How the Short, Unruly Life of 'Ramparts' Magazine Changed America:
An Interview with Peter Richardson
By Aaron Leonard
Peter Richardson is the author of American Prophet: The Life and Work
of Carey McWilliams. He is the editorial director at PoliPoint Press
and the interim chair of the California Studies Association, and
teaches courses on California culture at San Francisco State
University. He lives in Marin County, California.
His latest book is: A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life
of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (New Press).
What moved you to write this? Or more to the point why a book about
My last book was on Carey McWilliams who was a California author.
When I began interviewing people that knew McWilliams, and his work
at the Nation magazine, many of them said 'mostly I wrote for
Ramparts. This was a magazine I didn't really know anything about. It
had folded when I was 16 years old. I didn't think much about it at
the time, but then I attended a talk given by Gene Marine, who was a
staff writer for Ramparts. It was a talk on the history of KPFA, the
listener sponsored radio station, the first in the country based on
Berkeley. I thought, I know at least two books about the history of
KPFA but I don't know of any books about Ramparts. I asked the people
in the room afterwords, 'Do you know anything, can you recommend
anything...and nobody could think of a single book. All I wanted to
do was read that book, not write it. I then began to see it as an
opportunity for a project and I'm glad I did.
I've learned a ton and by doing that work I realized how much the
Rampart's story has to tell us today about the media ecology. Even
though the two moments are very different there are some real
interesting parallels between what Ramparts was trying to do and what
needs to be done now with respect to political coverage in this country.
You quote Ramparts editor Robert Scheer, describing living in San
Francisco at the time saying, "For those of us who cared about the
culture it was exhilarating." This seems to apply to the magazine,
the sense of exhilaration comes through in the book, a bringing to
life of what you write in the introduction, "Ramparts didn't just
grow out of this milieu, it helped create it." How did that manifest itself?
When I look at the work that they did on the antiwar movement, civil
rights movement, the Black power movement, these were all in the air
at the time and they didn't need Ramparts to exist, but Ramparts made
a very significant contribution to each of those movements and
others. Ramparts put them on the national map, it was something of a
Bay Area voice that people were hearing around the country.
Another Ramparts writer asked me when I interviewed him was 'who else
was going to do these stories, the Saturday Evening Post?' There
really wasn't a magazine in broad circulation that was doing these
big stories, some of them whistleblower stories, but always
challenging the culture.
Scheer told me, that during that time in San Francisco everybody was
into it. It wasn't just a small segment of writers and intellectuals.
I give examples in the book of people, of Rampart's staffers who are
hitchhiking or taking a bus around San Francisco and if they happened
to mention that they worked at Ramparts, or even if they were just
talking about something in the magazine, the bus driver might turn
around and say, 'hey I really liked the story on ....hippies, the
National Students Association or whatever it was.' There was a lot of
reenforcement as Scheer said, 'even the stockbrokers were into it.'
The magazine seems driven by some wildly brilliant characters; among
my favorites are Edward Keating, Warren Hinckle, Robert Scheer and
Dugald Stermer. Who were these folks and what did they bring to the magazine?
They were all quite different in their background and orientations
and passions even. I think each of them made an indispensable
contribution to the magazine. I don't think the magazine would have
been what it was without each of those contributions.
Starting with Keating, you get the resources but also this passionate
idealism that he and Helen Keating brought to bear on the magazine
and used to to create the magazine in the first place. So no
Keatings, no Ramparts.
The next thing is that Keating hired Hinckle, young, Catholic, but
more of a newsroom/city room guy. More interested in the big story,
somewhat sensationalistic. Part Damon Runyon, part Hunter Thompson.
Over the top, too much is never enough. A lot of showmanship. Hinckle
brings that element to it and really juices the magazine. Gives it a
more powerful look, bigger stories. And certainly raises the
magazine's profile both in the media and among investors. The
circulation starts to increase too.
Hinckle hires Scheer. Scheer brings these deeper ideological
commitments. A first-hand knowledge of what's going on in South East
Asia. He's the only real radical in the group. Keating and Hinckle
are rebels but there not really radical and I think they temper
Scheer's radicalism for the better -- in terms of creating a
successful magazine. Left to his own devices Scheer might have done a
magazine that looked a little bit more like they way the magazine
ended up under [David] Horowitz and [Peter] Collier. A little
narrower, a little less anarchic, a little less imaginative maybe,
not that Bob lacked imagination but, one really critical component
was the visual imagination of the magazine.
