A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, by Peter Richardson. Illustrated. 247 pp. The New Press. $25.95

Ramparts stands with a handful of 20th-century American magazines--Playboy, the Harold Hayes-era Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spy and Wired--whose glory days continue to influence editors. Each of these magazines not only grabbed the zeitgeist but shaped it. If you've never heard of Ramparts or have only vague awareness of its significance, Peter Richardson's compact history, "A Bomb in Every Issue," will assure you of its place in the magazine pantheon.

This San Francisco Bay Area magazine didn't live long, starting in 1962 as a quarterly and expiring in 1975. Its very best pages appeared between 1966 and 1968: in that short span, it restored the lapsed institution of muckraking, put showmanship back into journalism, exposed Central Intelligence Agency excesses, helped turn Martin Luther King Jr. against the Vietnam War, gave radicalism a commercial megaphone and boosted the careers of such notable journalists as Warren Hinckle (who gave the magazine its heart), Robert Scheer (who gave it its brain), Adam Hochschild, David Horowitz, Peter Collier and Jann Wenner.

Like those other great magazines, Ramparts influenced competitors across the media universe. Richardson, the author of "American Prophet," a book about Carey McWilliams of The Nation, credits Ramparts with inspiring the investigative edge of "60 Minutes" and says that when The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, "it was claiming part of Ramparts' territory." It was the magazine Time loved to hate, calling it "slick enough to lure the unwary and bedazzled reader into accepting flimflam as fact" in a 1967 article titled "A Bomb in Every Issue."

Schooling the mainstream media wasn't on the agenda when the trust-funder Edward M. Keating published the first issue. The institution in his sights was the Catholic Church, which he hoped to liberalize by sponsoring a dialogue between the clergy and the laity. As liberal Catholic literary quarterlies went, it was a worthy magazine, dispensing poetry prizes and publishing Thomas Merton's meditations on the gathering black revolution. But it wasn't until Warren Hinckle, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, jockeyed his way from promotions director to the executive editorship in 1964 that Ramparts really became Ramparts. The transformation would prove as dramatic as if Partisan Review had gone to bed one night and woken up the next day as Guns and Ammo.

A sensationalist in both life and work, Hinckle liked to second George M. Cohan's maxim that whatever you do, you should "always serve it with a little dressing." He looked like a dandy, drank the way other people breathed, sweet-talked one wealthy person after another into financing the magazine, spent their money with abandon, kept a monkey named after Henry Luce in the office, hyped every issue to the bursting point and, more often than not, produced a magazine that was worthy of that hype. He was a pirate, as everybody noted, right down to the eye patch.

Publishing breakthrough articles was only part of the formula, according to Adam Hochschild. The key, in his words, was to "find an expose that major newspapers are afraid to touch, publish it with a big enough splash so they can't afford to ignore it . . . and then publicize it in a way that plays the press off against each other."

Hinckle had a partner in this success, a working-class Bronx kid turned radical academic named Robert Scheer. The duo wasn't so much Lennon and McCartney as Ringo and George. The rascal Hinckle meshed so perfectly with the serious Scheer that Jessica Mitford, a contributor, took to calling them "Hink/Scheer."

Ramparts' first big story came in 1966, when Scheer revealed the C.I.A.'s partnership with Michigan State University in the training of police officers in South Vietnam and the writing of the South Vietnamese Constitution. "Before the Michigan State story, the C.I.A. rarely received negative press, much less strict oversight," Richardson writes. Outraged, the C.I.A. retaliated with a secret investigation of Ramparts' staff and investors in hopes of uncovering foreign influence, but it found nothing.

In 1967, the magazine struck again, uncovering the agency's clandestine backing of the National Student Association, an organization that represented American students at international meetings. Unable to stop the scoop, the C.I.A. sought to deflate it by scheduling a press conference at which leaders of the association would confess to the connection. When Hinckle found out, he pre-empted the C.I.A. by purchasing full-page ads in The Times and The Washington Post touting his forthcoming article. The agency fought back with even more snooping--clearly illegal--as it "investigated 127 writers and researchers and 200 other Americans connected to the magazine," Richardson writes. Readers loved it: circulation rose from 149,000 to 229,000.

Traditionally, radical journalism came packaged in the graphic equivalent of jeans and a work shirt. But the hip, slick and provocative look that the Ramparts art director, Dugald Stermer, lent the publication gave even Esquire a case of envy (it tried to hire him). For the Michigan State article, Stermer ran illustrations of all the principals dressed in M.S.U. athletic garb. An interview with Hugh Hefner was accompanied by a foldout featuring Hef. A piece about assassination conspiracies repurposed a photo of John F. Kennedy as a nearly completed jigsaw puzzle.

The magazine's success prompted Hinckle to daydream about a media empire that would include TV and radio stations. He actually got a Sunday Ramparts newspaper off the ground in 1966, but when it folded the next year it tossed the young Jann Wenner out of work. Wenner promptly appropriated the paper's design--with Stermer's permission--to serve as the template for Rolling Stone.

Ramparts was very much a creature of the Bay Area's rebellious climate. It identified with the uprisings at Berkeley, endorsed the authority-questioning ethos of the Beats (although Hinckle spurned the hippies) and drew on the region's radical tradition. Scheer even ran for Congress in 1966, challenging an incumbent liberal Democrat in a district that included Oakland and Berkeley. (He lost.)

The magazine injected itself directly into local, radical politics with its sponsorship of the Black Panther Party. "Ramparts made celebrities of the Blank Panthers," Richardson writes, "and their star power increased the magazine's cachet." Thanks to the magazine's sponsorship of the party and Eldridge Cleaver, who became a staff writer, the Panthers were recognized around the world as revolutionaries.

The Ramparts-Panther romance, which began in 1967, looks naive today. The magazine's skeptical radar could penetrate government lies but failed to detect this violent organization's essence. David Horowitz, who along with Peter Collier led the magazine after Hinckle was pushed out in 1969, laments the legitimization of the Panthers and blames them for the murder of a former Ramparts employee, Betty Van Patter, who did bookkeeping for the party.

Although Ramparts continued to break important stories that the establishment press ignored, the magazine didn't glisten after Hinckle the impresario left. Richardson attributes the decline to a number of causes. Like all niche-creating magazines, Ramparts attracted competition that wound up stealing readers; at the same time, it abandoned part of its audience by embracing New Left orthodoxy, which "rejected anything short of revolution." The magazine also ran out of liberal millionaire donors. Its accrued losses must have run into the tens of millions, making it unlike pantheon magazines that made money.

The lessons Ramparts taught American journalism are still being studied wherever investigative reporting is practiced. The magazine showed that the rarest asset in journalism is picking the right set of questions, usually the ones nobody else has the sense to ask. This book satisfies on every level and whets the appetite for a big, fat Ramparts anthology.

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