Dec 12, 2013
A Bomb in Every Issue
Posted on Aug 21, 2009
Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a chapter of “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” by Peter Richardson.
The Havoc of War: How Ramparts Magazine Challenged American Culture
Revered mostly by media aficionados and older activists today, Ramparts magazine (1962-75) was once America’s premier forum for investigative journalism. Founded by Edward Keating, it began as a Catholic literary magazine based in Menlo Park, California. But soon after Warren Hinckle became its editor, he hired Dugald Stermer as art director and recruited Robert Scheer to write about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. During Hinckle’s tenure, Ramparts moved to San Francisco, developed a cutting-edge design, published a series of hard-hitting exposés, and boosted circulation to almost 250,000. A Time magazine headline in January 1967—“A Bomb in Every Issue”—described its impact.
By that time, Ramparts was riding high, but the sailing was far from smooth. The magazine had attracted powerful enemies, including the CIA, which began investigating Ramparts after it ran an April 1966 story on the agency’s covert activities in Vietnam. By the end of that year, Keating had engineered Eldridge Cleaver’s release from San Quentin state prison and hired him at the magazine. Three months later, Cleaver witnessed an armed showdown between Huey Newton and the San Francisco police outside the magazine’s office. Shortly after that, Keating departed following a messy and well-publicized fight over control of the magazine.
A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America
By Peter Richardson
New Press, 272 pages
What followed these fractious events proved to be a critical period in Ramparts’ short life. Over the next year, Scheer would debate the magazine’s critics on national television; a Ramparts photo-essay would profoundly influence Dr. Martin Luther King’s position on the Vietnam War; Hinckle would fascinate some readers and enrage others with his coverage of San Francisco’s flower children before the Summer of Love; and Ramparts would earn the prestigious Polk Award for excellence in magazine reporting. This essay, adapted from a longer study, considers that fateful time in the magazine’s history and maps its extraordinary effect on American politics and media.
In June 1967, Scheer appeared on Firing Line, a television program that featured debates with conservative host William F. Buckley. The episode’s title (“Is Ramparts Magazine Un-American?”) indicated that Buckley was leaving little to chance.
Buckley’s interest in Ramparts was three-fold. Like Keating, he was the founding publisher of a political magazine and was constantly battling the economic realities of that enterprise. Even a half-century after its creation, with a circulation of almost 155,000 and a generation of conservative national leadership to support it, National Review was operating at a substantial deficit.
Another source of Buckley’s interest in Ramparts was his Catholicism. His undergraduate experience at Yale had introduced him to the “nonchalant and cheeky secularism” that he targeted in his first book, God and Man at Yale. Buckley may have supported Keating’s original urge to sponsor a Catholic literary quarterly, but he had every reason to deplore its transformation into a nonchalant, very cheeky, increasingly secular, and unabashedly left-wing publication under Hinckle and Scheer.
A third reason for Buckley’s interest in Ramparts was his affiliation with the CIA. Four years before he founded his magazine, Buckley was recruited into the agency. After training in Washington DC, he served in Mexico City as a deep cover agent. His supervisor was E. Howard Hunt, who gained more fame than a former CIA agent should when he was apprehended for the Watergate burglary in the 1970s. Buckley’s CIA service was apparently short-lived; he lived in Mexico for less than year. In a 2005 National Review editorial, he referred to his government service:
If subverting the Mexican government was amusing a half-century later, Buckley was less diverted by Scheer’s exposé of the CIA’s activities in Vietnam while the conflict there was raging.
To prepare Scheer for the Firing Line taping, staff writer Bob Avakian assembled a packet of research material on Buckley and the show. Staffers also told Scheer that Buckley frequently interrupted his guests. They advised him not to tolerate that but rather to take the offensive, which Scheer proceeded to do. The result was an intellectual food fight at a time when such spectacles were rare on broadcast television.
The sharp words began with Buckley’s backhanded introduction of Scheer, who emerged at Ramparts after the “liquidation” of its founder. Scheer had visited Asia several times, Buckley continued, “in his passion to find the United States responsible for all that goes wrong there.” When his turn to speak came around, Scheer complimented Buckley’s reading of his cue cards and then suggested a hypothetical and equally unfair introduction in which Buckley would be described as supporting white supremacist governments in Africa. “I think I see why you don’t have your own show,” Buckley quipped.