That was the contribution of Dugald Stermer, I think Bob would say
that, he'd be the first to say it. Those four were "the band." They
all brought something to it and they rocked it pretty good for a
three years or so.
Then you get Eldridge Cleaver at the end of 1966. Keating helps
engineer his release from prison and gives him a job, as a condition
of his parole. Cleaver adds another layer.
Then you get Horowitz and Collier.
There were a lot of different characters, everyone adds something
I think the chemistry between what Jessica Mitford [of Rampart's
editorial board] called Hink/Scheer -- that was her shorthand for the
magazine at its peak -- is really what people remember about the
You say that Ramparts fell somewhere between "electoral politics" and
"direct action" What does that mean?
Certainly they believed in electoral politics and its importance
early on. The best evidence of that is that three of them ran for
office. Bob Scheer ran in the Democratic primary for Congress in the
East Bay challenging the Democratic incumbent. He gave him a very
good run for his money. He got 45% of the vote in the Democratic
primary. That was shocking, this was a good liberal from a labor
background, very connected. It looked like he should have been
invincible, but Scheer challenged him because he wasn't opposed to
the war and he wasn't doing enough about the racism and poverty in
his own district. Scheer ran against him and got 45% of the vote.
Ed Keating also ran in Palo Alto twice and Stanley Sheinbaum who was
associated with the magazine ran in Santa Barbara twice, in 1966 and
1968. So they were using the magazine to launch these broader
political efforts. They wanted to move the Democratic party.
Later a lot of New Left activists became frustrated with that. They
saw that they weren't getting anywhere with the issue that they cared
the most about, which was the war. That's when you start getting
disruptions at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Just a
lot of built up frustration that they couldn't influence things. They
didn't feel they could overcome Cold War liberalism so they began to
go after liberals as well as conservatives, and it seemed as though
they almost preferred to attack liberals at various times. To oppose
the war meant that you had to oppose Democrats.
A quick story I have in the book, which illustrates what they were up
against. They went to Chicago and printed the Ramparts wall poster,
with street news on the back and Convention news on the front, just
one single sheet. The guy managing that, Fred Gardner, went over to
meet Hinkle at the Ambassador Hotel, Hinckle had installed himself
and some other people in this plush hotel, even though they were
totally out of money. Gardner was walking into the Ambassador Hotel
and a chocolate brown Rolls Royce pulled up, a guy steps out in a
chocolate brown suit and spats and its Colonel Sanders [of Kentucky
Fried Chicken fame]. Fred didn't even know there was a Col. Sanders,
he thought it was a corporate logo -- and he thought 'maybe that
speed I bought was actually LSD, maybe I'm having my first bad
trip...' He's watching Col. Sanders, who was a member of the Kentucky
delegation, he's watching him hand out dimes to the shoeshine guys
out in front of the hotel. The story's funny just on its own because
its so wacky, but it is also instructive of what they were up
against. Consider a Democratic Party where Col. Sanders is one of the
decision makers -- that's who you are trying to bring over to oppose
the war. Which is explicitly what Fred and a lot of Ramparts people
were trying to do.
For a lot of the more radical, many of whom contributed to the
magazine, they never believed in electoral politics, it was more
about big movements and street actions--that's what I meant by direct
action, more People's Park type stuff. Ramparts was straddling both
I found it chilling when you quote Edgar Applewhite, an ex-CIA agent
talking about efforts to undermine and even destroy the magazine,
saying, "We had awful things in mind, some of which we carried off."
Can you talk about some of the repercussions Ramparts faced for its journalism?
One of course was the CIA surveillance which was unlawful. The CIA is
not supposed to spy on U.S. citizens living in the United States.
They did have, maybe, some legitimate cause to investigate if they
suspected foreign investors were behind the magazine. They quickly
discovered there were no such investors, but they continued to
investigate anyway. That meant that they needed a coverup, which they
put into place.
