Warren Hinckle, in urgent pursuit of vodka, trots briskly through the afternoon traffic. In patent leather pumps.
Not your preferred footwear for 15th Street in broad daylight. But, of course, that's just the point, considering the fat, fierce brio of the man -- the eye patch strung around a face like damp calf's liver, the brown pin-stripe suit with the plaid shirt and unmatching plaid tie, the patterns clashing like a scratch at your retina. His clipboard is clamped in pudgy hands, full of causes fought and faiths to keep.
"You gotta sell ideas in America the same way you sell anything else," says Hinckle, tireless drummer of the old New Left, carrying a hint of Willy Loman but still riding on a style and a shoeshine into the uncertain murk of the '80s. And the Brooks Brothers pumps, "the only shoes I wear," are part of the pitch, the Babbitt-baiting bohemianism and industrial-strength outrage that this porcine dynamo has been hawking with distinction for two decades.
"What journalism is all about is to attack everybody," says the former editor of Ramparts and Scanlan's magazines, suckling now at his fifth screwdriver and cursing "the creeping sickness of responsibility" in the press. "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."
He attracted plenty. From 1964 to 1970, as the voice of the anti-establishment establishment, Ramparts relentlessly raked the national muck, exposed the CIA's infiltration of academic organizations, ridiculed the Warren Commission and made Eldridge Cleaver and Che Guevara household reading wherever incense was burned.
Even Scanlan's, Ramparts' short-lived successor, caused coronary quavers in the Nixon White House where a rookie lawyer named John Dean found that his first assignment was to punish the fledgling monthly for an article claiming that Spiro Agnew had a secret plan to cancel the 1972 election and repeal the Bill of Rights.
But then America was becalmed by the mid-'70s. Suddenly Jerry Rubin's policies were all with insurance companies, Abbie Hoffman was holding his nose and Tom Hayden was about as radical as Calvin Klein. And now, in the sullen I-got-mine decade, Hinckle can see no lasting legacy from Ramparts. The Vietnam war ended only when it "disrupted commerce," he says, and "the whole dope culture has gone straight. "The only people getting stoned are the hard hats, truckers and blue-collar guys who read Hustler magazine. The hippies all got mortgages."
Yet, at 42, Hinckle is still nagging the national psyche like Banquo's ghost at a Tupperware buffet. "I spend a lot of time in the ghettos," he says. "I hang out in very tough circles, in cop bars and garbage bars," and can report with ominous certitude that "there's gonna be civil war in this country within a decade," that in the urban jungles "they're stockpiling rockets." Apocalypse Wow -- all ending, he predicts, in redistribution of income: "The government's just gonna pay off" because "we cannot have 90 percent of the kids" in outlaw poverty: "They're just gonna whack out anybody they come across." Legislation by fear? "At least it's an honest motive."
And he's still selling Armageddon by the paragraph. In the past 10 years he has written all or part of five books, including the just-published "The Fish Is Red: The Story of the Secret War Against Castro" -- the promotional tour for which has pried him out of his native San Francisco, where he writes a weekly column for the Chronicle and plots the eruption of new periodicals. (Due this fall: a city magazine called Frisco and the resurrection of Mark Twain's old newspaper in Virginia City, Nev.)
"Fish" is his second book with co-author William Turner, a former FBI agent and investigative reporter at Ramparts. Their first joint effort, "The Ten Second Jailbreak," became a Charles Bronson movie called "Breakout." Having a partner means splitting the take, but "nobody in his right mind would write a book by himself," Hinckle says in his blurry growl like a garbage disposal working on carrot tops. "It's too much work, you can't do other things at the same time, and you need somebody to drink with."
The new book is a powerful history covering 20 years of CIA involvement in attempts by Cuban exiles and others to discredit or murder Fidel Castro, with excursions into Haitian plots, the JFK and Letelier assassinations and the continued existence of "a Cuban PLO," all lavishly embellished with the shrill conspiracy rhetoric made famous in Ramparts. No wonder, Hinckle says, "I used to write most of those cover stories and then put other people's names on them." Critics have objected to the strident tone and loud antigovernment bias. But Hinckle doesn't think he has a credibility problem: "Only with phony liberal journalists who think there's some truth on both sides."
He professes no politics -- "if I did, I'd have to enforce 'em" -- and abuses all parties with impartial zeal. "Most of the Left I can't stand. They're sleazy, slimy, back-stabbing people," and "Spiro Agnew was right in almost everything he said about the press and East Coast intellectuals." Personally, "I like righties," and he praises the scholarship of the John Birch Society. "But just because they tell the truth doesn't mean that you agree with them."
