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Review – Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff

August 3, 2015

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Ask any person familiar with Hunter S. Thompson to name the first thing they think of upon hearing his name and you will get the full gamut of responses – from literary legend to hellraiser extraordinaire, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and inspiration for Uncle Duke, loyal friend or sworn enemy. Yet one association always stands out – Sheriff of Aspen. In a life and career as remarkable as Thompson’s, his campaign for Sheriff of Aspen ranks close to the very top of his greatest achievements, as bizarre as it is unlikely, not to mention touched with the same genius as his most celebrated literary work. And Thompson lost the election.

Thompson memorably documented this campaign in “The Battle for Aspen – his first article for Rolling Stone magazine. Running under the Freak Power banner, Thompson demonstrated that Gonzo was far more than a literary technique. It was a philosophy, an approach to life that he unleashed upon an unsuspecting Colorado town, leaving the political establishment there utterly bamboozled. Though Thompson lost the battle that year, his campaign laid the foundations of a political alternative that ultimately won the war.

It seems all the more remarkable then, in light of the importance of Thompson’s campaign, that the story behind it has to date been largely untold. Sure there is Thompson’s account in Rolling Stone and various stories and anecdotes peppered throughout the numerous biographies and memoirs that have been released over the years. The overall impression however, was that this merely scratched the surface of what really happened, not to mention what the legacy of Thompson’s campaign was for the political landscape in Aspen.

The first taste of this larger story came back in 2011 with the release of Thomas Benton:Artist/Activist by DJ Watkins, which I previously reviewed here. In cataloguing Benton’s incredible work, Watkins scoured high and low in Aspen and beyond in search of his art, which threw up a veritable treasure trove of material relating to Benton’s collaboration with Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters and other political endeavours. Given the focus on Benton, Watkins opted to include only the Aspen Wallposters and a handful of other Gonzo material, the rest he set aside for future consideration. Thankfully he has spent the years since then delving into Thompson’s campaign and gathering material to produce the above book Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff.

Make no mistake about it, this is one of the most significant publications to date concerning Hunter S. Thompson. The book contains a wealth of vintage articles and campaign material that Watkins unearthed in The Aspen Times microfiche at the Pitkin County Library, which were then restored from their original condition for this book. Unless you were on the ground in Aspen during Thompson’s campaign then you are unlikely to have ever seen this material. On top of this Watkins also includes the campaign photography of David Hiser and Bob Krueger alongside the artwork of Tom Benton (including the Aspen Wallposters).

However I think the real value of this book, aside from the aforementioned material, is that it fundamentally re-shapes how we look at Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff and the legacy of the political revolution he kickstarted in Aspen. Before now there has been a tendency to look at the campaign in terms of its more colourful Gonzo moments – Hunter shaving his head so he could refer to the incumbent Sheriff as his “long-haired opponent,” his promise to not eat mescaline on duty, his well publicised platform for Sheriff including a proposal to rename Aspen to Fat City. Though typical of the kind of humour that characterised Thompson’s work, they also unfortunately serve to draw attention away from the more serious issues he sought to address at the heart of his campaign – police harassment, corruption, threats to the environment and overhauling the archaic drug laws. One could be forgiven for thinking that Thompson’s sole proposals were those of his well publicised Tentative Platform for Sheriff. This could not be further from the truth, as Watkins includes Thompson’s detailed plans for the establishment of a police ombudsman, an environmental crime detection office, a drug abuse control center and school community drug education programs.

Another area that has been previously overlooked is that of Thompson’s opposition. Here Watkins includes such gems as the illegal campaign mailer that was sent to every post office box holder in Pitkin County days before the election. The culprit was none other than former Aspen mayor Bugsy Barnard who was later convicted for election fraud. The campaign mailer in question describes Doctor Hunter (Maddog) Thompson’s Great Puppet Show, depicting him as a Hell’s Angel reject whose henchmen will roam the streets of Aspen setting up “Potshops” and describes Rolling Stone magazine as Thompson’s Mein Kampf. To emphasis the point a cartoon depicts Thompson in full Nazi regalia conducting a puppet show in his office, with a Swastika emblazoned flag hanging behind him.

Finally, Watkins examines the political legacy resulting from Thompson’s campaign, illustrating that although Thompson lost the battle, ultimately he won the war, leading to the election of Bob Braudis who overhauled Pitkin County’s sheriff’s office. Braudis was subsequently re-elected five times. In a fitting touch, he contributes both the foreword and afterword to this wonderful book.

Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff can be pre-ordered here.

Details for international orders forthcoming.

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