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.
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.
Hinckle’s style was nothing if not kinetic. Staff writer Adam Hochschild recalled it this way:
He raced through each 18-hour day with dizzying speed. All action at the magazine swirled around him: a pet monkey named Henry Luce would sit on his shoulder while he paced his office, drink in hand, shouting instructions into a speakerphone across the room to someone in New York about a vast promotional mailing; on his couch would be sitting, slightly dazed, a French television crew, or Malcolm X’s widow (who arrived one day surrounded by a dozen bodyguards with loaded shotguns), or the private detective to whom Hinckle had given the title Criminology Editor. Then would follow an afternoon-long lunch where Hinckle would consume a dozen Scotches without showing the slightest effect and sketch dummies of the next issue’s pages on the restaurant’s placemats. Finally he’d be off on the night plane to see new backers in the East.
In New York, the maelstrom continued. James Ridgeway’s 1969 profile of Hinckle in the New York Times Magazine described his fantastical performances at the Algonquin Hotel.
In the dining room Hinckle would be recounting his scheme for a publishing empire, expanding Ramparts, starting one, two, or three radio and television stations, starting an author’s agency, setting up teams of reporters who would get the goods on LBJ, NATO, the Pope, etc. Ramparts would publish books, set up book clubs, start a syndicate… If one dared to ask where the money was really going to come from, Hinckle would fall back into his chair and suck on a grasshopper while Scheer lunged forward. “What’s the matter?” he’d say, “Got no guts?”
Hinckle’s effect on his colleagues, especially younger ones, was dazzling. “Hinckle was amazing,” said Michael Ansara, a Harvard Students for a Democratic Society leader and Ramparts researcher. “As an undergraduate, I’d visit him at the Algonquin. He’d start talking in the shower, continue the conversation while putting on his tuxedo, and then we’d be off for oysters with Abby Rockefeller.” The company Hinckle kept was part of the glamour. “I once had dinner with him and Oriana Fallaci,” Ansara said. “I was about eighteen years old. I’d never seen a woman like her, much less had dinner with her. He was the most cosmopolitan, flamboyant, creative guy I’d ever seen.”
• • •
Ramparts reported stories that the mainstream press would not touch. In April 1966, Robert Scheer revealed that the CIA had secretly used Michigan State University to train South Vietnamese police and write the country’s constitution. The expose led the agency to order a “rundown” on Ramparts. It eventually investigated 127 writers and researchers and 200 other Americans connected to the magazine.
As Ramparts dug into the less savory aspects of America’s most powerful institutions, the staff suspected that the government was watching them. One of their colleagues, William Turner, confirmed that suspicion. Raised Catholic in Buffalo, Turner had joined the FBI, received training in wiretapping and burglary, and listened in on telephone conversations in the Bay Area. But he had run afoul of J. Edgar Hoover after objecting to the FBI director’s characterization of Martin Luther King as “the most notorious liar in the country.” Turner left the FBI after ten years of service, settled in Marin County, and wrote a piece about the bureau’s failure to obtain convictions on civil rights violations in the south. After his Ramparts articles appeared, Hoover wrote about him in an internal memo, “It’s a shame we can’t nail this jackal.”
Turner assured his Ramparts colleagues that the government was watching them. “Wiretaps are your tax dollars at work,” he told art director Dugald Stermer. “If your phone isn’t bugged, we’re not doing our job.”
There were other indications, too, that the magazine’s adversaries were trying to undermine its efforts. Stermer was audited in two consecutive years, and when Turner arrived at the office the morning after Easter 1967, he found shattered windows, fire extinguisher goo covering the furniture, and an IBM Selectric typewriter lying askew in the toilet. Turner suspected that the CIA had ransacked the office but saw no signs of forced entry. Years later, Hinckle telephoned Turner from Cookie Picetti’s; a former law enforcement officer and GOP official had just confessed to him about burglarizing the Ramparts office in 1967. Hinckle asked Turner to question his new acquaintance about his burglary story. “But he couldn’t have done it,” Hinckle added, “because Gene Marine and I did it.” Hinckle and Marine, a staff writer, had trashed the office after a drinking session at Tosca, another North Beach bar. But the burglar claimed that his caper had occurred two nights earlier, and he convinced Hinckle by producing the editor’s bar receipts from Cookie Picetti’s along with some Ramparts files. He told Turner that right-wing organizations had sponsored the burglaries, and that the findings were shared with CIA agents.
