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Monday, January 19, 2009

The shittrain began on November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas—when some twisted little geek blew the President's head off ... and then a year later, LBJ was re-elected as the "Peace Candidate."

Johnson did a lot of rotten things in those five bloody years, but when the history books are written he will emerge in his proper role as the man who caused an entire generation of Americans to lose all respect for the Presidency, the White House, the Army, and in fact the whole structure of "government."

And then came '68, the year that somehow managed to confirm almost everybody's worst fears about the future of the Republic ... and then, to wrap it all up another cheapjack hustler moved into the White House. If Joe McGinnis had written The Selling of the President about good old Ike, he'd have been chased through the streets of New York by angry mobs. But when he wrote it about Nixon, people just shrugged and said, "Yeah, it's a goddamn shame, even if it's true, but so what?"

I went to Nixon's inauguration. Washington was a sea of mud and freezing rain. As the Inaugural Parade neared the corner of 16th and Pennsylvania Avenue, some freak threw a half-gallon wine jug at the convertible carrying the commandment of the Marine Corps ... and as one-time Presidential candidate George Romney passed by in his new role as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, the mob on the sidewalk began chanting "Romney eats shit! Romney eats shit!"

George tried to ignore it. He knew the TV cameras were on him so he curled his mouth up in a hideous smile and kept waving at the crowd—even as they continued to chant "Romney eats shit!"

The mood of the crowd was decidedly ugly. You couldn't walk 50 feet without blundering into a fistfight. The high point of the parade, of course, was the moment when the new President's car passed by.

But it was hard to be sure which one it was. The Secret Service ran a few decoys down the line, from time to time, apparently to confuse the snipers and maybe draw some fire ... but nothing serious happened: just the normal hail of rocks, beer cans, and wine bottles ... so they figured it was safe to run the President through.

Nixon came by—according to the TV men—in what appeared to be a sort of huge, hollowed-out cannonball on wheels. It was a very nasty looking armored car, and God only knows who was actually inside it.

I was standing next to a CBS-TV reporter named Joe Benti and I heard him say, "Here comes the President..." "How do you know?" I asked him. It was just barely possible to detect a hint of human movement through the slits that passed for windows.

"The President is waving to the crowd," said Benti into his mike.

"Bullshit!" said Lennox Raphael standing beside me. "That's Neal Cassidy in there."

"Who?" said Benti.

"Never mind," I said. "He can't hear you anyway. That car has a vacuum seal."

Benti stared at me, then moved away. Shortly afterward, he quit his job and took his family to Copenhagen.

When the Great Scorer comes to list the main downers of our time, the Nixon Inauguration will have to be ranked Number One. Altamont was a nightmare, Chicago was worse, Kent State so bad that it's still hard to find the right words for it ... but there was at least a brief flash of hope in those scenes, a wild kind of momentary high, before the shroud came down.

The Nixon Inauguration is the only public spectacle I've ever dealt with that was a king-hell bummer from start to finish. There was a stench of bedrock finality about it. Standing there on Pennsylvania Avenue, watching our New President roll by in his black-armored hearse, surrounded by a trotting phalanx of Secret Service men with their hands in the air, batting away the garbage thrown out of the crowd. I found myself wondering how Lee felt at Appomattox ... or the main Jap admiral when they took him out to the battleship Missouri to sign the final papers.
Hunter S. Thompson on the 1968 inauguration, from his book on the 1972 election, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.