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Life along the “Ramparts”
A review of A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America by Peter Richardson
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In the fall of 1966, when I was still unable to imagine someday having second thoughts about the radicalism I had adopted as a profession, I joined the staff of Ramparts. It was standing on the epic cusp of celebrity and influence that would soon make it the most important magazine of the 1960s. Unlike the ascetic publications of the left until then, generally little more than mimeographed anthologies of wearisome assertion and typographical error, Ramparts was a shameless hussy—a four-color glossy on heavily coated stock with witty breakthrough graphics. It defined itself as a radical version of Time, had a bite as bad as its bark, and felt sure that it could put a thumbprint on reality by funneling New Left ideas into a growing middlebrow audience suddenly willing to believe the worst about what it was now calling “The System.”
A few months after I got there, the magazine had its first mega-hit: an exposé on the CIA’s infiltration of the National Student Association. The New York Times, initiating the strange symbiosis that would make it a megaphone for Ramparts’s scoops over the next few years, turned the story into a national headline, touching off an intense journalistic treasure hunt for other nominally independent institutions, foreign and domestic, the Agency had “subverted.” We all found ourselves on the call lists of major radio and television shows. Circulation nearly doubled to 200,000 (and soon came close to doubling again), and The New Yorker certified Ramparts’s apotheosis by making it the subject of one of its modish cartoons.
The magazine had stumbled into a historical sweet spot. Vietnam had pried the lid off of America’s long postwar consensus and Ramparts, often confusing wish fulfillment with for fact-checking, was there to publish what came out of Pandora’s Box. Conspiracy theories? We had the assassination franchise and made the country drink the witches’ brew Jim Garrison had whipped up down in New Orleans. Black liberation? The magazine made the Black Panthers into a national phenomenon, a locked and loaded makeover of the civil rights movement. The romance of Third Worldism? Ramparts was an open mic for Castroism and helped author the myth of Saint Che by secretly obtaining and publishing the Guevara diaries. The war itself? In one of those pictures that actually is worth a thousand words, Ramparts made a stipulation when it produced one of its classic covers showing Ho Chi Minh in a sampan posed as George Washington crossing the Delaware.
The audience was not just the college kids and activists who haunted the newsstands waiting for the next issue. Ramparts’s pieces were read into the Congressional Record and rehashed by members of the mainstream press fearful that they didn’t know what was happening out there in the other America. The FBI and CIA kept the magazine’s articles on file alongside dossiers on its editors. Martin Luther King was so disturbed by a 1967 Ramparts photo spread of maimed Vietnamese children that he finally broke his calculated silence and denounced the war in his famous speech at Riverside Church, which he then allowed us to publish.
Ramparts printed the work of writers ranging from Jean Lacouture and Yevgeny Yevtushenko to Kurt Vonnegut and Susan Sontag. Jann Wenner and Brit Hume were briefly on staff. Its North Beach office was a hangout for Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Abbie Hoffman, and other New Leftists when they came through San Francisco. After we had emancipated Eldridge Cleaver from prison and helped him publish Soul on Ice (whose assertion that rape was “an insurrectionary act” made him an overnight sensation), he arranged for Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz to come to the office with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as bodyguards, and, because they were carrying scatterguns as part of their chic new philosophy of “armed self-defense,” a gunfight with the police was an inch away from happening right outside our front door. I met Hunter Thompson in a Berkeley bar and got him to come for lunch one day; while we were gone, Henry Luce, the capuchin monkey our presiding genius and publisher Warren Hinckle kept in the office, got out of his cage and rummaged red and white pills from Thompson’s rucksack and had to have his stomach pumped.
With such a cast of characters, it was inevitable that someone would chance upon Ramparts’s remains and realize that it was a story worth reassembling. And, indeed, just as the “1960s” and its interior monologue, which the magazine expressed with such perfect literary ventriloquism, is about to turn fifty, the Berkeley writer Peter Richardson has produced a history of the magazine called A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.