Photo courtesy of Guy and Gregory Stilson
Eldridge Cleaver was hired as a staff writer in 1966, and his writing for the magazine formed the basis for Soul on Ice. Cleaver joined the Black Panthers while at Ramparts. In one legendary incident, he invited Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, and her Panther bodyguards to the magazine’s offices.
Cleaver heard a secretary’s terrified announcement that 20 armed men were invading the office. “Don’t worry,” he told her, “they’re friends.” Huey Newton and a detachment of Black Panthers were providing security for Betty Shabazz. After wading through the office’s hallways, which were clogged with curious staffers, Cleaver stepped onto the sidewalk and noticed that traffic was stopped, spectators were gathered, and police cars were approaching with sirens blaring.
Cleaver brought Shabazz back to his office and conducted a short interview. Meanwhile, Newton stood at the window with his shotgun, observing the scene on the street. By that time, a police captain and drinking buddy of Hinckle’s had arrived. “We seem to have a tense situation,” the captain told Hinckle. “What are we going to do?” Hinckle suggested that they urge everyone to relax and adjourn to Andre’s for a drink. But the Panthers weren’t in the mood for refreshments.
After Shabazz departed, Cleaver, Newton, and other Panthers lingered outside the office. One of the police officers directed the Panthers not to point their weapons at him. Newton stared at the officer, who undid the strap on his holster. “Huey, cool it man. Let’s split, man,” Bobby Seale implored Newton, grabbing at Newton’s jacket on his right arm. “Don’t hold my hand, brother,” Newton told him. “I let go of his hand right away,” Seale wrote later, “because I know that’s his shooting hand.”
As Cleaver and others looked on, Newton approached the officer. “What’s the matter, you got an itchy trigger finger?” The officer made no reply. “You want to draw your gun?” Newton asked. The officer remained silent while his colleagues counseled him to keep his cool. “OK, you big, fat, racist pig, draw your gun!” Newton said, loading a shell into his shotgun. “I’m waiting.” The other officers stepped out of the line of fire, and Cleaver retreated into the doorway of the Ramparts office. His first thought, he later wrote, was “Goddam, that nigger is c-r-a-z-y!” After a tense moment, the officer sighed and lowered his head. The spell was broken. “Huey almost laughed in his face,” Seale wrote later, “and we started backing up slowly.” The Panthers returned to their cars and left the scene.
• • •
The story that really put Ramparts on the map was its 1967 scoop that the CIA had been funding the National Student Association (NSA) and other domestic front groups. But the agency nearly beat Ramparts to the punch.
The head of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans learned that Ramparts was preparing a story on the NSA’s connection to the CIA. He put Richard Ober, a counterintelligence specialist, in charge of suppressing the story. After reviewing his legal options, Ober realized he couldn’t prevent Ramparts from running its story and decided to focus instead on damage control. He planned to stage a press conference at which NSA leaders would admit to their CIA relationship and insist that it was over. The admission would make the Ramparts story look like old news when it appeared.
But Hinckle had his own informants in the NSA, and he discovered the CIA’s plan before the press conference could be held. “I was damned if I was going to let the CIA scoop me,” recalled Hinckle. “I bought full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post to scoop myself, which seemed the preferable alternative.” On February 13, 1967, the day before the ads appeared, acting Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach wrote a secret memorandum to the White House suggesting that the State Department make a “bare bones” admission. Meanwhile, one of the student leaders confirmed the Ramparts story to Hinckle. A surprised Hinckle later wrote, “It is a rare thing in this business when you say bang and somebody says I’m dead.”
