How the Short, Unruly Life of ‘Ramparts’ Magazine Changed America: An Interview with Peter Richardson

Culture Watch

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 .

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 Ramparts now?

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 slightly different.

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 magazine today.

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 those positions.

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 parallels there.

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.

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