Richardson does a particularly good job in recovering the magazine’s origins, showing how an odd duck named Ed Keating, riding the updrafts that created Vatican II, began it as a liberal Catholic quarterly in 1962 with Thomas Merton as an advisor and, episodically, a nagging conscience. In this earliest incarnation, the publication was intellectually and politically erratic, bearing strong witness to the redneck violence against civil rights workers in one issue and devoting the next to a diatribe on the moral depravity of J. D. Salinger.
Left to his own devices, Keating probably would have required more than a decade to blow through his wife’s fortune—somewhere around $800,000—on Ramparts. But he had the mischance of colliding with a San Francisco character named Warren Hinckle, who became his employee and then his usurper, relieving him of his magazine as well as his money almost overnight.
Hinckle never got the press of other 1960s figures, but I’ve always thought he was the most interesting of the bunch. He was a little spongy-looking, as if afflicted by water retention, and his moon-blanched complexion testified to long afternoons in working-class bars where a heroic Irish liver allowed him to drink for hours without ever dulling his edge. He wore a patch over a dead eye. (My three-year-old son saw him once and ever after referred to him, more accurately than he could have known, as “that pirate guy.”) He was creative and destructive in almost equal measure, and believed in nothing and everything with the same restless enthusiasm.
Hinckle wanted to channel Ida Tarbell. He also wanted to orchestrate staff-written articles à la Time on epiphenomena such as the Hippie movement just then taking shape in the Haight and the new spirit of dissent within the Catholic Church being pushed by Father James Groppi, the Berrigans, and others he regarded as fallen angels. Although he was allergic to radical politicos, rolling his eye at their nonstop sanctimony and moral posturing, Hinckle saw the New Left as a movement with which he could enter a rewarding marriage of convenience. And so, in 1965, he hired one of its earliest and most talented apostles, Robert Scheer, as his co-conspirator.
Neatly bearded, squinty-eyed behind horn rims, and trailing a faintly mephitic charisma, Scheer was a torrential talker and fierce polemicist who had been present at the creation of The Movement. While still a Berkeley grad student, he co-authored a book on Cuba staking out the quintessential New Left claim: that the Castroites had initially “instilled by example and precept a respect for dissent” in their revolution, but had been forced to shut down that openness as a result of an American hostility so implacable that it drove them reluctantly into the arms of the USSR. Scheer had recently traveled to South Vietnam and returned to publish a pamphlet called How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam that suggested that a cabal of American Catholics, intelligence community black-baggers, and insidious foreign policy hawks had pushed America into the war. This work helped lay the groundwork for the most perdurable of New Left myths, that the Viet Cong was an “indigenous” force of idealistic peasant nationalists independent of Hanoi and devoted to what Scheer’s rival Tom Hayden liked to call “rice roots democracy.”
Scheer brought the steak to the Ramparts table for which Hinckle provided the sizzle, and he staffed the magazine with comrades from his own cadre from Berkeley. (I was one of them and, for all our differences since, have never stopped being grateful to him for rescuing me from a brain-dwarfing career in academia.) In addition to using his Third World connections for coups such as the Guevara diaries, Scheer injected the Movement’s central ideas into Ramparts’s journalism, especially the notion that centrist liberalism was responsible for all of America’s domestic malaise and international misdeeds. Stalking liberal malefactors—California Governor Pat Brown, Hubert Humphrey, Clark Clifford, and so on—became the magazine’s own version of cherchez la femme. Conservatives were irrelevant.
Richardson rightly sees the Hinckle/Scheer collaboration as Ramparts’s golden age. But he underestimates how brief the mayfly moment really was. By late 1968, the couple million Hinckle’s gravelly charm had coaxed from guilty heirs and heiresses and society matrons looking to tart up their lives with a little radical chic was gone (much of it wasted on first-class travel, long stays at the Algonquin, and group nights at Elaine’s). Moreover, the New Left was just then beginning its slow-motion slide into Fanonist fantasies of revolutionary violence and what my friend David Horowitz correctly described as “hand-me-down-Marxism,” neither of which offered much of a platform for the mass audience journalism the magazine had been able to create for a couple of very good years.
