Radical Slick

It was the publication that launched Gonzo journalism and helped spawn Rolling Stone and Mother Jones.
By Peter Richardson

Cal graduates of a certain age may recall Ramparts magazine (1962–75), the spectacular Bay Area muckraker that seemed to be everywhere at once: supporting the Civil Rights movement, exposing illicit CIA activities, challenging U.S. policy in Vietnam, and publishing the diaries of Che Guevara and Eldridge Cleaver. Ramparts’s gutsy stories, cutting-edge design, and high spirits
attracted fans as diverse as Martin Luther King, Hunter S. Thompson, Jane Fonda, and a young Christopher Hitchens. A Time magazine headline—“A Bomb in Every Issue”—described the impact of Ramparts.

Founded as a Catholic literary quarterly in Menlo Park, Ramparts hit its stride after executive editor Warren Hinckle converted it into a monthly, moved the office to San Francisco, and led the magazine to embrace the political controversy it had previously flirted with. As the nation’s first “radical slick,” Ramparts changed American culture not only with its stories, but also by demonstrating that journalists could use mainstream media techniques to advance progressive politics. Along the way, Ramparts became the journalistic equivalent of a rock band: a mercurial confluence of raw talent and youthful energy that blew minds, launched solo careers, and spawned imitators.

The brief, tumultuous Ramparts history was firmly linked to the Berkeley campus. That connection began when Hinckle met former graduate student Robert Scheer. Scheer’s impassioned speeches near Sather Gate had already marred his standing at the Center for Chinese Studies, where he had a fellowship. But disaster struck when Scheer packed his master’s thesis onto the back of his motor scooter for a trip to see Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Halfway across the Bay Bridge, Scheer looked back to discover the pages of his only copy fluttering across the traffic lanes and into the bay.

Instead of completing his degree, Scheer recast himself as a freelance journalist and began working on Ramparts’s first major investigative piece. Digging through government documents at Doe Library, Scheer came upon the name of Stanley Sheinbaum, codirector of Michigan State University’s Vietnam Project. As part of his duties, Sheinbaum had worked with the CIA to set up a police force in South Vietnam. But on a trip to Saigon, Sheinbaum was denied access to an entire floor of the building that was supposedly under his authority, and he resigned in 1959. When Scheer contacted him, Sheinbaum revealed the collaboration between MSU and the CIA.

With its trademark irreverence, Ramparts produced a cover illustration featuring a busty Madame Nhu wearing an MSU cheerleading outfit. But the story itself was no joke: President Johnson quickly assembled a high-level commission, purportedly to investigate the matter but in fact to bury it. In the meantime, CIA director William Raborn secretly ordered a rundown on Ramparts “on a high-priority basis.” Meanwhile, the story boosted the magazine’s reputation and circulation.

After Scheer became managing editor, he recruited other Berkeley students to Ramparts, including David Horowitz, Peter Collier, Susan Griffin, Reese Erlich, and Sol Stern. By that time, too, Berkeley graduate student Fred Mitchell was propping up the magazine’s finances, eventually sinking more than $700,000 of his inheritance into Ramparts and serving as publisher. The blockbuster stories continued, and Ramparts received the prestigious George Polk Award for magazine reporting in 1966.

That same year, another former Berkeley student launched his own magazine: Ramparts contributing editor Jann Wenner, with the help of music critic Ralph Gleason, borrowed Ramparts’s design and a spare room at the San Francisco office to assemble the first issue of Rolling Stone. Although Wenner had learned the value of showmanship from his Ramparts colleagues, Rolling Stone took a different editorial tack, embracing the younger generation’s music and lifestyle and giving radical politics a wide berth.

The decline of Ramparts was as rapid as its ascent. Despite its healthy circulation, the magazine filed for bankruptcy in 1969, and Hinckle left to start another publication. Reorganizing under Chapter 11, Ramparts resumed operations and covered the People’s Park showdown in detail. That same year, Horowitz and Collier ousted Scheer as editor-in-chief, moved the office to Berkeley, and continued publishing articles by Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Seymour Hersh, sociologist Harry Edwards, and other luminaries.

But Ramparts never regained its cachet. David Obst, who left Cal to start an alternative news service in Washington, D.C., recalled arriving at the magazine’s Berkeley office in 1973. “I was ready to help lead the vanguard of the revolution that was going to change the world. Only one small problem: When I turned around to look at our followers, nobody was there … the Movement was over.” Hoping to reinvigorate the magazine, Horowitz and Collier asked Ramparts veteran Adam Hochschild and two other colleagues to join the editorial board. After a brief and frustrating stint, the trio left and went on to found Mother Jones magazine in 1976.

Although Ramparts closed its doors for good in 1975, its alumni continued to make notable contributions. Hinckle helped launch Gonzo journalism by matching Hunter Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman at Scanlan’s Monthly. When that magazine folded, Wenner recruited Thompson to Rolling Stone, where the duo did their most memorable work. Scheer became a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and now edits Truthdig, the award-winning news website. Horowitz and Collier wrote a series of books on America’s dynastic families, renounced leftist politics, and founded the rightwing Heterodoxy magazine and Encounter Books. Obst served as literary agent for Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and John Dean’s Blind Ambition. Former contributor Lowell Bergman was an editor at Rolling Stone, cofounded the Center for Investigative Reporting, became a producer for 60 Minutes, and now serves as a producer and correspondent at Frontline, the PBS documentary series. Both Bergman and Adam Hochschild, who wrote the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost about colonial Africa, teach at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Bergman traced Ramparts’s decline to changes in the media landscape and an increasingly doctrinaire editorial line. “Ramparts started broad and anarchic, with lots of different perspectives,” Bergman noted recently. “But as with many organizations, the leadership slowly took control. They thought they knew better, and Horowitz thought he knew everything.”

From the Fall 2009 Constant Change issue of California.
Image source: Michael Millman
Share this article:
Google+ Reddit

Add new comment