Thursday, April 15, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: "RAMPARTS - A BOMB IN EVERY ISSUE" by Peter Richardson

I'm fashioning myself as something of a 1960s political history buff as of late. My favorite book I've read this past year was Rick Perlstein's "Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus", which we reviewed here, and I'm now halfway through Perlstein's second 60's magnum opus, "NIXONLAND" - and it's a fantastic read. See, I remember a lot of this stuff when it was fresh; no, not as it was actually happening (I was born in 1967), but when it was raw and fresh and still in the news. Hippies, Hanoi Jane, 60's radicals, Black Panthers, Senator Goldwater, President Nixon, Governor Reagan - these are all things I remember fairly vividly. In between the two Perlstein books, I took a dive into Peter Richardson's entertaining and illuminative "RAMPARTS - A BOMB IN EVERY ISSUE" for a slightly different angle on 1960s political theater, this time covering the rabble-rousing (“consciousness raising”, if you will) of the very far left.

Richardson's book is subtitled, "How The Short, Unruly Life of RAMPARTS Magazine Changed America", and while it's a bit of wallet-tugging hyperbole - America was changing at figurative warp speed regardless of what a freeewheeling San Francisco left-wing magazine was doing - it's clear that this particular mag was at the very center of American 60s upheaval and social change. RAMPARTS nurtured an evolving cast of legendary muckraking writers (including Noam Chomsky, David Horowitz, Susan Sontag, Jessica Mitford, Christoper Hitchens and many more), and the central players in its psychodrama were its swashbuckling editors, primarily Warren Hinckle and Robert Scheer. Author Peter Richardson does his best to shield readers from digging too deep into explaining the broader social chaos of the 1960s in America, and instead focuses a laser eye on both how RAMPARTS stoked and covered it. The magazine was conceived as a "Catholic literary quarterly" when it was born in 1962, but because it was nursed in the hothouse of San Francisco Bay Area politics - which itself nursed a strain of Catholic radicalism which was increasingly in vogue in certain church circles - it wasn't long before the magazine morphed into something much more secular, brash and daring - and on glossy paper, no less.

The book proceeds chronologically, weaving in how this shoestring operation helped to document burgeoning 60s radicalism while getting a series of gotcha stories (particularly on Vietnam) that helped foment it. At one point, Ramparts was so well-distributed and had such a high circulation that it was seen as a challenger to TIME and NEWSWEEK. At its peak, it had double the circulation figures of THE NATION. Ramparts was hemorrhaging money virtually the entire time it was extant, and some of the best stories in this book revolve around Warren Hinckle jetting off to New York to lie his way into getting more capital for the magazine from wealthy liberal financiers over dozens of cocktails. Some of the more ugly stories revolve around how the magazine stoked the egos of Oakland’s Black Panthers with some truly cringe-worthy white guilt and deference to an articulate but flat-out criminal set of individuals (with some fairly disastrous results).

The years between 1962 and 1969 are portrayed as an enormous psychic gulf that felt like 77 years instead of 7. Perlstein’s books convey much the same impression. I enjoyed this particular book for the most part, and it’s just as relevant for students of journalism – particularly the legendary time of the free-wheelers who drank vodka in the office and gumshoed their way across town every day in search of graft and corruption – as it as for those looking for a snapshot of the 1960s at their most fevered. It even contains some quotes from, and descriptions of, my old college roommate Chris Scheer (son of Robert).

"RAMPARTS - A BOMB IN EVERY ISSUE" is breezy enough to give you a nice gloss on the time period and does a fairly good job of not pulling its punches on foibles of the people involved, even Hickle & Robert Scheer, whom Richardson very obviously admires. First Principles says check it out.

1 comment:

Britton said...

Little did I know that you would end up a (fellow) libertarian. You seem to be -- as I once heard someone call Tom Wolfe -- a "thinking man's redneck." (Join the club.) Anyway, sounds like a good read; thanks for the review. BTW, Chris Scheer ain't so radical. He's now appearing on Facebook in a suit! Check it out...;>)