I was saddened to learn last week of Warren Hinckle's death. His magazine, RAMPARTS, was among the first of its kind, in the '60s, to catch my imagination. Here's POLITICO's remembrance, in itself a good quick history of Left-oriented publications of the era.
If muckraker, journalistic impresario and scoundrel Warren Hinckle, who died last week at 77, is not getting the media sendoff befitting someone of his accomplishment and influence, he has nobody to blame but himself. The New York Times filed a lengthy obituary, and Hinckle’s hometown newspaper in San Francisco saluted him, but most of the nation’s other leading dailies gave his death a bye, which is a shame. There were a handful of appreciations in the left corners of the Web, yet none of them conveyed the force he exerted on journalism in his prime. He embraced the role of attack dog, formulated like this for a 1981 Washington Post profile: “What journalism is all about is to attack everybody,” he said after downing his fifth screwdriver. “First you decide what's wrong, then you go out to find the facts to support that view, and then you generate enough controversy to attract attention.” The people who believe that the journalist should never be the story never met Warren Hinckle.
Hinckle mostly added footnotes to the art of journalism during the past 40 years, but during his prime, which ran from 1965 to 1975, he practiced journalism like a political insurrectionist, rushing into combat with one eye patched (from a childhood injury) and even sporting a cape on occasion. In his prime, he changed American journalism for good by creating Ramparts, which served as a media crawlspace for investigative reporters and culture critics in the 1960s. The magazine’s influence was immense: Its spirit was evident when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, and in 1968, when 60 Minutes got up and running; and it permeated Rolling Stone, launched in 1967 (and which the always acerbic Hinckle denounced as “counterculture bullshit”). The Ramparts lineage goes on: Mother Jones, which used the collapsed Ramparts as a kind of parts car; the alt-weeklies, which got started about the time that Ramparts died in 1975; and more recently sites like Gawker and the Intercept.
Muckraking had long existed in America before Ramparts, of course, and books, other magazines, and newsletters like I.F. Stone’s Weekly sought to keep a vigil against the evils of the leviathan state and the modern corporation. But Hinckle’sRamparts, which he all but willed into being in the mid-’60s, broke big stories about the CIA infiltrating American student organizations, published diaries by Che Guevara and Eldridge Cleaver, helped persuade Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War, and charted a path for adversarial journalism that informed a whole generation of reporters and editors. The magazine was as fearless as Hinckle, which is to say very, very fearless. Get a load of some of the bylines that appeared in the magazine.
But Ramparts wasn’t a bottle of medicine you drank just because it was good for you. Its design was slick and hip, thanks to its art director, Dugald Stermer, and a levity graced its pages. A Hugh Hefner interview featured a foldout picture of Hef; a piece about assassination conspiracies used a photo of John F. Kennedy as an element in a jigsaw puzzle. It was loads of fun.
Hinckle could have parlayed the half-decade he spent inventing Ramparts with Robert Scheer and the other talents into a sinecure at a journalism school or secure place in the New York magazine hive. But as Hinckle told anybody who asked, he wasn’t interested in rehashing his Ramparts glories, saying almost everything he had to say about it in his 1973 memoir, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade: An Essential Memoir of a Lunatic Decade. Peter Richardson, who wrote an excellent history of Ramparts—A Bomb in Every Issue—wrote this week about the difficulty in pinning Hinckle down for an interview to talk about those years. Why had Ramparts been so successful, so trailblazing, Richardson asked Hinckle when he finally happened to run into him at a book fair. “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty,” Hinckle responded, giving Richardson all of an hour to ask his questions.
Hinckle’s reluctance to hash over Ramparts, which he left in 1969, surely had to do with his self-sense that it was only a part of a bigger career, which included the launch and quick fizzle of the Ramparts-like Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, and which gave Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman the opportunity to create their joint masterpiece “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” the first example of gonzo journalism. Hinckle produced a half-dozen other books, edited a Francis Ford Coppola-owned weekly in San Francisco, penned columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the San Francisco Independent, and published his own newspaper, the Argonaut. But none of these enterprises or efforts inspired other journalists the way Ramparts did. The magazine’s salvos so angered the CIA that it violated its charter against domestic spying by opening a file on Hinckle and company.
Although wildly productive, Hinckle’s flighty course must have been related to his affection for booze, which Thomas McGuane has called writer’s black lung disease. Like a mad general invading a continent, he had a habit of outrunning his supply lines of available cash. Although he was good at raising money, persuading people like Martin Peretz to fund him, he was even better at spending it on big magazine projects, promoting them with full-page ads in the New York Times, and staging Manhattan news conferences to publicize them. Long before Tina Brown showed up on American shores to play the impresario of magazines, Hinckle was creating big buzz with his self-promotion.
The facts never restrained Hinckle from chasing what he thought was a good story, surely an influence for developing journalists to avoid. At Scanlan’s he ran a memo purportedly by Vice President Spiro Agnew. White House Counsel John Dean’s first order from President Richard Nixon was to look into the matter. “The president wants me to turn the IRS loose on a shit-ass magazine called Scanlan’s Monthly,” Dean would later write in Blind Ambition, “because it printed a bogus memo from the Vice-President’s office about canceling the ‘seventy-two election and repealing the Bill of Rights.” The FBI, Dean offered, was also looking into the bogus story, which has never been substantiated.
“Paranoia is a little like dog shit,” Hinckle wrote in his memoir. “Once you step in it, you can never be sure it is not still with you. You try to scrape it off your shoe and walk on, looking back frequently to see if you are leaving any tracks, continually sniffing the air around your own person so as to be doubly sure, pitting one sense competitively against another, challenging the nose to be sensitive to what the eye cannot see.” No paranoid, Hinckle was doomed to live his post-Ramparts life forever being pestered about this first, fantastic act. It’s to his credit that he was more invested in his present and his future than his glorious past. But just because he was, doesn’t mean we have to be."