Wednesday, August 29, 2012

RNC Redux

You may have seen the story out of the Republican National Convention. Two RNC attendees were ejected after throwing nuts at a black CNN camerawoman and saying "this is how we feed the animals."

Atrocious but not unprecedented. The story put me immediately in mind of Belva Davis's memoir, which we published at PoliPointPress. Belva covered the RNC in 1964 at the Cow Palace and was treated to similar indignities. Very similar, in fact. Here's what she told KALW's Holly Kernan:

It was a mean-spirited crowd up in the galleries where we were. And we did all right the first day because they were behaving for the cameras. But then, there was a speech by former President Eisenhower that was like lighting a match, in which he talked ... the words he said could have been interpreted as being racist. And after that, all hell broke loose. Reporters were being, I mean really big-name reporters, were being taken and arrested, really – one of the leading reporters was arrested on that night. So, we watched all this from up high, and finally we heard somebody from down below yell, “What are you N-word people doing up there?” And he screamed it in sort of a chant. And the next thing we knew, there’s a mob of people screaming all kinds of things. Up there, isolated where we were in semi-darkness, we felt threatened. We started down the stairs and garbage started being thrown at us. I didn’t really get nervous until I could feel a bottle whiz by my head. It crashed against the concrete, and my knees started to shake as we were walking down the ramp to get out of the Cow Palace.

Louis said to me, “If you cry, I will break your leg.” Just like that! And I looked at him, I was shocked! Straightened my back, and we both kept eyes straight ahead and got down to the bottom. And then we looked at each other because we saw uniformed officers, but coming from the South, we knew that was no safe passage. And we knew we still had the outside to the parking lot to go. We were both terrified. We were at a political convention, or you know, one of the two organizations pledged to protect the rights of American citizens and feeling that our lives were in danger. But that’s the way it was that year. It was an experience that made me sure that I wanted to go into the news business because they were the only ones who seemed to be able to shine light on these people. And I wanted to do that.

More power to Belva, but it seems like we can do better than this.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Season of the Witch

I just finished reading David Talbot's Season of the Witch, which the good folks at Free Press sent along at my request. I received it too late to pitch a review, and I see that the New York Times Book Review has already covered it. (I still may use the book in my class at San Francisco State.) I'll return to that review in a moment, but first let me say that after some initial misgivings, I found Talbot's account of San Francisco's roller-coaster ride through the 60s, 70s, and 80s both informative and entertaining.

My misgivings arose from the over-the-top style and what seemed to be a highly synthetic account of San Francisco (especially the Haight) in the 1960s. But as I got deeper into the book, I realized that the style was in many ways adequate to the topic. To be sure, there were cliches, false notes, and mixed metaphors, but the story Talbot tells is an extravagant one, and I came to enjoy and even admire his energetic phrase-making.

I also realized that his selection and emphasis worked, at least for me, and that his original research was substantial. I really dug the material on Vincent Hallinan and his progeny, for example. His chapters on the Good Earth commune and other "heavy hippies" is a welcome addition to the usual accounts of the Diggers. His treatment of the Zebra killings of the 1970s fills in a lot of blank spaces for me. In a series of short, punchy chapters, he guides readers through more familiar material about Jim Jones, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and Dan White, but he also adds important details about the SFPD and its culture as well as conservative pol John Barbagelata, who was sounding the alarms about Jones and the threat he posed to the city. Talbot does a good job on Dianne Feinstein, whom he compares to Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie but also credits with safely navigating the city through one of its most difficult periods. And though I was initially skeptical about his claim that the San Francisco 49ers helped redeem the deeply troubled city in the 1980s, I have to admit that he marshals impressive evidence to support that claim.

So what does the New York Times review make of all this? Although Ellen Ullman's take on the book is more negative, I don't actually disagree with most of what she says. But I think she comes quite close to a reviewing no-no when she starts outlining the book she wanted to read (or write). That book, it turns out, would include more coverage of women activists, including "a bunch of really angry women marching through [COYOTE founder Margo] St. James’s Tenderloin turf."

David Talbot fired off a letter to the Times, which they ran. (Some would say this is an authorial no-no.) Here's the last part of Ullman's reply:
My objections to his book are literary and intellectual. And, yes, political. I cheered for the 49ers. But Talbot devotes two chapters — two — to their winning the Super Bowl, and not two pages to the women’s organizations that changed our political and social life. This is all you need to know about nits and tribes and equal weights.
Let me say again that I find a lot to agree with in Ullman's review. But her comment about the two chapters on the 49ers is misleading unless we already know that the book has 36 (short) chapters. Also, the evidence presented in the book suggests that many San Franciscans cared a lot more about the 49ers than about the women's organizations she has in mind. So no, I don't think that's all we need to know about nits and tribes and equal weights.

UPDATE: I heard from two friends about this post, both very knowledgeable and with different takes on the book. Randy Shaw, who has forgotten more about workaday San Francisco politics than I will ever know, sent me a critical review he posted on Beyond Chron. As executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy is especially attuned to housing and redevelopment issues, which figure in his review.

I also heard from Duffy Jennings, the Chronicle reporter who covered the Patty Hearst kidnap, the Zodiac serial murders, the Moscone and Milk assassinations, the Dan White murder trial, and the riot that followed the White verdict. Duffy is mentioned in the book. Talbot notes that when Dianne Feinstein announced the murders of Moscone and Milk at City Hall, she stopped herself from breaking down by focusing on a familiar face--Duffy's. Anyone who has seen that footage will recall how gripping it is. Incredibly, Duffy ended up in my class at SF State a few years ago and graciously agreed to cover this material for a subsequent one. Duffy's comment on the book: "Even as a reporter immersed in many of these events at the time, I learned a lot from Talbot's work."

