Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Peter Richardson, the editorial director at PoliPointPress, lecturer in the humanities department at San Francisco State University, chair of the California Studies Association, and author of American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (University of Michigan, 2005). His new book is
A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.
FP: Peter Richardson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Richardson: Thank you very much for having me.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Richardson: I remember exactly where I was when I got the idea for this book. I was on the Berkeley campus, listening to Gene Marine recount the history of KPFA, the nation's first listener-sponsored radio station. I had interviewed Gene for my previous book and knew that he had written for Ramparts. I also knew that there were at least two histories of KPFA, but I wasn't aware of any comparable treatment of Ramparts. If that book existed, I wanted to read it. So after Gene's talk, I checked with some other audience members and realized that the Ramparts story had never really been told. Warren Hinckle and David Horowitz had both recounted their experiences there, but even when you read those books together, there was a lot missing.
So I wanted to read a book that hadn't been written yet. It seemed like a rich opportunity. I'm a recovering academic, and I had spent years thinking about writing the 2,000th book about Beowulf. And here was this very notable magazine with all these interesting figures and stories and accomplishments, and there wasn't a single book that old the whole story from beginning to end.
Then there's the practical side of it. It was a logical extension of my previous work, a biography of Carey McWilliams, the California author and activist who later edited The Nation. It dovetailed well with my work at San Francisco State University, where I teach a class called California Culture. Most of the Ramparts veterans still live in California, so I knew I could interview them without any huge effort. And because Ramparts only existed for thirteen years, I knew I could finish the work in some reasonable period of time.
But the real inspiration revealed itself after I started the research. I realized that my interest in this project was a very personal one. I was born in Berkeley three years before Ramparts was born in Menlo Park, just across the bay. And the more I learned about Ramparts, the more I discovered that the magazine had been shaped by the same cultural forces that shaped me. Also that the magazine had, to some extent, been one of those shaping forces. So by learning more about the magazine, I was learning about the world I was born into.
FP: What exactly was Ramparts magazine and why was it important? How did it influence America and journalism?
Richardson: Ramparts was really the nation's first "radical slick"--the first magazine to use good writing, high production values, and more than a little showmanship to advance progressive or radical ideas. That combination distinguished it from its stodgier east coast counterparts and its grittier underground ones. Within a few years, it morphed from a Catholic literary quarterly into the nation's premier muckraker. Five years after its founding, it won the Polk Award for excellence in magazine reporting.
That was largely response to a whistleblower story on CIA activity in Vietnam.
Ramparts never made money, but its success in the circulation and impact department showed that there was an appetite for investigative reporting. So the magazine had two main effects on the media culture. It forced mainstream outlets to pick up their game, and it created space for left-of-center magazines. Those included Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, both of which were founded by Ramparts staffer.
Ramparts was also a significant force in the civil rights and anti-war efforts. One of its stories, a photo-essay called "The Children of Vietnam," led Martin Luther King, Jr. to come out against the war for the first time.
Ramparts also helped make the Black Panthers internationally recognized figures. Founding publisher Edward Keating published Eldridge Cleaver's letters from prison and eventually helped arrange his release. Cleaver joined the Ramparts staff, covered the Panthers, and then became their minister of information.
Finally, Ramparts played an important role in the development of CIA oversight. First, it ran stories critical of the CIA, which was rare at that time. Later it was discovered that the CIA had investigated the magazine unlawfully. Seymour Hersh, a Ramparts contributor turned New York Times reporter, broke that story. Soon Congress formed the first committees on intelligence oversight. The Senate version was headed by Frank Church, Keating's friend from their undergraduate days at Stanford.
FP: Can you tell us a bit about the cast of characters and what they went on to afterwards? How about the staffers who ended up repudiating the magazine's politics for one reason or another?
Richardson: Well, it was a very colorful cast. I've already mentioned Keating and Cleaver. The other key players were Warren Hinckle, who brought a lot of showmanship to the magazine. Art director Dugald Stermer was an important part of the magazine's success. The addition of Robert Scheer took Ramparts to another level. You might say that Hinckle, Stermer, and Scheer were the band. When they got together, fireworks happened. And I don't think the magazine could have succeeded without any of them.
Hinckle left the magazine in 1969, when it declared bankruptcy for the first time. He formed Scanlan's, which only published eight issues, but one of them teamed Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman. So Hinckle helped launch Gonzo journalism. Of course, former Ramparts staffer Jann Wenner later published Thompson's most famous work at Rolling Stone.
Scheer and Stermer departed later that year, when David Horowitz and Peter Collier took over the magazine. Scheer eventually landed at the Los Angeles Times and now edits Truthdig. Stermer is a faculty member at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Right, several staff members later repudiated the magazine's politics. The key figures there are David Horowitz and Peter Collier, who ran Ramparts from 1969 and left in 1973, two years before its collapse in 1975. They've been very active, often together, on a number of fronts since. But there were others, too, including Sol Stern. Stern wrote or contributed to many of the magazine's big stories. He's now at the Manhattan Institute. Brit Hume was actually at Ramparts for a short time. He was never a leftist, but as a Jack Anderson protégé, he was a muckraker and served as the magazine's DC correspondent before joining ABC News and then Fox.
Everyone's story is a bit different, but the main two bones of contention were the Black Panthers and Israel. In Radical Son, Horowitz cited the murder of Ramparts bookkeeper Betty Van Patter, purportedly by the Black Panthers, as the beginning of his move to the right. For Stern, it was Israel. He was born there and later fell in love with the country, married an Israeli, and began to part ways with colleagues who were more critical of Israel.