It all came to a head in early 1969 when Hinckle proposed to bankrupt Ramparts and create a surrogate to be called “Barricades” that would carry on as before, after the old debts had been dumped and the old investors stiffed. The rest of us said that the brand was too important to throw away and coalesced around Scheer as the new leader—Hinckle left to found a short-lived journal he inexplicably called Scanlan’s. This new arrangement lasted for a few months or so before Horowitz and I, urged on by the elemental cell division that was breaking the Movement down into sectarianism and making it ever more radical, got rid of Scheer and took over Ramparts ourselves.
We ran the magazine as something like a collective until 1972, leading it through a decline that mirrored the Movement’s own as it gradually descended into intellectual dada and death-cult pep talks. We published a little good work and much that was simply rancid. We publicized, for instance, Hayden’s inane view that, in the coming revolution, the Panthers would function as an “americong” vanguard fighting from Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor, and all the other places where we radicals were presumably creating “liberated zones.” We also promoted the “martyrdom” of George Jackson after he was gunned down in Soledad, where he had earned his reputation as the prison’s house psychopath.
As treason of the heart slowly edged into treason of the deed, we published our own front-page New York Times scoop in 1972 when we did a story based on revelations by a renegade analyst from the National Security Agency who revealed that the United States was able to break Soviet codes. Sleeping with the enemy may have seemed an act of brave defiance, but it was actually a no-fault gesture from the get-go. Daniel Ellsberg’s attorney, Charles Nesson, had assured us in advance that the government would have to reveal too much to prosecute. Horowitz and I left Ramparts shortly afterwards to write books. The succession of editors who followed us refused to admit that magazines, like people, have organic cycles and kept it going until 1975, when Ramparts finally expired—fittingly, at about the same time that the last Americans were leaving Saigon dangling from helicopter skids.
Richardson’s desire to tell the whole of this story is admirable. But sometimes he fails to distinguish the important characters in the drama from the bit players, and he tends to slow-walk the narrative through episodes, such as the 1972–75 period, that deserve a quick and merciful summary. He also fails to assay the true worth of some the anecdotes he has so painstakingly collected. In one amusing instance, he uses essays written by the “former Soledad inmate” Bob Crachit glorifying shoplifting and cheating on taxes as proof that the magazine in its decline reflected the Left’s increasing infatuation with outlaw behavior. The premise is correct, but “Crachit” was a hoax, of course—the pseudonym of Ramparts’s controller Robert Kaldenbach, whose fabulated Soledad identification marked a rare moment of self-parody in a magazine that prided itself on being more serious than thou.
For the most part, however, the facts in Every Issue a Bomb are right. My quarrel is that the soft spot Richardson admits having for Ramparts and the era it chronicles (an era that glows with a particular nostalgia because because it coincided with his own growing up in Berkeley) sometimes involves soft-headedness as well. When he claims, for instance, that the New Left was “centrally concerned with American ideals and the nation’s collective failure to live up to them,” I want to tell him to get a grip, we’ve heard all this before in all the other pious retrospective airbrushings of the 1960s. Almost from its beginning, the New Left attacked these ideals with a rancorous, root-and-branch revisionism, and it was addicted to national failures because they made its own thought and action, however scurvy, seem morally justified by comparison. In fact, New Leftists always regarded America’s failures the way Voltaire regarded God—as something necessary to be created if they didn’t really exist.
Like many apologists for the 1960s, Richardson also wants to believe that a line separated the idealistic early part of the decade from the calamitous later years. He dangles the implication that individuals whom he finds attractive, like Scheer, must have been authentically at home in the good part of the decade, only to be dragged into the bad part by some nasty undertow beyond their control. But Scheer was always a representative figure: his before and after express perfectly the coherence of the Movement’s development and meaning.
