Radical Muckraking, Black Power and the End of the Sixties
By Karl Whitney.
Peter Richardson, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, The New Press, 2009
Ramparts magazine, which became a standard-bearer for the New Left in America in the 1960s, started out as a Catholic quarterly whose aim was, ‘to host serious discussions between Catholic clergy and laity’. It went from this to, later on, publishing excerpts from editorial board-member Eldridge Cleaver’s novella The Black Moochie:
Mrs. Brick was my teacher and she looked like Betty Grable. All the cats were in love with her. We’d rub up against her and try to peep under her dress. We’d dream about her at night. She had a fine ass and big tits. She dressed sexy. I used to get a hard-on just looking at her. She knew that I wanted to fuck her, to suck her tits.
One wonders if the Catholic clergy were still subscribers at this point. Clearly the journey from upright Christian quarterly to downright radical journal was, in true sixties fashion, quite a trip. And Peter Richardson tells it well, in a forensic narrative voice that preserves clarity and occasionally lets those involved with the San Francisco Bay Area-based magazine take the reins of the story to tell it in their own words. Nevertheless, this history of the magazine isn’t afraid to challenge the more problematic aspects of the 1960s and take them to task: the guns, the sexism, the murder.
All of which Ramparts was involved in to some degree; in that way, the trajectory of Ramparts magazine reflects the trajectory of the decade: from idealism to disillusion to nihilism; and, in the 1970s and beyond, to a knee-jerk repudiation of past beliefs.
Nobody embodies this trajectory more so than David Horowitz, a young writer and graduate student who in 1962 had published an account of Bay Area student activism that had reportedly inspired Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement, to move to Berkeley.
Today Horowitz is better known as a neoconservative activist responsible for the book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America – a list which included a number of former contributors to Ramparts, including Tom Hayden and Kathleen Cleaver (wife of Eldridge).
Horowitz, who became editor of the magazine in its later years, was, in fact, an enthusiastic associate of the Black Panther Party, whose close relationship with the magazine had been established through Eldridge Cleaver. Horowitz was thrilled by this association, writing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton that ‘having Huey’s ear made me feel politically powerful in a new way’. During this period, Horowitz also helped to raise money for the Black Panthers.
While Newton was imprisoned for shooting a teenage prostitute, another member of the Panthers, Elaine Brown, became leader. Brown – who had earlier threatened to kill Horowitz – asked the Ramparts editor to recommend a bookkeeper, as the Party’s finances were in disarray. Horowitz recommended Betty Van Patter, who had previously worked for him. In December 1974, Van Patter was reported missing; a month later, her body was found in San Francisco Bay, her skull smashed with a blunt object.
Horowitz was disgusted by the murder, and by the unwillingness of his friends on the left to admit that the Panthers had been responsible. Even Van Patter’s daughter was unable to acknowledge such a possibility. Horowitz would repeatedly cite this incident as the origin of his dramatic lurch to the right. The case remains unsolved.
(Interestingly, a staff member during this time was Brit Hume, later to become a senior political analyst on Fox News. Recently, he made headlines by suggesting that Tiger Woods should turn to Christianity and away from Buddhism in order to ‘make a total recovery and be a great example to the world’.)
Nevertheless, Horowitz’s ideological leap is only one fascinating strand of Richardson’s slim but extremely valuable volume. Ramparts was central to the evolution of what became known as New Journalism, and Richardson deftly captures the manic gonzoid energy of the characters behind the scenes who made the magazine an asylum for the kind of radical, highly subjective, journalism made famous by adherents such as Hunter S. Thompson, who was listed on the masthead of the magazine as a contributing editor after his move to Aspen.
Warren Hinckle, who became executive editor of Ramparts when it was still a Catholic quarterly, was perhaps the most colourful figure in the magazine’s offices. He wore ‘white linen, velvet or three-piece suits and patent-leather dancing pumps’. His dandyish getup was supplemented with a black eye patch, worn as a result of a childhood car accident.
When he was recruited in the early 1960s, Hinckle had already carved out something of a reputation for himself as a muckraking journalist on the San Francisco Chronicle. His predilection for the investigative style was to colour the magazine’s reporting during its golden period. His prodigious spending would repeatedly nudge Ramparts into the red. When in New York on business, Hinckle worked out of the exclusive Algonquin Hotel, and during 1968’s riot-scarred Democratic National Convention he and his staff stayed at Chicago’s Ambassador Hotel. ‘There we were, all staying at the Ambassador Hotel […] while the movement kids were getting their skulls cracked’, he later told Time magazine, partly, no doubt, for effect.
Gonzo and spendthrift it may have been, but Ramparts also found a mass audience. By March 1967, circulation stood at 229,000, and it eventually reached around 300,000. The countercultural magazine was now encroaching on the mainstream, and at least one bastion of American journalism was displeased. An amusing thread in Richardson’s book is his tracing of Time magazine’s strange obsession with its radical counterpart: to a Time journalist writing shortly after Ramparts’ exposé of the National Student Association’s connections with the CIA, the magazine was ‘the sensation-seeking New Left-leaning monthly’ that hyped up the story.
After Ramparts ran a photo-essay in January 1967 about the effects of the Vietnam War on the civilian population of the country, Time alleged that the magazine had attempted to portray ‘flimflam as fact’, and that the story was ‘a mere juggling of highly dubious statistics and a collection of very touching pictures, some of which could have been taken in any distressed country.’ The Ramparts story directly influenced Dr Martin Luther King to come out forcefully against the war, which underlines the magazine’s importance at the time.
Ramparts has had an enduring influence on the shape of magazine journalism in America, seen most notably in the links between it and its direct offspring, the magazines Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. Rolling Stone’s founding editor Jann Wenner had worked on an offshoot of the main magazine, Sunday Ramparts, from which he directly took the design of his new publication. Mother Jones, founded by a number of Ramparts alumni, carried on the muckraking tradition of the old magazine. Ramparts itself folded in 1975
Near the end of his book, the author seeks out the characters of his narrative: Hinckle, he finds propping up a bar at a book fair, offering the opinion that Ramparts was successful simply because ‘the rest of the press was so shitty.’ Horowitz is more expansive, giving the magazine credit for teaching ‘the lefties how to write’. On the other hand, Horowitz now believes that the whole media has taken on the characteristics of Ramparts: ‘The Ramparts culture is now the literary culture’, he tells Richardson, noting that he is now locked out of that community.
A Bomb in Every Issue tells a compelling story, and Richardson is blessed with a roster of colourful and – in the case of Horowitz – heavily conflicted, characters. In locating the magazine at the centre of America’s social and political tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the author has produced an entertaining chronicle of exciting, uneasy times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He writes for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 23rd, 2010.