All the President’s Men & Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

and and and Contemporary
This edition printed in: ,

An orange tabby cat sits beside two journalist books about Nixon.

One Last Post Before Spooky Season

A new month is rapidly approaching and we’ve arrived at the last post before Halloween in August and the fall season. I can’t believe how quickly July has gone by. We saw our first play in a year and a half yesterday (it was performed outdoors with social distancing and government-mandated safety guidelines), and it was great but also more anxiety-causing than I wanted it to be. I guess after so long in isolation, I can’t expect myself to be ready for crowds so suddenly — especially when I’ve always struggled with them.

But it’s hard not to have those expectations when so many others seem to be having no trouble with picking up life from where they’d left it when the lockdowns began. I guess it’s one of those times where everyone is going to handle something differently and at their own pace. It can be hard when it feels like your pace is so much slower than everyone else’s, but it’s important to do what’s right for you.

A close up of All the President's Men and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

It’s been a bit stressful, and so I think it’s fitting for this post to be about the high stakes and high stress world of politics and campaigning.

Two Very Different Perspectives

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and All the President’s Men are two very different books and have two very different perspectives. I’ve paired them together here because they both tackle the same subject: Richard Nixon’s re-election as the American President.

Thompson, of course, uses his gonzo journalism style to describe his coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign which he mostly spent with the (democratic presidential) McGovern campaign management, though he did travel with Nixon’s (republican presidential) campaign for a while, and with Muskie’s sabotaged (democratic) campaign. Thompson does describe the ins and outs of running the campaign, political conventions, and how hectic a schedule it can be just to keep up with what’s going on at any given time. He also writes about relentless deadlines and the personalities he meets on the trail.

It’s important to remember that Thompson is about capturing the feeling of a campaign instead of the hard facts of it. Like always, what he writes is partially fiction and so is not to be taken as absolute fact. That being said, the book is valuable for the sheer feeling it conveys and the variety of feeling. Sometimes I laughed out loud, other times I felt visceral disgust. It’s a rollercoaster contained in 481 pages. It also features illustrations by Steadman and photographs.

Bernstein and Woodward, however, are not trying to capture a feeling per se. They are journalists reporting the facts of the Watergate scandal from how it was uncovered to the impact it had on American politics and the end of the Nixon administration. It’s an enthralling story of investigative procedure, journalistic integrity, and how analyzing small facts can lead to a bigger picture than anyone could ever dream of. It’s also a story of a loss of faith in the American political system and the justice system that can be corrupted to serve it.

The stack spines of All the President's Men and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

In that the darkness, Bernstein and Woodward are careful to present the light — that there are plenty of people dedicated to finding the truth and holding corrupt politicians responsible even when it means a great personal cost. Bernstein and Woodward are also careful to present facts, transcripts of conversations, and verified evidence. There are some snippets of their personal experience peppered into the book, but the book is not about them personally. It’s about the investigation and the facts.

What both of these books share is an unflinching look at a very dark of time in American politics that is meant to open the public’s eyes to the truth of the political machine, the corruption that flourished within it, and the need for change and a commitment to ethics and the truth.

Interestingly, I happened to get editions of both of these books that are fortieth anniversary editions. In my general experience, the anniversary editions of non-fiction books are the next best things to the originals. All the President’s Men in particular has a very lovely afterword that tied all of the information together and placed Watergate in perspective, writing about forty years of its impact and its mark on political history.

Gonzo Journalism on the Campaign Trail

As someone who has liked Thompson’s other work, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 did not disappoint. Thompson’s unrelenting look at American politics, and the work involved in a presidential campaign as well as the realities of what the public hears compared to what actually happens on the inside. He talks about journalism, media, and offers extensive analysis of why McGovern lost the election as well as why Nixon won. Of course, Thompson never shies away from giving his opinion or weaving extensive tales about politics from the edge. He delivers some ugly truth, and it’s right up against some ugly fiction.

A tortie paws the back covers of two books about Nixon.

This book is actually a collection of articles written over the course of a year for Rolling Stone magazine — and there is where its shortcomings primarily lie. In an author’s note, Thompson himself admits that he is not good with deadlines and describes his absolute misery and inability to meet a lot of them during the course of these articles and the fatigue he suffered at various points on the trail. I would love to say that it isn’t obvious — but that wouldn’t be at all accurate. Some chapters are polished and a joy to read. Others feature lengthy transcripts and are a bit of a struggle. Sometimes the technicalities are not well described, and it can be easy to get lost.

The moments of joy far outweigh the ones of despair, but be aware that this isn’t as smooth of a read as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

A Masterpiece of Investigative Journalism

I can admit to having watched the film version of All the President’s Men almost every time that TCM has aired it in the past three years — since I first watched it. I loved the film and naturally the book automatically made it onto my to-read list. I’m surprised it took me so long to get to it.

Bernstein and Woodward’s book on their Watergate coverage is one that also has a rollercoaster-like quality. It has definite ups and downs and moments of laughter and tears. It’s investigative journalism at its best as the authors invite you to share in the atmosphere of the news room and the satisfaction of uncovering a huge story.

A stack of All the President's Men and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

However, don’t expect quite the same tone or flair as with Thompson’s writing. The flair here is not about Bernstein and Woodward as people, it’s about the story — which doesn’t make it any less amazing, just in a different way. Because the focus is on the journalism, the narrative can seem a bit dry at times. I didn’t find it as bad as I know some people have, but I there was a point when it felt like too many names and too many facts were in my head and I had to take a break to process everything I’d read.

I did enjoy it as much or even more than the film. There was more time to analyze all the information. Sometimes the film felt like it was paced so quickly that I couldn’t quite follow it.

A Canadian Watching American Politics

I’m Canadian and I’m not exactly completely familiar with the ins and outs of the American political system. There were times in both books that I got a bit lost. All the same, I enjoyed both books and I often read as much about American politics as I do about the politics about my own country. Though it feels like I’m on the outside looking in when I read books like this, it to some extent feels closer than is comfortable as well.

I remember once reading a quote where someone said that being Canadian watching American politics was like watching the neighbour’s house burning and not being able to do anything about it. I will agree that there’s that same sense of helplessness and despair — and there’s also a fear that maybe it will happen here.

Maybe that fire will spread.

 I think now more than ever it is agonizingly clear that the Canadian government has done some very horrendous things in the past that cost the lives of so many innocent people and sent shocks rippling through subsequent generations. There are no apologies big enough to make up for that. No words seem like enough to describe the atrocity or begin healing from it.

I’m not a very political person, but I always want to have an understanding of history and an awareness of what is happening in the world — for good or ill.

All the President's Men and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 beside orange paws.

That wraps up this rather lengthy review. Next week I’ll be tacking a much shorter novel and the first of many spooky ones — Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

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