Fifty years ago Sunday, Richard Milhous Nixon descended the steps at the Capitol’s East Portico to become the 37th president of the United States.
“The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” he proclaimed. “When we listen to ‘the better angels of our nature,’ we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.”
Overhead, the low Atlantic sky was the color of wet concrete, threatening rain. “For its part,” Nixon said at the end of his address, “government will listen. We will strive to listen in new ways.” Then he got into his enormous bulletproof Lincoln limousine and kicked off the inaugural parade, which would take him within a literal stone’s throw of the thousands of protesters who lined the winter streets.
Members of the national press had also posted up along the parade route. Among them was Hunter S. Thompson, a 31-year-old freelance journalist fresh off the success of his first book, Hell’s Angels; he’d made the trip east from Colorado to cover the inauguration for the Boston Globe’s weekend magazine. By this point Thompson had been writing about Nixon for nearly a decade, and from the start he’d understood exactly what it was that made this particular politician so dangerous: an innate and sinister talent for deception that the American electorate, when presented over and over again with its unabashed used-car-salesman tenor, somehow kept mistaking for an entirely different trait—ambition.
It was early afternoon. The wind had come down from the northeast, freezing and brittle, knocking at everyone’s hats and handbills and high-collared coats. Nixon’s motorcade advanced directly into its teeth, up the city’s long angled corridor, Pennsylvania Avenue. The procession was led by a wedge of 30 police motorcycles. Secret Service agents trotted alongside.
The protesters had set up along the parade route at three main locations. Throughout the weekend, they’d been gathering for what was being called the “Counter-Inaugural,” a multiday event.
As the motorcade approached the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania—the site of the Old Post Office and Clock Tower—the first small group was waiting. They were flanked front and back by navy-jacketed DC police and National Guardsmen, as well as an additional unarmed contingent from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Not that it mattered; as soon as the limousine appeared they unleashed a dense hail of rocks and sticks. Members of the Secret Service, walking alongside, struggled to bat down the projectiles. Someone lofted a softball-sized wad of tinfoil that, in its precipitous arc, appeared to be falling directly toward the vehicle carrying Mr. and Mrs. Nixon—which accelerated, jolting its occupants and forcing the agents on the street into an accompanying run.
The next set of protesters—the largest—had gathered at 14th Street near the National Theatre, on the north side of Pennsylvania: the parade route’s widest spot. Here, more than a thousand young men and women chanted at the motorcade: “TWO. FOUR. SIX. EIGHT. ORGANIZE TO SMASH THE STATE!” From the crowd came a new barrage. A paint-filled Christmas ornament shattered against the pavement. A smoking can was tossed just ahead of the presidential limousine, rolling underneath. National Guardsmen and DC police surged against the crowd, reaching for the assailants. But the protesters grabbed and beat anyone from law enforcement unlucky enough to venture too far into their midst, and as a result, the hail kept coming down. They threw stones, bottles, cans, firecrackers, and smoke bombs; they threw pennies and pebbles; they threw table forks and a spoon; they threw tomatoes; they threw manure; they lit on fire the miniature American flags that the Boy Scouts had been passing out and threw them as hard as they could in the general direction of the new president.
It was 2:45 p.m. Hunter Thompson was standing at the corner of Pennsylvania and 15th Street, his press pass around his neck. Across the avenue, protesters were holding up signs with messages like STOP THE WAR AGAINST BLACK AMERICA and NIXON IS THE ONE—THE #1 WAR CRIMINAL! They waved Vietcong banners. They passed around a blotchy dark sack they kept calling “The Black Flag of Anarchy.” Someone threw a half-gallon jug of wine. Standing alongside Thompson, a newscaster from CBS announced into his microphone, “Here comes the president…” From around the corner the limousine appeared.
It had been a year of assassinations and police riots and defeats that had led, for Hunter Thompson, to the most unthinkable outcome of all: Richard Nixon’s victory march to the White House lawn. “With Agnew and Nixon and Mitchell coming into power,” he’d write, “there was simply no point in yelling… They were born deaf and stupid.”
The presidential limousine continued past. Hunter Thompson watched it turn from 15th Street to the White House and then disappear behind a wall of black leafless trees. The temperature was dropping. The sky thickened and dimmed. Now the protesters were fighting among themselves. Police rode by on horseback. The wind lifted and let fall the parade’s long ribbon of debris. Overhead, an enormous helicopter beat the air. Thompson zipped up his ski jacket and walked south, toward the Mall. Around him the white-sand statues and monuments revealed themselves as if haphazardly. From the Mall he could see Arlington National Cemetery, its vast hillside landscaped evenly with more graves than he could count. There, across the gray river, Bobby Kennedy lay closed in a coffin only a few feet off from that of his older brother, both of them forced now to adorn, in death—in silence—the spectacle of the present.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Bobby said just before he was assassinated, a quote his brother had attributed to Edmund Burke. Thompson would never forget hearing this line—he’d hold it dear for the rest of his life—though on a day as haunted as this one, such wisdom could be heard to mean something different: it’s only after the very best of us are driven into silence that the most destructive characteristics in our nature find the means to flourish.
Overhead the sky was about to break. Hunter S. Thompson walked back to his hotel in the wind. “What a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been,” he’d later write, “if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.”
Excerpted from Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism by Timothy Denevi. Copyright © 2018. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Timothy Denevi is an assistant professor in the MFA program at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @TimDenevi.