happened so fast, like the nation has plunged into something like World War II, which changed the world forever. But this was no goddamn World War II until we started it. The world is against this war, and I agree with the world. I’m used to being out of step.

The US sank the League of Nations, and this administration is hell-bent on sinking the United Nations. It’s a tradition, but it looks to me like the forces of darkness have prevailed for a while. The evil that’s down the road is here. It has a lot to do with people refusing to vote and calling it irrelevant. This is what happens when people don’t vote. You think it’s cool not to vote? Take a look around you, jackass!

Do you think the Bush administration has hoodwinked America into thinking this war was the right course of action?

No, I don’t think many people outside the Pentagon or the White House really believe that. They have succeeded in selling that message. It always happens in times of war. But that’s all the time now. Clinton came out today or yesterday saying, “It’s time to forget our differences and get behind our president and pull for our troops.” And Clinton was a jackass, or a treacherous bastard, anyway. It’s “You’re either with us or against us” that I think they have sold. Americans are cheap and chickenshit, and they’re going along with the police state. I don’t know why exactly, but we can go back in American history. There’s been some war ever since I was born. There was a long period between World War I and II, but not very long. It’s been pretty much a constant war.

Cheney was on TV last night repeating that thing that Saddam must be killed because he turned chemical weapons on his own people. They’re classified as weapons of mass destruction. I remember a lot of gas being used against me. Shit, that CS gas and pepper gas would qualify as chemical weapons for sure. And this government used it during the ’60s on many people, including me.

You were at the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Oh, boy—you bet. That seemed like the end of the world to me. Right now that looks like an arena-league football game. It was just as hard to go out into the streets and fight the government then. This is no especially rotten time. These are meaner people, and dumber and crazier. And I say that of the evangelical Jesus freaks. Fuck, Jimmy Carter was one of those. I’m still good friends with Carter. It’s not the religion I bitch about. It’s the evangelical-crusade mentality.

Did I tell you I was engaged? You’re the first to hear it. Not the first. Anita’s mother has heard It. I was married before, for a long time. It was a different situation. I never even looked up close at a diamond until last week. I’m in over my head. I have a lot confronting me here. It just popped out of me. May as well be announced in High Times as anywhere else. [Thompson has since married Anita Bejmuk.-Ed.]

Do you have a favorite among the books you’ve written?

It’s very weird, but I actually don’t. I have a different favorite at different times. The letters books [Proud Highway and Fear and Loathing in America] are very close to me, because they’re so extremely real. The Curse of Lono has always been one of my top favorites. I have to republish that because we’re making a movie of it— Sean Penn and me. We’ll have to get it back in print. Other times, it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only because I worked on it so hard and for so long. I can still take instruction from that book, how it’s put together.

You mentioned Bill Clinton earlier. Do you feel, like a lot of people, that Clinton let America down?

Come on! Bush has plunged us into a goddamn, vicious, stupid foreign war, and Clinton let the country down by getting a blowjob in his office? I’d like to talk to somebody on TV and have them ask that question. That’s a good one: “Do you think that Clinton let the country down?” in the context of a political discussion about Bush and the war.

Do you think he fulfilled the promise a lot of people expected of him, or did he fail to fulfill that promise?

He did a lot better than Bush has. In two years, this little, half-bright creep has taken the United States of America, a prosperous country, a nation at peace, to a dead-broke nation at war. How in the fuck could that happen? That gets back to our original question of generations and how I felt a certain shame for mine because of these bastards. I respect power when it moves, as [former Chicago] Mayor Daley used to say. I have to admit, these bastards are good, like Hitler was good. Goddamn, you wouldn’t even compare Clinton to Bush. I don’t know who you would compare Bush to. This is a whole new world for American politics. The American Century did end with the year 2000.

I had a conversation with Bob Dylan last September. He was out here talking about the Bush administration, bitching about what they’re doing now. Bob is one of the real heroes of our time. I said to him, “Goddamn it, we’ve got ourselves into a hell of a fight with these bastards. This gang is serious. They’re not amateurs. They’re not going to be as easy as Nixon was.” He looked at me, and we could call it a wry smile, and said, “Yeah, yeah, but we don’t have to join them.”

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