By the way, those were divisive issues not only for the staffers, but also for the magazine's investors. Martin Peretz and Dick Russell withdrew their money because of the Middle East coverage. And the magazine's close connection to the Panthers made others less willing to contribute. So for the last six years its life, the magazine was operating on a much smaller budget than it had during its salad days.
FP: Since the Panthers are generally recognized to be gangsters -- and books by Panthers Flores Forbes and Elaine Brown confirm this – would you concede that Ramparts bears a big responsibility for their destructive career and influence?
Richardson: My book is about the magazine, not the Black Panthers as such. There's a vast literature on them and their impact, and it's hard to capture all the complexities in a short space. I think their story is much more complicated than many of their critics and defenders today might think.
It's generally conceded that in the mid-60s, black residents in West Oakland were treated badly by police and the establishment more generally. So when the Black Panther Party for Self Defense formed in 1966, there was a perceived need in the community for exactly that: self defense.
A decade later, after a good deal of violent conflict with the Oakland police, COINTELPRO infiltration and surveillance by the FBI, and other madness, the party's record was a very mixed bag. There was the school, the breakfast program, the clinic, and other social services provided by the party. That's what the party's defenders point to.
But if you read Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power and Flores Forbes's Will You Die for Me?, you'll find admissions that the party was engaged in unlawful and sometimes shocking activity. Forbes, for example, admits that he tried to kill the star witness against party leader Huey Newton, who had been charged with murdering a teenage prostitute. But during the botched attempt, Forbes was shot in the hand, a fellow Panther was killed, and Forbes eventually surrendered to authorities and served time.
Ramparts played an important role in making the Panther leaders internationally recognized icons. That started when radical lawyer Beverly Axelrod showed publisher Edward Keating the prison writings of Eldridge Cleaver. Keating ran Cleaver's work, helped arrange his release from prison, and gave him a job at Ramparts. A few months later, Cleaver witnessed an armed (but not violent) confrontation between Newton and the San Francisco police right outside the magazine's office at 301 Broadway. Cleaver decided to join the Panthers and became their minister of information. Later, David Horowitz worked closely with Newton.
In the book, I note that the relationship between Ramparts and the Panthers was mutually beneficial at first. Ramparts made the Panther leaders celebrities, and their star power increased the magazine's cachet. But that relationship also made it harder to recruit new investors. And many Ramparts people I interviewed believe that the link between the magazine and the Panthers led to the unsolved murder of former Ramparts bookkeeper Betty Van Patter.
As far as the magazine's direct responsibility for the Panther's activities, I wonder. What really made the Panthers celebrities, I think, was their decision to enter the floor of the state assembly in Sacramento, bristling with weapons, to protest a gun control bill. Cleaver was arrested with them, but he wasn't charged because he was unarmed and was covering the event for Ramparts. But it wasn't just Ramparts there that day; the rest of the media went crazy. So I'm not sure the Panthers needed Ramparts to become celebrities. That said, Ramparts contributed directly to that celebrity, first by hiring Cleaver, and then by producing a substantial body of articles and books by and about its leaders.
Of course, Ramparts didn't just cover the Panthers and other black militants. They also ran Dr. Martin Luther King's first big speech opposing the war in Vietnam. And that landmark speech was the direct result of an article, "The Children of Vietnam," that Ramparts had run. King read the article while eating lunch at an airport and resolved on the spot to speak out against the war. His advisors argued that he should stay out of foreign policy, and the mainstream media criticized him, but he felt he had a moral duty to make the speech. So that's another indication of Ramparts' impact and overall contribution at the time.
FP: Flores Forbes was the Panther's enforcer and is still proud to have been a Panther. His book Will You Die With Me? confirms the claim made in my previous question and in books like Radical Son. According to Forbes, the Panthers' goal was to take over all the criminal operations in Oakland, including prostitution and drugs. Forbes, a convicted and self-confessed murderer, describes in detail how they went about doing it. When do you thinks leftists and Ramparts veterans like Robert Scheer and Dugald Stermer are going to admit this?
Richardson: You may know more than I do about Forbes and any relevant pronouncements or silences on the part of Scheer and Stermer. My focus, of course, was on Ramparts and its story. Scheer and Stermer left the magazine in 1969, three years before Forbes became head of the Black Panther Party's security cadre and a little more than five years before Betty Van Patter's death.
I can tell you that most of the people I interviewed for my book seemed to accept, at least in a general way, the portrait Kate Coleman and Paul Avery offered in their 1978 New Times article about the Panthers. Coleman and Avery were careful not to accuse anyone of murdering Betty Van Patter, but they did discuss the botched attempt to murder a witness in Richmond as well as other violence. If I remember correctly, that article was sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which I wouldn't describe as a right-wing organization, then or now. It was founded by Rolling Stone staffers who decided not to move to New York when the magazine left San Francisco. I believe the New Times piece was CIR's first big investigative story.
In 1998, Coleman wrote a piece about Betty's death for Heterodoxy. A sidebar describes Coleman's frustration at not being able to place the piece in Mother Jones or the Village Voice. But in 2000, Scott Sherman wrote a piece for The Nation that discusses Betty Van Patter's death and how it affected David Horowitz. So I'm not sure I see a left-wing blackout on this issue.
FP: Peter Richardson, it was a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for taking time out to discuss your book with us at Frontpage Magazine.