It all started when Ramparts did a story on a collaboration between
the CIA and Michigan State University and the work they were doing in
South Vietnam training Vietnamese police, including
interrogations--harsh interrogations as we say now. Scheer discovered
these documents in the Berkeley campus library. And he approached
Stanley Scheinbaum [a former MSU professor] who had been co-director
of this program. And he did this piece which alarmed the CIA. That
began a long investigation of the magazine and its associates. That
meant IRS audits for Keating every year. That meant wiretaps in their
homes and in the office as well.
Later when Bill Turner, a former FBI agent joined the magazine,
staffers asked, 'do you think our phones are tapped.' Turner said,
'Absolutely, that's your tax dollars at work. If we're not tapping
your phones were not doing our job.'
This was the FBI, not the CIA, but one thing that happened that
illustrates this point. Turner went to a Ramparts party and he met
Bob Treuhaft, Jessica Mitford's husband, and said 'I know you.' And
Jeff said, 'No I don't believe we ever met.' To which Turner said,
'No no, I'm pretty sure.' Then Turner put it together that he had
been tapping Treuhaft and Mitford's phone for years when he was in
the FBI. He knew his voice, though they had never actually met.
The surveillance was real. Applewhite never disclosed what they did
or didn't do to Ramparts. There was, however, this one line when he
reported his plans to his boss, Desmond FitzGerald [his boss at the
CIA], FitzGerald said, 'Eddy, you have a spot of blood on your
pinafore.' I think it is an incredible line, it suggests they were
relishing the fact that things were getting a little rough.
The metaphor is very extreme, it suggests things beyond just tapping phones...
Right. We're drawing blood now....it's telling I think. I don't know
the specifics of their plan. Certainly the CIA was watching Ramparts
very carefully. They were shoveling intelligence to the White House
and Bill Moyers [then LBJ's press secretary]. Some of this is on the
CIA website right now, heavily redacted. Of course when all this was
revealed -- and it was revealed by a Ramparts contributor, Sy Hirsch,
who was then reporting for the New York Times -- it began what we now
have, CIA Congressional oversight. It ended up being a very
consequential development in the history of the CIA.
Ramparts was aware of the surveillance. They were running across the
street to make phone calls. They had all these little top secret
routines for storing stories and information. It was also one of the
reasons why they never smoked pot in the office. Even though people
were doing that at places like the Village Voice all the time. They
knew they were being surveilled.
When Jann Wenner, a Rampart staffer, smoked a joint in the office,
Sol Stern, the assistant managing editor, kicked him out, 'you can't
do that here.' It wasn't shock or disapproval, it was based on the
fact that they could not afford to have a drug bust here. They knew
they were already in the cross hairs.
I was struck by how essential design was to the magazine. In talking
about Rampart's art director Dugald Stermer you say, "the best design
is never noticed." You then make the rather counter intuitive
observation -- though it really shouldn't be -- that, "He also hired
illustrators and photographers who read books. This he believed added
an extra dimension to their work." How was Ramparts different
artistically from other magazines of its day?
They didn't have any preconceptions of what the magazine should look
like. Dugal didn't have any background in magazine publishing, much
less left publishing. He made some decisions, he drew on local styles
like those of the San Francisco printers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn.
He established a bookish design, and set it out to look very
credible. He set all the type in Times Roman, including the captions
and the title of the magazine -- as a kind of a style. What he
believed is that it gave the magazine a kind of frame and that the
other elements would pop a little bit better if it had this type of
stable, credible frame. It did. The pictures and illustrations really
jumped off the page.
There was a lot of irreverence as well. When they do the story on MSU
and the CIA they have an illustration on the cover of Madame Nhu in
an MSU cheerleader costume. That's not the way most magazines would
have handled that story. It added something to it. It expressed a
certain amount of irreverence even as they were exposing a very
serious and even lethal operation.
There was also a kind of whimsy and irreverence as well. They
commissioned Norman Rockwell to do a cover illustration of Bertrand
Russell -- who was a ferocious critic of US foreign policy at the
time. So they have this all-American illustrator doing a portrait of
a ferocious critic of the US. That's shrewd. It also shows how they
could get people to participate. They were really riding high at the time.
The single most important story that they did, and I think this was
part of their, this was largely their matter of design. It was the
story called "The Children of Vietnam."
