Warren Hinckle, who has died at age 77, will be praised justifiably and extensively for a journalistic career that redefined how writers would speak truth to power. As a writer and editor with Ramparts in the 1960s and with a succession of alternative and mainstream publications in the years that followed, the San Franciscan challenged convention not merely for the sake of doing so but because conventional wisdom, conventional journalism, and conventional politics had steered the country into unnecessary wars and the domestic crises that invariably arise when grasping bankers and billionaires (and their political pawns) call the shots.
“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,” Hinckle said in 1981, explaining his approach to writing and editing. Getting the equation right, he believed, could change the debate about the direction of cities, states and nations. Hinckle proved his point. Ramparts delivered not just the “bomb in every issue” that Time magazine famously described but features (written by brilliant staffers and contributors such as Robert Scheer, Seymour Hersh, Susan Sontag, and Noam Chomsky) that turned the moral compass of the late 1960s and early ’70s. As the New York Times review of Peter Richardson’s book A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America noted, “Ramparts had bite and style and sometimes even heart. It printed the Eldridge Cleaver prison letters that became ‘Soul on Ice,’ and hired Cleaver on staff. It published Che Guevara’s diaries. In 1967 it ran a photo essay called ‘The Children of Vietnam’ that led the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize America’s involvement in that war for the first time.”
Hinckle was a joyously bombastic journalist whom the San Francisco Chronicle’s obituary described as “a happily hard-drinking swashbuckler of San Francisco journalism who mixed leftist leanings with an everlasting contempt for the powerful” and as “the one-eyed rapscallion—he’d lost his left eye in a childhood car accident and wore a patch—[who] drew the wrath of mayors, police and anyone who got in his way, and [who] reveled in it.”
But there was more to Hinckle than swashbuckling rapscallionism.
Raised in the working-class communities and Catholic schools of San Francisco, Hinckle had a muscular passion for underdog individuals and causes. He did not hesitate to leap into the political fray, as an activist and even as a candidate for local office. Like his compatriot Hunter Thompson, who famously bid for the sheriff’s job in Aspen in the early 1970s, Hinckle refused to simply cover politics. And even if he did not prevail on Election Day, Hinckle was determined to define the debate. Indeed, his 1987 “People Before Politics” race for mayor of San Francisco highlighted issues and opened up debates that continue to this day.