After spending a few tedious months on the 1972 campaign trail, Ed Muskie—the Democrat favored to win the party’s nomination—had been putting his entire press corps to sleep with hopelessly repetitive stump speeches.
“I didn’t get a quote worth filing out of the whole goddamn trip,” a New York reporter told Hunter S Thompson about the senator’s tour of Florida.
So on May 11, 1972, Thompson gave the campaign a jolt, filing a speculative story through a primitive version of a fax machine he called the Mojo Wire. Describing Muskie as a competitive political animal who would never back away from a challenge, Thompson couldn’t understand why the senator had suddenly become rigid and unresponsive—seeming to read directly from a script—but he took one hilarious shot at figuring it out.
“Not much has been written about the Ibogaine Effect as a serious factor in the presidential campaign,” Thompson wrote in an article he later claimed was never meant to be taken at face value. In it, he declares, “word leaked out that some of Muskie’s top advisers called in a Brazilian doctor who was said to be treating the candidate with ‘some kind of strange drug.”
The drug Hunter claimed Muskie was being treated with was a little-known root called Tabernanthe Iboga or Ibogaine.
The drug Hunter claimed Muskie was being treated with was a little-known root called Tabernanthe Iboga or Ibogaine. “It has been used for centuries by natives of Africa, Asia, and South America in conjunction with fetishistic and mythical ceremonies,” reads the excerpt from a study by PharmChem Laboratories, which was included in the Rolling Stone story:
“At a dose of 300 mg., given orally, the subject experiences visions, changes of perception of the environment, and delusions or alterations of thinking,” the study concludes: “Ibogaine produces a state of drowsiness in which the subject does not wish to move, open his eyes, or be aware of his environment.”
The root, which is meant to be consumed by hunters, allowing them to remain completely still for days on end, was the only way to explain Muskie’s stupor and his terrible performance on the trail. According to Thompson, he and other reporters even recalled campaign manager Chris Hart saying, “My instructions are that the senator should never again be put in a situation where he has to think quickly.”
His symptoms were a perfect match for the effects of Ibogaine, and what’s more, Thompson claimed proof. Or, at least, he had the kind of gut feeling that falls just short of evidence.
“It was hard to take the talk seriously,” Thompson wrote—“until I heard about the appearance of a mysterious Brazilian doctor. That was the key.”
To his credit as an upstanding journalist, Thompson claims he tried his best to question Muskie and even searched the hotel for a Brazilian doctor but was met with obstacles beyond his control.
“I was not able to press the candidate himself for an answer because I was permanently barred from the Muskie campaign after that incident on the Sunshine Special in Florida,” he wrote, referring to Muskie’s train and a story Rolling Stone had published a few weeks earlier. The article told the tale of one startling morning in Florida when Hunter found his name in the local paper. To his surprise, his credentials had been revoked and he proceeded to make some phone calls to find out why.
“That crazy son of a bitch got on the train wearing your press badge,” Thompson recalls another reporter saying. “He drank about ten martinis before the train even got moving, then he started abusing people. He cornered some poor bastard from one of the Washington papers and called him a Greasy Faggot and a Community Buttfucker,” the reporter told him over the phone.
“[P]retty soon the word was all the way back to the Muskie car that some thug named Thompson from a thing called the Rolling Stone was tearing the train apart.”
While Muskie chugged through Florida aboard an Amtrak train to the chorus of campaign staffers singing, “Let the sunshine in!” Thompson had been left behind at the hotel. The campaign didn’t want him along because he was, “too negative.”
They instead had a man who called himself Peter Sheridan wearing what appeared to be Hunter’s ID. The crazed drunk reportedly grabbed a bottle of gin from behind the bar and began to drain it while chasing the female campaign volunteers from one train-car to another screaming, “Come over here and sit on poppa’s face!”
When the Sunshine Special finally came to a stop in Miami, the man was found standing at the edge of the caboose where Muskie was giving a speech.
“Get your lying ass back inside and make me another drink, you worthless old fart!” he was heard saying as he waved his empty gin bottle and groped at the candidate’s legs through the rails.
The next morning, Hunter came to the realization that he knew exactly who Sheridan was. They had met in the lobby of the Ramada Inn at West Palm Beach while the stranger, who claimed to be fresh out of jail, was demanding to see Muskie.
“I’d like to explain,” Hunter writes, “or at least insist—despite massive evidence to the contrary—that this geek…was in fact an excellent person, with a rare sense of humor.”
Hunter had told the man that he could use his press credentials to get a free trip to Miami, but never expected to miss the train himself.
In the weeks that followed, as Muskie began to slide in the polls, the good doctor had time to mull things over, and everything became perfectly clear:
“That scene makes far more sense now than it did at the time,” he wrote recalling the incident. “There [Muskie] was—far gone in a bad Ibogaine frenzy—suddenly shoved out into a rainstorm to face a sullen crowd and some kind of snarling lunatic going for his legs.”
Five years later, in an interview with the CBC, Thompson admitted that the whole thing was a joke.
After being asked, “What did you do to Ed Muskie?” Hunter reclined in his chair and said, “Nothing,” with a smirk. “Ed Muskie did it to himself. I just helped him along.”
“The rumor began to spread everywhere,” the interviewer pressed on, “that Muskie was in fact on this bizarre drug… [Then] you finally said that you made it all up.”
“I had to,” Hunter replied. “I couldn’t believe that people took this stuff seriously.”
“About half way through the campaign, I suddenly realized that all these poor bastards out there reading the Rolling Stone believed this madness,” he said.
“I never said he was [taking Ibogaine],” he continued, “I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was, which was true when I started the rumor in Milwaukee.”
Thompson never explains why he started the rumour, but the article hints that he had been frustrated with the media reporting on the campaign.
For months, they had sold Muskie as the only man who could beat Nixon, while Hunter’s own Bernie Sanders-like candidate, George McGovern, would eventually become the Democrat’s nominee and Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s campaign manager, would call Thompson’s reporting the, “least factual, most accurate” account of the ’72 election.