Trump, Nixon, and Subjectivity

John Gruber reminds us of Hunter S Thompson’s obituary of Richard Nixon, saying it “[f]eels appropriate today” (this was yesterday, of course).

I hadn’t read it in a while, but there are some glorious lines in it:

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president.

He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.

They were a crooked bunch, though, the Republicans back then. This on Spiro Agnew:

He was a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed. But he was Nixon’s vice president for five years, and he only resigned when he was caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the White House.

Which is not exactly accurate according to the Wikipedia article, but it’s not too far off.

The quote Gruber draws our attention to is this:

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.

Which reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Which is that I don’t think I want journalism to be objective. At least not in the area of political commentary. News is different, of course. But to me the best journalistic writing comes about when the writer’s personality comes through. When their unique voice can be heard in every paragraph. HST was of course the exemplar of that, but you don’t have to be as extreme as him to write things that have some heart and soul about them, that do more than just recite the facts.

Indeed, that journalistic objectivity is part of the problem. The whole he said/she said reporting of science in particular — just think of the way climate change is discussed1; or the MMR fake controversy of a few years back. Journalists need to be able say, “This person says x but they’re wrong because of y and z.”

And that isn’t necessarily even being subjective. It’s just being willing to not treat both sides of a debate as equal when they’re not.

Back to HST on Nixon, and the crookedness of the Republicans:

Two years after he quit, he told a TV journalist that “if the president does it, it can’t be illegal.”

which is something that Trump has quoted, I believe. Or if not, it’s clear that it’s what he believes.


  1. In reality there’s no “debate.” []
Trump, Nixon, and Subjectivity

Screwjack by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2016, 15)

Long-time HST readers like me will be familiar with this title. It always appeared on the dust jacket or inside the book in the list of other books by the author. But you never saw it anywhere. Back before Amazon, when bookshops were still a common haunt (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), you used to look all over the shop for Thompson’s work, because it was rarely consistently filed. That is, not every bookshop put it in the right section. After all, what is the right section? History? Sociology? Politics?

Really, the right section is probably “Journalism,” but most bookshops don’t (or didn’t) have such a section.

Anyway, it turns out that Screwjack wasn’t journalism, but fiction, and in any case was a limited-edition release of only a few hundred or so, and when the web and eBay came along, copies used to go for hundreds of pounds or dollars.

Sometime after he died it got a proper release, and I finally got round to buying it. It’s a slim, small-format hardback, containing three stories. And I’ve got to say that just a few weeks after reading them, they’re almost totally unmemorable. So maybe there was a good reason for not releasing them properly all those years.

Oh well. One for the completists.

Screwjack by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2016, 15)

The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2014, 7)

I’ve read pretty much everything by HST that’s been published in book form, but I hadn’t read this, his sole novel, until now.

He wrote it before he started to get successful as a journalist, as I understand it, so it’s interesting that it’s a story _about_ a journalist, or several. And they’re hard-drinking ones at that. But that kind of goes without saying.

As the novel starts it is 1959 and the first-person narrator is wanderer, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. He is leaving New York for Puerto Rico, to take up a post on the English-language paper there.

The story charts the ups and downs of his life over the next few months, along with various other people, mainly involved with the paper. It’s an entertaining enough read, but largely inconsequential as a story. You couldn’t really say that the character has grown or developed much by the end, and while we get some insight into the way the US was interacting with Puerto Rico at the time (unspoilt beaches being sold to developers to build luxury hotel complexes, that kind of thing), I wouldn’t say you get a great sense of Puerto Rico itself.

It’s mainly interesting for showing some early flashes of the writing style that Thompson would develop over the subsequent years into his signature gonzo style. For example:

> They ran the whole gamut from genuine talents and honest men, to degenerates and hopeless losers who could barely write a postcard–loons and fugitives and dangerous drunks

Not up there with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, obviously, but you can see the beginnings of that style.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2014, 7)