Friday A/V Club: Hunter Thompson Runs for Sheriff

Gonzo politics in the Rockies


Later, of course, he would become governor of American Samoa and ambassador to China.

In 1970, Hunter Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on a Freak Power ticket, promising to sod the streets, put dishonest drug dealers in stocks, and change Aspen's name to "Fat City." His campaign caught the attention of the British TV show This Week, which sent a crew to make a documentary about it.

The resulting program ignored the satiric side of Thompson's campaign—not one of those deliberately over-the-top pledges is mentioned here—and instead presents the race as a straightfoward battle between reform-minded hippies and a conservative establishment. Add to that the English filmmakers' faintly alien language and perspective (the narrator uses words like "goodies" and "baddies," and at one point pauses to explain that "grass" means "marijuana") and you get a pretty peculiar picture.

But it's an interesting peculiar picture, capturing a moment when a previous set of settlers in the American West was starting to come to terms (or not) with a new wave of westerners with beards and long hair. (Or, in Thompson's case, with virtually no hair on his head at all.) And some nuances sometimes slip into the documentary's kids-vs.-the-old-folks framing, as when a young man says he'll be voting for the incumbent—"nobody's getting busted here that's not absolutely asking for it," he elaborates, and Thompson is a "psychotic" with "no grip on reality." Shortly after that, a couple of older Coloradans declare that they're backing the freak. "I like to see justice done equally to the rich and the poor, or whatever it is," one explains.

There's also a NSFW segment featuring some skinny-dippers getting high with a man in an Aspen police uniform. (Apparently he was actually the dogcatcher.) Oddly, the filmmakers who had no trouble showing nudity there later bleeped the word "fucked." I assume that in the United Kingdom of the early '70s, that seemed to make sense.

Spoiler alert: Thompson loses. But the results are much closer than you might expect.

By the way: If you're looking for antecedents to Donald Trump's comment that he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" without losing any votes, go to the 14:50 mark, where Thompson tells an interviewer that there's a core group of hippies who would vote for him "if I went out there and walked through the streets naked with a bomb in each hand and drugs dripping."

Bonus link: Thompson writes a letter to Thames TV demanding a copy of the film. My favorite sentence: "It was a horror to have those fuckers around, with all those lights & cables & other assorted garbage everywhere we went; but we figured we stood a good chance of winning, & for that reason we also thought it would be good to have the story on British TV."

More bonus links: Matt Welch writes about Thompson here. I write about Thompson's campaign—and the similarly cracked candidacies of Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Jello Biafra, and Howard Stern—here. Past editions of the Friday A/V Club are here.