Martin Luther King when he was flipping through the magazine at an
airport, came upon that photo essay. It showed the effects of US
bombing on children, and showed the photographs, On seeing this
King said, "I'm coming out against this war." He announced it to his
friend right there at lunch, pushed his food away, and said 'that's
it.' A lot of his advisers said don't get into foreign policy, just
keep it on civil rights and he said, "No. I have to speak out against
it.' Which he did in New York's Riverside Church, exactly one year to
the day before his assassination. He gave the text of that speech to
Ramparts as an exclusive. It's not very often in publishing that you
can trace that kind of direct line from a particular piece and the
way it was presented and a very important leader saying, 'That's it.'
This current media revolution we are so deeply in the midst of -- how
does it compare, in the sense of breaking new ground, to what
Ramparts was doing back then?
The media ecology was changing very rapidly even when Ramparts was
publishing. Some of those changes made it harder for Ramparts to
survive. One thing that happened was that their success, at least in
the circulation department, encouraged competitors. So you start
getting CBS News -- the year after Ramparts wins the Polk Award in
1967 for excellence in magazine news reporting specifically for
reviving the muckraking tradition--the following year CBS News
launches 60 Minutes. The year after that the NY Times publishes the
Pentagon Papers, a couple years after that the Washington Post
publishes the Watergate stories. Of course you can't prove something
like this but it is possible that Ramparts and its impact created
room for that sort of thing. It forced or pushed these larger news
organizations into picking up their game, especially once they saw
that their was an appetite for it.
That success spawned a lot of imitators some of who grew directly out
of Ramparts; like Rolling Stone, like Mother Jones but also all kinds
of other publications which were essentially competing for the same
readers. Ramparts niche in the media ecology was shrinking, which is
one of the reasons it declined and eventually folded in the mid 1970s.
What we have now is that there is a perceived need for something
besides the big mainstream news organizations which have missed some
very big stories. Most of the big credible news organizations in this
country totally missed the story of the run up to the invasion of
Iraq, many have admitted it. There were plenty of people who were
calling out the weaknesses in the administration's case. They weren't
getting the access to the OpEd page to the New York Times in probably
the way that they should have. They were getting plenty of access on
the internet. That's when you get blogs like Daily Kos, it comes out
of nowhere, very much like Ramparts from Berkeley, guys in their 20s,
some women two, who were very young. All of a sudden they have 2 or 3
million visitors a month to the website. They start targeting pro-war
incumbent Democrats as well as Republicans. So there are some real
As the newspapers begin to shrink and fall, the question is who's
going to take their place, who's going to do this investigative
reporting. I don't know the ultimate answer to that but I can tell
you that I went to Netroots Nation [the blogging convention] this
year and they offered a couple practicums on muckraking to all these
bloggers and those rooms were full. They were getting very practical
information on how to do investigative reporting, how to do public
records searching, online searching, how to piece together a
paper-trail--some of which was done right before our eyes on a
laptop. It was quite amazing. There are people who want to do this
work. I have a feeling they are going to find outlets for doing it.
Mr. Leonard is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to
hnn.us. He also writes a weekly column for New York University's
"Washington Square News." His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net .
"A Bomb in Every Issue:
How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America"
Published 13 Oct 2009
Listen to this segment
"A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts
Magazine Changed America"" is the provocative title of a new book
that follows the history of the even more provocative Ramparts
magazine. Gaining notoriety during the height of the movement against
the war in Vietnam, the underground magazine was a journalistic arm
of the New Left. Written by Peter Richardson, the "A Bomb in Every
Issue," covers Ramparts' inception as a Catholic quarterly in 1962 to
its transformation into a radical voice of the late 60's. By then,
contributors included Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis and Susan Sontag.
Ramparts also ruffled journalistic feathers by publishing the diaries
of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. In the book, Richardson conveys the
importance of the San Francisco Bay Area based underground magazine
as it helped further the journalistic prowess of writers such as
Robert Scheer and Warren Hinckle. Ramparts' story on the use of
napalm in Vietnam is said to have influenced the decision of Martin
Luther King Jr. to speak out against the war. Before folding in 1975,
the magazine garnered the George Polk award for its muckraking work.
Douglas Brinkley has said of Richardson's work in "A Bomb in Every
Issue," that it is "an excellent history that shouldn't be ignored."
GUEST: Peter Richardson, author of "A Bomb in Every Issue: How the
Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America"