Hunter S. Thompson on Nixon's BART Ride

Reading Peter Hartlaub of the Chronicle's piece on Richard Nixon's September 1972 campaign stop on BART, I couldn't help but think of Hunter S. Thompson's reporting from the event, buried in the latter chapters of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

At the time of the trip, Thompson had just left the McGovern press corps and recently passed his Secret Service screening to join the Presidential Press Corps. So they tossed him on the dinky press plane headed towards Oakland to spectate—from a safe distance—as Nixon marveled at BART (all pictures from the Chronicle):

The few reporters who switched off the McGovern campaign to travel with Nixon on this last trip to California were shocked by what they found.  The difference between traveling with McGovern and traveling with Nixon is just about like the difference between going on tour with the Grateful Dead & going on tour with the Pope.

My first experience with it came shortly after Nixon's arrival in Oakland.  After nervously pressing the flesh with some of the several hundred well-drilled young “supporters” who'd been rounded up to greet him for the TV cameras, Nixon was hustled off in a huge black bulletproof Cadillac for a brief appearance at one of the Bay Area's new rapid-transit stations.  The three big press buses followed, taking a different route, and when we arrived at the BART station we were hauled down by freight elevator to a narrow hallway outside a glass-walled control room.

Moments later Nixon emerged from a nearby subway tunnel, waved briefly at the crowd, and was ushered into the control room with a dozen or so local Republican dignitaries.  Two certified harmless photographers were allowed inside to take pictures of The President shaking hands and making small talk with the engineers.  His pithy remarks were broadcast out to the press mob in the hallway by means of loudspeakers.

After watching for a moment, I turned to Bob Greene, a young Chicago Sun-Times reporter who had just dropped off the McGovern campaign.  “Jesus,” I said. “Is it always like this?”

He laughed.  “Hell, this is accessible!  We can actually see him.  I spent about twelve hours covering him in New York yesterday, and I never saw him once—except on closed-circuit TV when he made his speech last night.  They had us in a separate room, with speakers and TV monitors.”

From here, Thompson travels across the Bay to cover a $500-a-plate lunch at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel (which Thompson skips to get drunk at House of Shields), but that's for another time.

One of the things that really gets me about the book is looking at it with respect to the 2012 campaign.  The parallels between Nixon's re-elect campaign and Romney's second go for the office are striking—the limited access to the press, their lukewarm support, their incessant tantrums towards the “biased” and “liberal” media…  Romney may not be Nixon in either skill, cleverness, or personality, but it's hard to escape thinking about what a Romney presidency would look like considering their similarities.

Oh, and those “pithy remarks” Thompson was talking about?

Comments (1)

I once worked for a train company that had a wall just like that for monitoring the lines with stations all in front of the huge wall. Every single time someone walked in for the first time they said, “this looks like NASA mission control!”. I did the same. Those mission control photos are iconic. May not add value to the campaign, but the comment is the same one everyone makes, Nixon was no different than anyone else.