Most of the exchange centered on a story Scheer had written about British philosopher Bertrand Russell in May 1967. For that issue’s cover, Stermer commissioned Norman Rockwell to draw Russell’s portrait. Given Rockwell’s reputation for all-American pictures, the cover was an ironic comment on Russell’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy.
In an attempt to summarize his differences with Scheer, Buckley offered the following:
Scheer refused to bite. If he accepted Buckley’s invitation to endorse Russell’s criticisms, Buckley would dub that position anti-American, then un-American, and then pin that label on Ramparts and its staff. The House Committee on Un-American Activities had ruined many lives and careers in the 1950s with similar tactics. HUAC was still active, but Berkeley activist Jerry Rubin had dramatized its waning authority when, describing himself as an American revolutionary, he appeared before the committee in full colonial garb.
The debate between Buckley and Scheer then took an even more personal turn. Buckley mocked Scheer’s writing style, and Scheer made a crack about the faces Buckley made while speaking. As the program drew to a close, Scheer raised the moderator’s hackles when he compared Buckley to a Stalinist or Maoist with an $11-million inheritance. “Mr. Chairman, don’t get upset,” Buckley told the moderator. “This is his syndrome.”
Buckley closed as follows: “Here is a man who when he ran for election used as a campaign manager a Communist whose magazine defends a lot of positions that are uniquely defended by Communists. I don’t think he understands the consequences of it.” Scheer replied:
The two spent most of the hour jousting rather than clarifying the underlying issues, which were matters of life and death for thousands of Vietnamese and Americans. When they touched on the original question, Scheer resisted but didn’t refute Buckley’s charge that Ramparts was un-American.
In fact, Buckley and the editors at Time weren’t the only ones who considered the Ramparts crew unpatriotic. While relaxing at Elaine’s in New York City, staff writer Peter Collier and Hinckle were approached by Willie Morris, the Mississippi native who became Harper’s youngest editor in 1967. “The trouble with you all,” Morris said, “is you didn’t love America.” Collier was struck by Morris’s use of the past tense. Even if America had become unlovable (or, in Buckley’s argot, unlovely), Morris implied that the Ramparts critique was diluted if they had never loved America.
Scheer saw it otherwise. For him, the main point of Ramparts was to apply what he had learned at City College about the American system, including the First Amendment, limited government, and checks and balances. “We weren’t defending any ground,” Scheer later said. “We weren’t leading a movement. That was extremely liberating.” As for foreign policy, Scheer’s main point was that other countries, including Cuba and Vietnam, should be allowed to make their own histories without interference from the United States. In the context of the Cold War, that position was widely regarded as pro-communist, but it outlasted that conflict and eventually extended to nations like Iran, where, Scheer later wrote, U.S. mischief beginning in the 1950s had produced “a sorry history.”
Although the Firing Line episode produced more heat than light, it showed that Scheer was becoming the magazine’s face to the world. He was also recruiting more staff from his Berkeley circle. One such recruit was Peter Collier, a graduate student in English who dropped his dissertation on Jane Austen and joined the Free Speech Movement. The product of a Southern California suburb, Collier thought of Berkeley in the early 1960s as a vibrant, bohemian intellectual center. It was “an amazing time—Wordsworthian,” he recalled, alluding to that poet’s famous lyric on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
After working on Scheer’s campaign, Collier joined the staff at Ramparts, where his writing and editing skills were rewarded. He was skeptical of Hinckle, whom he later described as a “dime-store Citizen Hearst,” but he appreciated Hinckle’s fundamental insight that the New Left had broader appeal than the mainstream media suspected. During this time, Collier’s three-year-old son became fascinated by Hinckle’s eye patch and began referring to him as “that pirate guy.” Collier later remarked that his son was closer to the truth than he could have known.
Collier’s position at the magazine made him an eyewitness to some of its signature moments. One involved Hunter S. Thompson, whose first bestseller, Hell’s Angels, Collier had reviewed upon its publication in 1967. Thompson was living on Parnassus Avenue in the Haight when Collier brought him by the office for lunch with Hinckle. At the time, Hinckle was keeping a capuchin monkey there. He bought it for his daughter, but the family dog had gone after the monkey, which then bit Denise. Renaming the monkey Henry Luce after the founder of Time magazine, Hinckle decided to quarter him in the office. When he wasn’t in his cage, Henry Luce frequently ran along the tops of the office dividers, screeching loudly. But after the office was burglarized overnight, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Henry Luce was the only witness, and he wasn’t talking.
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