After being expelled from Ramparts, he joined a radical collective in Berkeley called the Red Family which held target practice sessions in the Berkeley Hills under the direction of a “Minister of Defense” in the Nostradamus-like belief that 1917 was about to come again. And he purified himself ideologically for the revolution by going off on a radical junket to North Korea in the early 1970s, returning to Berkeley after an obeisance to Kim Il Sung with the message revolutionary tourists have brought home since ever Lincoln Steffens: he had seen the future and it worked. Richardson actually reports aspects of this odyssey. Had he explored it more deeply he might have gotten an insight into the inner logic that made the era a unity rather than an apportioned experience.
There is a small codicil to Scheer’s story. A few months after the North Korea trip, which was hot news in the Berkeley radical scene, several boxes postmarked in Pyongyang and addressed to him arrived at the Ramparts office. I opened them and discovered a multi-volume collection of the Fatherly Leader’s press conferences in a Honda-owner’s-manual English translation. I opened the first volume: it consisted of a single terse question about the malice of imperialism and was followed by Kim’s 100-page answer. If Scheer had remained Ramparts’s editor, it might have been printed in its entirety—and if this had happened, it would have been a true expression of an indivisible era. In our end, as Eliot might have put it, was our beginning.
Did Ramparts actually change America, as Richardson asserts in the subtitle of his interesting work? It certainly had an impact on the literary culture, midwifing a rebirth of muckraking and allowing the personal to become political in an advocacy journalism that is still in vogue in places such as the New York Times. And it certainly left a mark on a handful of other publications with greater staying power, notably Rolling Stone (which Wenner founded as a result of his frustration with Ramparts’s puritanical attitudes toward sex, drugs, and rock and roll) and Mother Jones (which was intended by its creators to be Ramparts without the zany unpredictability and personality cults and, as a consequence, became Ramparts on Quaaludes). But I think Richardson’s suggestion that the magazine might also have played some role in the birth of Tikkun and the even more alarming Daily Kos would cause most of us to demand a DNA test.
Ramparts probably changed America politically as well. Two of the prime examples Richardson offers as proof of the magazine’s impact—reining in the CIA and making the Black Panthers into an organization of national importance—don’t necessarily prove, however, that the change was a beneficial one. The cultural “fronts” the Agency created and Ramparts exposed didn’t try, after all, to fit Castro with a poisoned wetsuit or zip through the Caribbean in zodiac boats creating mayhem in the manner of Bobby Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose. The CIA’s involvement in institutions such as the National Student Association, Encounter magazine, etcetera was, rather, part of a shadow boxing match of containment with the Soviets that allowed us to get through the most dangerous period of the Cold War without having to throw thermonuclear punches.
As far as the Panthers are concerned, claiming them as a positive heritage for Ramparts is even more dubious, as Richardson must know, since he also includes in his book hair-raising material, primarily from David Horowitz, showing that this organization was finally nothing more than a black version of Murder, Inc. Eldridge Cleaver was always a hardcore hustler and possibly an executioner during the Panther civil wars of the early 1970s, but his most sinister achievement was brokering the relationship between Ramparts and the BPP which took this gang out of the Oakland ghetto and put it in the center of the national scene.
Finally, though, I must admit that I’m grateful to A Bomb in Every Issue for taking me back to these good old days when we were all so bad. I enjoyed the slight frisson of nostalgia, especially since I know that none of us can do much harm any more. I do wish Richardson had taken more seriously one small anecdote which I relayed to him in our interview and which he includes only as a throwaway line in his text. It was about being at Elaine’s with Hinckle when a tipsy Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s, stopped by for a moment and said in a thickened Mississippi accent, “You know the trouble with y’all? The trouble with y’all is that you didn’t love America.”
Morris was a smart guy. And what he said is a pretty good epitaph for Ramparts and the radical era whose time capsule it will always be.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 January 2010, on page 64
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