FREAK POWER AT 50: Stories from the Aspen Times archives on Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for sheriff
In the tense third act of the new documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” candidate Hunter S. Thompson brings a big story to The Aspen Times newsroom.
Standing at Times Editor Bil Dunaway’s desk, Thompson – a cigarette and Budweiser in hand – recounts how a man in biker garb “came up to my house Wednesday afternoon and told me my house was going to be dynamited and blown up if I didn’t get out of the race.”
This man, who the Times would reveal as a federal “informant-agent-provocateur” had attempted to infiltrate the Thompson for Sheriff campaign and entrap him with the blessing of Sheriff Carrol Whitmire, who Thompson was attempting to unseat. With death threats mounting against his quixotic campaign in October 1970 and two cases of dynamite reportedly gone missing from the Aspen Ski Corp. storage, Thompson couldn’t go to law enforcement for protection, so he went to the free press and its embodiment in Aspen: Bil Dunaway.
The Times editor and his staff had covered Thompson’s launch of the “scurrilous” Aspen Wall Poster series earlier in the year, had published Thompson’s bombastic original “Fat City” platform as he launched his Freak Power campaign for sheriff, had detailed the circus as the national press came to town for the gonzo campaign, and Dunaway had been there with his notepad as Thompson’s lawyers – the future county commissioners Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman – fought back against voter suppression efforts by establishment Aspen and the Whitmire campaign seeking to stop young hippies and “freaks” from registering.
We are revisiting those original Aspen Times stories and a selection of the Times’ contemporaneous coverage of the Thompson campaign from 1970 on the occasion of the release of local filmmakers Ajax Phillips and Daniel Joseph Watkins’ new film.
Over the course of 1970, the Times – like many Aspen voters – stopped laughing at the Freak Power movement and started taking it seriously. By the end of October, the newspaper endorsed Thompson as Pitkin County’s next sheriff. He didn’t win the battle of Aspen, but Freak Power did win the war as evidenced by the implementation of Thompson’s platform for law enforcement and conservation in the decades that followed (and, to an extent, by Mayor Torre’s proclamation of “Freak Power Day” last weekend to honor Thompson’s political legacy and celebrate the documentary’s premiere).
We’ve also included here highlights from campaign advertisements that ran in the pages of the Times throughout that fierce and colorful election season.
The backbone of the new documentary, released to video-on-demand services Friday, is a cache of newly discovered film footage from the campaign shot by Robert E. Fulton III. An extended interview with Dunaway was included in the found film reels, according to the filmmakers, but its attendant audio has not yet been located. Maybe someday it’ll surface.
The stories that follow run in sequential order from March to early November 1970.
The Wheeler Opera House and Belly Up Aspen are teaming up to present two shows in December: Big Head Todd and The Monsters on Wednesday, December 27, and Ozomatli on Saturday, December 30.