How Ramparts and the Bay Area redefined the Left
By: Frances Dinkelspiel
September 24 2009
It's hard to imagine today, when newspapers, magazines and blogs are
full of articles about the malfeasance of government, that there was
a time when nobody spoke about the dark side of the CIA or the secret
spy networks of the FBI.
All that changed in the 1960s with Ramparts Magazine.
For those who don't remember, Ramparts was a slickly produced
magazine of the left and a publication that took no prisoners.
Started as a Catholic literary quarterly in Menlo Park in 1962,
Ramparts evolved into one of the most important periodicals of the
New Left. The magazine exposed the close relationship of universities
with the American war machine, revealed the ugly truth behind the
Vietnam War, and trumpeted the power of a new protest group called
the Black Panthers.
And it all happened in the Bay Area.
Now Peter Richardson, an editor at PoliPoint Press in Marin and a
lecturer on California Studies at San Francisco State has written the
definitive history of the brightly-shining but short-lived magazine.
A Bomb in Every Issue is a long overdue look at this important
periodical, and it's mighty entertaining as well.
It turns out that the Bay Area was critical to Ramparts' success
because the region served as a cross roads for sophisticated
marketing, radical culture, smart, aspiring writers, and a
willingness to break traditional social conventions. Take the Free
Speech and anti-Vietnam War movements in Berkeley, the Black Panthers
in Oakland. and the Summer of Love in San Francisco and you have an
explosive mix of rage and energy.
Into this heady brew came a group of out-sized characters, many of
whom have become important historical figures in their own right.
Ramparts was started by Edward Keating, a Stanford-educated lawyer
and Catholic convert who recruited Thomas Merton and John Howard
Griffin, the author of the seminal Black Like Me, to write for him.
Keating eventually hired Warren Hinckle to do publicity for the
magazine, and Hinckle soon stepped up as editor and moved the
periodical to San Francisco. With his eye patch, large girth,
hard-drinking ways, as well as flair for attracting attention to his
projects, Hinckle transformed the magazine. Ramparts became a
well-produced, eye-catching glossy that said "Read Me" all over it
instead of "This-is-just-another-boring-radical-rant-on-newsprint."
Hinckle's smartest move was to hire Robert Scheer as a writer. Scheer
was then a struggling graduate student at Berkeley and Richardson
writes some amusing anecdotes of the scrapes he got into. (Including
the time he rode in his motorcycle across the Bay Bridge but forgot
to secure his master's thesis. It was his only copy and soon it was
scattered all over the freeway. Scheer never did get that degree.)
Scheer wrote many of the explosive stories detailing the cloak and
dagger work of the CIA.
I was really surprised to discover that Eldridge Cleaver rose to
prominence because of his work at Ramparts. Keating printed some of
his prison writings and even helped Cleaver get out of jail. After
working for Ramparts for a time, Cleaver joined the Black Panthers
and became internationally known.
Richardson's book is full of other tidbits. Hunter Thompson wrote for
the magazine, as did Howard Zinn, Norm Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and Tom
Hayden. Ralph Steadman provided illustrations. Jann Wenner worked at
the magazine and then left to form Rolling Stone. Adam Hochschild
worked there, too, and later founded Mother Jones. David Horowitz,
today considered a major neo-con, started out as a radical writer at Ramparts.
"What really distinguished Ramparts from other publications was its
ability to compel bigger news organizations, especially the New York
Times, to pick up its stories," Richardson told Andy Ross on his Ask
the Agent blog.
"All told, the Times covered about a half dozen Ramparts stories on
its front page: for example, when Ramparts revealed that the CIA was
secretly funding the National Student Association. And during the
late sixties and early seventies, Time magazine ran about ten stories
about Ramparts, mostly to disparage it. But all those stories did was
raise Rampartsâ™ profile, said Richardson."
All those strong personalities had strong egos, which invariably
clashed. First Keating, then Hinckle, and then Scheer got ousted. The
money started to trickle away. Ramparts reverted to newsprint, but
even then attracted strong writers such as Angela Davis, Seymour
Hersh, Alexander Cockburn, Jonathan Kozol and Kurt Vonnegut. Finally,
after other muckraking institutions, including CBS' 60 Minutes, came
on the scene, Ramparts started a steep decline and folded in 1975.
This is not a love letter to the left. Richardson raises some very
serious questions in the book about the activities of the Black
Panthers and local politicians. In 1974, Elaine Brown, the leader of
the Panthers, hired Betty Van Patter, an accountant, to help with the
organization's books. Van Patter apparently started to ask some hard
questions about the Panthers' money. She disappeared in December 1974
and her body was found on a beach a few weeks later.
Richardson discusses how misinformation about Van Patter was spread
and how many officials preferred to look the other way. In
particular, he singles out the reaction of Congresswoman Barbara Lee,
who wrote in her own book that Van Patter had a prison record (not
true) and disappeared with a large sum of money six weeks before
police found her body. (not true again) Lee suggests that the
accusation that the Black Panthers killed Van Patter to shut her up
is just anti-left propaganda. The unsolved murder is a sobering
reminder of the toll that period did take.
Richardson has planned a series of readings and talks that should be
a wonderful and thoughtful romp through the radical 1960s. He will be
speaking with Robert Scheer on Thursday September 24 at 7:30 pm at
Berkeley Arts & Letters; at Book Passage with Norman Solomon and
Reese Ehrlich at 7 pm on Friday Sept. 25, and at the Huntington-USC
Institute for the study of California and the West in Los Angeles on
Oct.6. His complete schedule is here. http://www.peterrichardson.blogspot.com/