The idea for "Fish" began in the early '70s when he decided to "recycle" some articles -- "old Ramparts material never goes away" -- and the subsequent history of confusion and rancor is 100-proof Hinckle. The book was contracted to Houghton Mifflin and scheduled for September 1975. An editor at Houghton Mifflin says that Hinckle dropped off "a large mess," and "then we couldn't get him to finish it -- we lost complete track of him . . . He's the world's most famous deadbeat."
For his part, Hinckle says, "I don't respect deadlines, that's for creeps." He recalls that the project "sort of petered out." After beginning the manuscript, "I got bored with it," and had formed the company to revive the Nevada newspaper ("eventually we had to buy a hotel, too, so we could have some place to drink in"). "I didn't like the first draft either," but he didn't repay the $30,000 advance because "If a publisher doesn't like a book, that's their tough luck." And besides, "I don't like publishers," he says, "they're dumb, obstructive, bureaucratic and cheap." His interest revived when a 1975 Senate select committee started probing assassination attempts, and finally Times Books bought up the property. When Times folded recently, "it was sold like chattel" to Harper & Row, who finally published it. But without Hinckle's final rewrites: By then, he was in Belfast for Rolling Stone.
Outrageous! Just like the "terrible hangover." At a glance you could see the need, like somebody has filled his head with sand and is forcing hot vinegar through it. But here in the shadowed succor of the cocktail lounge, his red eye no longer glares out of his face like a man buried alive in boiled corned beef, and he slumps into comfort, bending over the scatter of swizzle sticks to pull out of his briefcase a large box of Band-Aids and rewrap a finger. "An Irish bartender friend smashed a door on my hand."
Chronic iconoclasm: "I just do the same stuff now that I did in high school, except I didn't drink as much then. I used to attack the Catholic Church, and now it's the government." He began losing his respect for the Church about the same time he lost his eye in a childhood auto accident, growing disillusioned that priests and nuns were "just human," and finally coming to "accept the Church for the tinsel, lazy, corrupt and at the same time appealing thing that it was," as he writes in his cheerfully insolent autobiography, "If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade" (1974).
Through parochial school and the Jesuit rigors of the University of San Francisco, sophomoric rebellion hardened into habit with journalism its principal expression. He edited the USF paper (once burning down a wooden guard house, he says, just to have a headline in a slow news week), having been converted by the vision of Humphrey Bogart as a tough, incorruptible editor in "Deadline U.S.A.," "the greatest newspaper movie ever made." After a couple of years in public relations, he joined the San Francisco Chronicle, working in the Oakland bureau. While the cityside reporters were "reading Harper's and smoking pipes," Hinckle "drank bourbon with the guys. We never had bylines, and used to spend most of our time flattening out the papers for wholesale florists to use," thus generating a litle booze money. "How can you put out a good paper," Hinckle asks in apparent earnestness, "unless you're drunk?"
Soon, however, a friend recommended him for a job at Ramparts, then a Catholic literary quarterly. Hinckle gradually changed the content, eventually replaced founder-publisher Edward Keating in a bitter in-house feud, spent money with oil-sheik abandon and watched the circulation rise from 2,500 in 1964 to around 225,000 by 1969, when Hinckle resigned after failing to find more funding. He had proven miraculous at wooing backers (although "I always say it's a disaster, like betting horses") and was never fastidious about his sources. He once accepted $200,000 from a jailed mobster. "It didn't bother me -- I was going to call a press conference in New York and say, 'Yes, we've taken all this money from a horrible murderer. But at least mobsters only kill one person at a time, while the government kills thousands at once in Vietnam.' I had it all worked out." But at the office, the staffers "went crazy," the money was rejected, and Ramparts became a financial black hole. "Lyndon Johnson put us out of business by quitting," Hinckle says now. "He was a magnet of hatred" whose "greatest act was to quit, because it destroyed the Left." Hinckle immediately announced a new version of Ramparts called Barricades, which became Scanlan's. "There's only one magazine -- the names change, but the rest stays the same." It took no advertising, and finally died in 1971 when an entire issue devoted to guerrilla warfare in America and printed in Canada was confiscated by the Mounties, possibly at the instigation of the White House.
But it is impossible to imagine the Hinckle message without a medium, and the last best hope is Frisco, which he and a group of backers are starting from the ruins of Boulevards, a punk-rock tabloid. The San Francisco Chronicle is uneasy with the idea of his involvement with a magazine -- a situation sure to provoke even more unrest in the Hinckle home on Castro Street where his wife, Denise, and two teen-age daughters are "used to insanity" -- and the town itself may be disconcerted by the first cover, which reads: "Bend Over, San Francisco, This Won't Hurt a Bit."
But Hinckle is bullish on outrage, and is literally banking on his trademark blend of vodka and vehemence. "That's what it's all about," he says. "Out of the mud grows the lotus."