Art & Culture

How Hunter S. Thompson went from journalist to sheriff’s candidate and back again

Some reflections on street journalism on BenitoLink’s 10th anniversary.
Thompson for Sheriff by Thomas W. Benton. Courtesy Freak Power Art Collection.
Thompson for Sheriff by Thomas W. Benton. Courtesy Freak Power Art Collection.
Hunter Thompson and Thomas Benton. Photo of exhibit by Robert Eliason.
Hunter Thompson and Thomas Benton. Photo of exhibit by Robert Eliason.
Patriots Arise by Thomas W. Benton Courtesy Freak Power Art Collection.
Patriots Arise by Thomas W. Benton Courtesy Freak Power Art Collection.
Am I Really a Freak by Ralph Steadman and David Hiser. Courtesy of Freak Power Art Collection.
Am I Really a Freak by Ralph Steadman and David Hiser. Courtesy of Freak Power Art Collection.

As BenitoLink enters its 10th year in San Benito County, it’s an apt time to reflect on how journalism, even at a grassroots level, can have a powerful impact on the lives of people.

Journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s failed 1970 bid to become the sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, is the subject of “Freak Power: The Art of Hunter Thompson’s Political Movement,” an exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History through Sept. 25.

“The story of Hunter running for sheriff is a lesser-known part of his legacy,” said Daniel Watkins, the curator of the exhibit. “I was doing research for a book on [Thomas] Benton, who was a silkscreen printer and a close friend of his. I started collecting Benton’s posters and that led me to Hunter’s campaign.”

The first book, “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” led Watkins to write “Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff,” which served as the impetus for the current exhibition.

It’s an engaging collection of over 100 items including dynamic campaign posters and broadsides designed by Benton, contemporary photographs and items related to a campaign that, because of the issues he addressed, is in some ways just as relevant today.

If the current generation knows Hunter S. Thompson at all, it’s probably for his groundbreaking 1971 book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Or perhaps they know the two movies based on that book: a 1998 production with the same title, starring Johnny Depp, and the earlier 1980 version titled  “Where the Buffalo Roam,” starring Bill Murray. 

In his prime, Thompson was a giant of counterculture journalism, dominating the field with a whirlwind of words thrown so energetically on the page that the ink barely seemed to have dried. The opening lines of the novel are still as dynamic and compelling as they were back then:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” he wrote. “I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.”

Through the 1970s, when he was at his peak, Thompson’s writing created a fast-paced narrative that became known as “gonzo journalism.” It relied on his free-wheeling surrealism mixed with his own personal excesses but was firmly grounded in his acute observations of politics and life—a style he brought to his campaign for sheriff. 

Thompson’s interest in politics, and his views on law enforcement, were partly informed by what he saw when he covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when 10,000 protesters were met by 23,000 law enforcement officers assembled by Mayor Richard Daley.

Thompson later wrote, “I went to the Democratic Convention as a journalist, and returned a cold-blooded revolutionary.”

Thompson ran on the third party “Freak Power Ticket,” which grew out of the resentment among members of the Pitkin County counterculture who were rebelling against Carol Whitmire, the sheriff at the time. Whitmire harassed the activists with charges of loitering and cracked down on marijuana use in an effort to intimidate them into leaving town. There were larger issues as well, such as the threat of rampant development destroying the beauty of the mountain resort and surrounding area. 

As the Freak Power candidate for sheriff, Thompson ran on a platform of decriminalizing recreational drug use and prosecuting crimes against the environment. The party also wanted to ban tall buildings and large roadways, remove existing roadways and replace them with sod, ban fishing and hunting by anyone other than locals, and change the name of the town from “Aspen” to “Fat City” to discourage investors.

With no experience in law enforcement, Thompson’s idea for how he would run the sheriff’s department was progressive for the time. He recast the office as an ombudsman, acting as a sort of consumer advocate with all complaints from the public going straight to him. He would also supervise police training and handle public outreach. An under-sheriff would deal with the day-to-day work of enforcement and investigation.

Police would not be allowed to carry guns but rather would carry mace, which Thompson said would be sufficient to stop an offender. If that didn’t work, then the police could use whatever weapon or force was needed.

“The whole notion of disarming the police is to lower the level of violence,” he wrote, “while guaranteeing at the same time a terrible punishment for anyone stupid enough to attempt violence on an unarmed cop.” 

Thompson announced his candidacy in the first article he ever wrote for Rolling Stone, a magazine he became closely associated with. Called “The Battle for Aspen,” the piece was published at the start of the 1970 campaign.

Thompson took a uniquely journalistic approach to his campaign. He worked with Benton to design 22 x 30-inch posters, called the “Aspen Wall Posters,” with a silkscreen by Benton on the front of the poster and an essay by Thompson on election issues for the other side. The posters were sold in local stores throughout Aspen.

“These served as the party’s political mouthpiece,” Watkins said. “There was a lot of radical art and design, but also incendiary messaging to get people excited about politics. That was one of the most important aspects of the Freak Power movement, reaching out to people who were disaffected or not involved in politics and getting them registered to vote and work on the campaign.”

Among the key elements of the campaign was getting out the vote. Thompson wrote, “We argue, we protest, we petition—but nothing changes. So now, with the rest of the nation erupting in a firestorm of bombings and political killings, a handful of ‘freaks’ are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment, with the idea of change by voting . . . and if that has to be called Freak Power, well . . . whatever’s right.”

The combination of Benton’s graphics on the front of the posters, and Thompson expounding on campaign issues on the back, was an effective tool and brought the party’s message straight to the voters. Slogans like “When will Aspen become the place you left?” and “If you don’t care, don’t register to vote” were simple and timely.

Thompson’s opponents ran a predictably vicious campaign against him, bringing up his lack of experience, his drug use, and his connection with the Hell’s Angels, the subject of one of Thompson’s previous books.

Even his journalism was challenged. One opposition ad said, “In his Mein Kampf, the underground paper Rolling Stone, he explains how Aspen is going to be a testing ground for organized chaos, disorder, and terror by a hardcore group of freaky dissenters.”

When the election was held in November, Thompson lost, with 1065 votes to Whitmire’s 1533. But by encouraging participation and increasing the number of registered voters, the county slowly became what the Freak Party envisioned. According to Watkins, “His antigrowth platform and his desire for more compassionate law enforcement became a reality in Aspen.”

Thompson’s loss became journalism’s gain. On an assignment for Scanlon’s Monthly, while still campaigning, Thompson worked with illustrator Ralph Steadman for the first time, publishing  “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” in May 1970, considered the first piece of gonzo literature. 

One year later, Thompson published “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” first as a two-part story in Rolling Stone and later as a best-selling book. By this point his reputation as a brilliant, iconoclastic journalist was cemented. 

He never ran for office again.

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.