Subversives ... and Richard Aoki

My review of Seth Rosenfeld's book, Subversives, ran on Truthdig last week and received a fair amount of traffic. As it turns out, Sol Stern reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal. Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that Sol was on the staff at Ramparts and wrote many of its most important stories. He has since repudiated the magazine's politics, especially when it comes to Israel and the Black Panthers, and is now a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Some readers may find a comparison of the reviews instructive, especially when it comes to the importance of selection and emphasis. My review focuses heavily on what I take to be the book's central story: the relationship between Ronald Reagan and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. The book clearly invites that reading. For example, Reagan's name appears in the subtitle, and Seth concludes the book by detailing the FBI's stubborn refusal to release the files that document its relationship with Reagan. That Seth was able to land those documents through a series of lawsuits is a major part of his contribution.

Sol acknowledges that the Reagan-FBI story contains the book's "most significant historical revelations," but he devotes relatively little space to, and offers almost no details about, those revelations in his review. He's more interested in the book's treatment of Mario Savio and the radical nature of the student protests. That emphasis assorts well with a more general argument Sol has been making in various forums over the years.

Interestingly, Sol also passes on what has proven to be a very controversial aspect of the book: its claim that Richard Aoki, a former Black Panther, was also an FBI informer. Seth released that story separately through the Center for Investigative Reporting this week, and it got a lot of pickup. The story hit a nerve, especially among activists and academics interested in race and ethnicity, and some of the most vocal early responders were deeply skeptical or dismissive--reflexively so, in my opinion. One way to evaluate that opinion is to perform what Stanley Crouch used to call the flip test. If someone brought similar evidence against Reagan or Hoover, for example, would the claim be accepted or rejected?

Readers of a certain age may recall the 1978 New West piece on the Panthers by Kate Coleman and Paul Avery. That one was also sponsored by CIR and received a great deal of attention. (I discuss it in the Ramparts book.)


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lincoln Steffens

I just finished reading Peter Hartshorn's I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens. I was drawn to it by my interest in Carey McWilliams, who met Steffens in the 1930s, and my interest in muckraking generally. But I knew little about the impressive sweep of Steffens's life and work.

Hartshorn lays it all out, starting in Sacramento, where Steffens grew up in the family home that later became the governor's mansion. Then on to Berkeley and the continent for higher education and back to New York for his early journalism. There Steffens befriended the city's police commissioner, a fellow by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. Steffens's muckraking efforts during the Gilded Age, mostly published in McClure's, made him famous and wealthy. Before it was all over, he would also mix with Woodrow Wilson, Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippmann, Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, John Reed, Louis Brandeis, William Randolph Hearst, Vladimir Lenin, Herbert Hoover, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Austin, Robinson Jeffers, and many other notables.

For a muckraker especially, his life was charmed. He was a busy lecturer, but there was also a great deal of leisurely travel, especially in Europe. Indeed, one of Hartshorn's challenges is to make the second half of the biography something more than a travelogue. Steffens produced little writing of note during that time except for his autobiography, which was a hit. But during his travels he met and married the much younger Ella Winter, with whom he had a son. After much roaming, they settled in Carmel. The return to California was enriched by his connection to his niece, Jane Hollister. Her enormous family ranch in central California was another playground for the Steffens family.

Hartshorn spends a good deal of time on Steffens's connection to the Russian Revolution and communism. The book's title, for example, echoes Steffens's enthusiastic assessment of the USSR and its prospects. Having muckraked during the Robber Baron era and witnessed the senseless slaughter of the First World War, Steffens wanted basic reform and embraced various revolutionary efforts. Later, the Great Depression confirmed his sense that capitalism was hopeless.

Hartshorn provides the context for Steffens's convictions but doesn't share them. It's an easy call at this historical remove, but one wonders how Steffens and others accepted such widespread brutality in exchange for the promise of democracy. Part of the answer, Hartshorn argues, was Steffens's advancing age and the comfort he and his family enjoyed in Carmel, a world away from the terror.

During one of his lecture tours in 1920, Steffens noted that his talks were growing "clearer, firmer, [and] redder." In Pennsylvania, he reckoned that one-third of his audience was "visibly shocked." "Apparently I am to talk every night," he wrote his sister Laura, "until I land in San Francisco or jail."

Saturday, August 11, 2012


Just got my third call this week on behalf of the Bay Area News Group. Do yourself a big favor. Stay away from these people.

I wanted to support my local newspaper, so I began subscribing to the West County Times when I moved to Richmond two years ago. It's not a very good paper--their headline the day after the Chevron disaster was on the Olympics, despite the fact that the level-3 fire broke out at 6 p.m. the previous evening in Richmond. But the paper has some local news and the New York Times crossword puzzle, so what the hell.

I decided to stop service because I need to write in the morning, not linger over the puzzle, so I didn't pay the latest bill, which would have continued my service through September. Then I went on vacation. They continued daily service, despite the fact that I put in a vacation stop. My yellowing papers on the front law notified prospective burglars that no one was home. That's the norm, by the way.

The calls started this week. I asked the first caller to discontinue my service and send me a bill for the remaining balance--somewhere in the $14 area. The next call came a few days later. I told the guy the same thing but finally decided to convert my service to Sunday only. He transferred my call to his supervisor, who ran me through the basic info again (address, house or apartment, was older than 18, etc.). Then he told me he couldn't take the order unless I paid with a debit or credit card. Which meant they could bill me into perpetuity, whether or not I wanted the service. No thanks.

Third call this morning, a couple of hours after I sent an email to subscription services to erase any trace of a doubt that we were through. Told caller #3 the same thing. No more calls, no more service, just send the final bill.

I like newspapers, but come on.