HST symposium a good start

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado
Carl Bernstein listens to questions during the Hunter S. Thompson Symposium on Friday. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN Last weekend’s first Hunter S. Thompson Symposium was billed as an exploration into how the author’s gonzo style of journalism can be kept relevant now and into the future, which might even help illuminate the darkness of today’s political landscape.But the event fell a little short of the mark, even as it satisfied a need to examine Thompson’s works and world view.To be sure, the audiences of both the afternoon “private discussion” and the evening panel discussion, hosted at the Aspen Institute’s new Doerr-Hosier Center, were given some rare glimpses into the life and times of the man credited with inventing gonzo journalism.And they learned a lot about what went into the writing of his seminal political work, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” about that year’s presidential election battle, which was the focus of the symposium.Some, for example, might have understood for the first time that Thompson labored long and hard over his words, editing and rewriting constantly. Contrary to popular belief, he did not simply type endlessly in what his son, symposium organizer Juan Thompson, termed a “stream of consciousness” kind of writing, which is how Thompson’s works often seem.And there were some surprises, such as the fact that the term “gonzo” was first mentioned to Hunter Thompson by a blues musician he once met – James Booker of New Orleans, according to symposium moderator and longtime Thompson acquaintance Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute.But as for Juan Thompson’s hopes for the symposium, they did not fully materialize.

“There are many parallels between the ’72 campaign and the present campaign – this administration is on a par with Nixon’s in terms of its notions of executive power, its secrecy and its conduct of the Iraq war, just to name a few,” wrote Juan Thompson about his hopes for the symposium. “These are critically important topics that need to be written about clearly and honestly, so people really understand what is happening, what is at stake.”Therefore, Thompson wrote, he hoped “young journalists [will be] inspired to take up the torch and write the unpopular truths about our political system in uncompromising language.”But mostly what took place on Saturday at the Institute was along the lines of a living room conversation among friends about the lamentable loss of the talents of one of their own – entertaining and informative, but not offering a lot in terms of the future of the Gonzo legacy.One of the panelists taking part in the symposium, professor Audrey Sprenger of New York, brought a couple of her college students to the event so they could learn from what was discussed. And Sprenger, who teaches classes that examine the works of Hunter Thompson and other writers, told the assemblage that many of her students were extremely downcast when Hunter Thompson shot himself to death in February 2005.”It was like a rock star had died,” she recalled, as a way of illustrating that Hunter Thompson and his works remain relevant on college campuses, as well as among journalists, some politicians and his legion of fans.”Few writers … get the opportunity to affect their time through their work,” remarked historian Douglas Brinkley. He added that in his view, Hunter Thompson’s legacy, as a writer, political commentator and skewerer of corruption and malfeasance among the American power structure, “is gonna last.”

Other panelists, such as political writer John Nichols and actor Anna Deavere Smith, lamented that today’s journalists, while capable reporters at covering wars and political campaigns, are constrained by rules of objectivity and political correctness and cannot get at the real truths underlying the events of the day in ways that Hunter Thompson did.”As a political journalist, I tell you, we’re killing the craft,” commented Nichols, who writes for The Nation magazine and other outlets.”The myth of objectivity in journalism is perhaps what holds us back the most,” said Carl Bernstein, whose reporting for The Washington Post helped expose the Nixon administration’s complicity in the Watergate crimes and led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.No journalist is truly objective, Bernstein declared, and of the many writers in the so-called “new journalism” he said only three achieved greatness and lasting importance – Thompson, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist Loren Jenkins, former editor of The Aspen Times, said Hunter Thompson “peeled away the masks” that veil events and people, and “wrote the truth, about what was really happening” in everything he did.And Michael Isikoff, of Newsweek magazine, also decried “the limitations and the rules of objective journalism.” Regarding Hunter Thompson’s legacy, and appeal to youths and others, Isikoff said American culture is “so fragmented” today, with the World Wide Web, blogospheres and other distractions, that there is no vehicle with the power of Rolling Stone magazine, which serialized Thompson’s dispatches from the 1972 campaign. Rolling Stone ultimately published the dispatches, with a cover designed by the late Aspen artist Tom Benton, a longtime friend of the writer.”It would be tough to write for Newsweek in the way that Hunter wrote for Rolling Stone,” Isikoff concluded.

As for Hunter Thompson’s legacy, and its potential to offer lessons for today’s journalists and those of tomorrow, it might best be summed up by the writer himself.Another of his longtime friends, former Aspen Daily News Editor Curtis Robinson, spoke of Thompson’s legendary hatred for former President Richard Nixon, who won the 1972 election by a landslide over challenger George McGovern. Robinson cited an obituary for Nixon, published in Rolling Stone in 1994 and written by Thompson, as an illustration of that hatred.But the piece also has something to say about objective journalism, and Thompson’s insistence that his style is more honest and more helpful to readers hoping to understand events.In the obit, Thompson called Nixon everything from ” a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president” to “a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal,” and explained both his reasons for feeling so and for writing about it:”Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism – which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”Participants conceded after the symposium was over that it did not quite fill the bill as advertised, and predicted that the next Hunter S. Thompson Symposium will be more to the point of keeping Thompson’s legacy alive in the hearts and minds of future journalists.John Colson’s e-mail address is