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Book Excerpt: A Bomb in Every Issue

Hunter S. Thompson, a pill-popping monkey, Black Panthers, and CIA dirty tricks: Scenes from the short, crazy life of Ramparts, the muckraking magazine that paved the way for Mother Jones.

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 2:43 PM EDT

In his absorbing new book, A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (The New Press), Peter Richardson chronicles the rise and fall of Ramparts, the groundbreaking muckraking magazine of the 1960s and early 1970s. In its heyday, Ramparts was one of the nation's most influential—and controversial—magazines, known for its unique mix of leftist politics, exclusive reporting, and original design.

"Ramparts changed national media and politics, not only with its stories on civil rights, Vietnam, Black Power, and the CIA, but also by demonstrating that mainstream media techniques could be used to advance leftist politics," writes Richardson. "That precedent would fuel progressive journalism for a generation." Its influence lives on in publications such as Mother Jones, which was founded by three former Ramparts editors and has published reporting by many writers who cut their teeth in its pages. Below, a few excerpts from Richardson's book, featuring cameo appearances by several journalists who will be familiar to our readers.

 

• • •

In May 1962, a magazine was born. Published in suburban Menlo Park, California, it described itself as "a forum for the mature American Catholic" focusing on "those positive principles of Hellenic-Christian tradition which have shaped and sustained our civilization for the past two thousand years." Its first issues debated the moral shortcomings of J.D. Salinger and Tennessee Williams. According to one designer, it looked like the poetry annual of a Midwestern girls school.

By 1968, the magazine had moved to the bohemian North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, added generous doses of sex and humor, adopted a cutting-edge design, forged links to the Black Panther Party, exposed illegal CIA activities in America and Vietnam, published the diaries of Che Guevara and staff writer Eldridge Cleaver, and boosted its monthly circulation to almost 250,000. A Time magazine headline from that period—"A Bomb in Every Issue"—described its impact. Seven years later, it was out of business for good.

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At its peak, Ramparts was both a platform and a seedbed for a generation of reporters, activists, and social critics. It contributors included Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, Susan Sontag, William Greider, Jonathan Kozol, and a young Christopher Hitchens, who wrote for Ramparts under a pseudonym, Matthew Blaire. More surprising, perhaps, was the magazine's Washington DC contributing editor—Brit Hume, now a Fox News host and anchor. Two Ramparts writers left to create Rolling Stone, and three editors decamped to found Mother Jones.

Ramparts wasn't The Nation, Harper's, or the Atlantic, whose histories stretch back to the days of Mark Twain and Henry James. At its flashpoint, Ramparts was something else altogether: the journalistic equivalent of a rock band, a mercurial confluence of raw talent, youthful energy, and showmanship. Its sheer incandescence blew minds, launched solo careers, and spawned imitators. It was born, lived, bred, and died. Because it was mortal, not monumental, genealogy may be more important than longevity in understanding its significance. If so, Ramparts should be judged not only by what it published, but also by the subsequent work it made possible. By this measure, it accomplished a great deal.

Because Ramparts folded in 1975, much of its influence must now be sought elsewhere: in scholarly histories of the CIA, in the nation's unending fascination with the Black Panthers, in the continuing success of Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, in the energetic repudiations of the New Left by some former staffers such as David Horowitz, and in the netroots and media reform movements of today. Although Ramparts published its last issue more than three decades years ago, its story is far from over.

 

• • •

By the mid-'60s, Ramparts had shed its early identity as a Catholic periodical and become an investigative and cultural magazine. In 1964, a young San Francisco journalist named Warren Hinckle became its executive editor. An eye-patch-wearing bon vivant with a showman's touch, Hinckle injected a new feistiness—and occasionally, chaos—into the once-staid magazine.

The big question in the office was whether or not Hinckle would appear that day. When he did, the energy level rose dramatically. But even when he was in town, Hinckle usually worked out of Cookie Picetti's, a North Beach bar located near the old Hall of Justice. It was a favorite spot for police officers and other law enforcement types, and some of Hinckle's left-wing colleagues were uneasy about drinking there. Hinckle typically silenced their protests by challenging them to name a decent left-wing bar. Managing editor Robert Scheer also objected to Hinckle's favorite spots, both in San Francisco and on the road, but not on ideological grounds; his main complaint was that there weren't enough women there.

The staff learned to function without Hinckle in the office, but occasionally a junior member was dispatched to find him. On his first day as a part-time office assistant, Reese Erlich was told to summon Hinckle to check final galleys. He found Hinckle lunching with advertising executive Howard Gossage at Enrico's, a North Beach bistro a few blocks away. When Erlich delivered his message, Hinckle replied, "Fuck you, kid." Erlich, who was awaiting trial for his antiwar protests in the East Bay, was unfazed; the Oakland police had been far scarier. "May I quote you on that?" he asked. When Hinckle assented, Erlich cheerfully shot back, "Fuck you, too." He was promoted shortly thereafter.

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