Immediately after Hinckle’s ads appeared, eight Congressmen, including San Francisco Democrat Phil Burton, signed a letter of protest to President Johnson. “We were appalled to learn today that the Central Intelligence Agency has been subsidizing the National Student Association for more than a decade,” the letter said. “It represents an unconscionable extension of power by an agency of government over institutions outside its jurisdiction. This disclosure leads us and many others here and abroad to believe that the CIA can be as much a threat to American as to foreign democratic institutions.”
• • •
Ramparts published articles by many up-and-coming journalists, including Seymour Hersh, Lowell Bergman, and Hunter S. Thompson. In 1967, Thompson stopped by the office for lunch with Hinckle.
In the end, Thompson’s visit wasn’t healthy for Henry Luce. When Thompson and Hinckle returned to the office after their lunch, they found Thompson’s backpack open, pills of various colors strewn on the floor, and a deranged Henry Luce racing around the office. He was rushed to the veterinarian’s to have his stomach pumped. An unsympathetic Thompson later wrote to Hinckle, “That fucking monkey should be killed—or at least arrested—on general principles.” But Henry Luce remained at large until his penchant for self-interference became a distraction. “He kept jerking off, so he had to go,” Hinckle said later. A sympathetic secretary took him home to Marin County.
Photo courtesy of Guy and Gregory Stilson
Amid the hijinks, Ramparts was ultimately known for its solid, serious reporting on abuses of government power, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam. While establishment publications dismissed the magazine’s radical politics, its journalism still had a profound impact on readers, such Martin Luther King, Jr., who read its graphic January 1967 photo essay on the American bombing of Vietnam.
That month, Dr. King left for Jamaica for four weeks of solitude and writing. At the airport, he bought several magazines and met his friend, Bernard Lee, for lunch. Lee later recalled that King reacted strongly to the Vietnam story.
When he came to Ramparts magazine, he stopped. He froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military. Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him. I looked up and said, “Doesn’t it taste any good?,” and he answered, “Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.”
King wasn’t the only one moved by that piece; many staff members were in tears while working on the spread, and it gave art director Dugald Stermer nightmares. He later said it was “just about the nastiest job I’ve ever had.”
When he returned from Jamaica, King spoke against the war in Los Angeles, but he saved his strongest comments for a speech at the Riverside Church on April 4, exactly one year before his assassination. King listed seven reasons for stopping the war and urged the U.S. government, which he called “the major purveyor of violence in the world,” to end the bombing and set a date for troop withdrawal. “We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors,” he concluded. “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
After the speech, King was buoyant. Although he was criticized in the mainstream media, he was satisfied with his position. In his study of King during this time, David Garrow noted that he “finally made the moral declaration he had felt obligated to deliver ever since that January day when he saw the photos in Ramparts.”
• • •
By the early ’70s, Ramparts had hit hard times, financially and politically. Hinckle and Scheer were replaced by David Horowitz and Peter Collier, who took the magazine in a more narrowly ideological direction. “Ramparts started broad and anarchic, with lots of different perspectives,” Lowell Bergman recalled. “But as with many organizations, the leadership slowly took control. They thought they knew better, and Horowitz thought he knew everything.” In Collier’s view, Ramparts peaked between early 1967 and Hinckle’s departure at the end of 1968. During that period, the magazine embodied youthful enthusiasm: “It was like a movie where Mickey Rooney jumps up and says, ‘Hey kids, let’s put on a play!'” But by the time he and Horowitz took over, the magazine’s moment had passed. “Everything else was epilogue,” said Collier.
In December 1974, Betty Van Patter, a Ramparts bookkeeper whom Horowitz had recommended to the Black Panthers to help with their accounting, disappeared and was later found murdered. Her death, still unsolved but allegedly carried out by the Panthers, was a turning point for the magazine and much of its staff, particularly Horowitz, who would become a prominent neoconservative gadfy.
Ramparts published its final issue in August 1975.