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Not everything memorable has found its way into David Talbot’s catchy San Francisco retrospective.
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But whatever the causes, there’s no doubt that militant black groups flourished in the Bay Area-among them the Black Panthers, who brought guns to demonstrations, and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), kidnappers and brutalizers of Patty Hearst led by Donald DeFreeze, a feral semi-literate prison philosopher who took the name Cinque, and who, with an odd mishmash of black history, victimhood, male chauvinism, and anti-white rhetoric, wowed Berkeley college kids and frightened their white professors.
To his credit, Talbot does not spare Cinque or his group, although he seems somewhat less concerned with their actions than with the effect they had on the liberal-left image. “The group would turn San Francisco and Berkeley upside down and hijack headlines around the globe…. Pitting leftwing groups against one another, tarnishing the prison reform movement, and generally sucking air and light out of the progressive scene.”
Some of us would say that the growth of the SLA and similar groups was the logical outcome of life on that “progressive scene.” But Talbot won’t have it. As one of the country’s leading literary leftist conspiracy theorists, he senses more sinister forces at work. “FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his secret police clearly understood the dark powers of subversion.” Moreover, the FBI was “joined in its clandestine war against American activism and radicalism by the CIA.”
Thus, he concludes, “The true symbiosis in the Symbionese Liberation Army was not between all ‘the oppressed people’ it claimed to be fighting for, but between the SLA and the police agencies that hunted it.” And so, apparently, it was all a set-up, gone badly wrong with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
But while Talbot can be soft where ideology is involved, he’s not soft-headed, and he has no time for con men like Ron Karenga, founder of the “United Slaves” organization “who ruled his turf with a mixture of Afrocentrist mumbo jumbo and thuggish violence,” and “went on to give black America Kwanzaa.” Nor is he always lenient with the unhappy gays he champions. Harvey Milk, for instance, San Francisco’s “gay martyr,” was a strong supporter of Jim Jones. When the Carter administration decided to stop forwarding Social Security checks to members of “The Peoples Temple,” Milk wrote to Jimmy Carter’s Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary, Joseph Califano, that Jim Jones had “‘established a beautiful retirement community in Guyana, the type of which people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize.’” In another letter, Milk told Carter that “‘Rev. Jones is widely known in the minority communities here and elsewhere as a man of the highest character, who has undertaken constructive remedies for social problems which have been amazing in their scope and effectiveness.”
And from the militant wing of those “minority communities,” came equally ringing endorsements. Angela Davis “sent heartfelt greetings by radio…her voice booming out to a temple assembly over loudspeakers. ‘I know you’re in a very difficult situation right now, and there is a conspiracy…. A very profound conspiracy designed to destroy the contributions you have made to the struggle.’”
An equally strong statement of support came from Huey Newton, poster boy for the Black Panthers, who was in exile in Cuba. Charles Garry, the Panthers’ longtime lawyer and “a lion of the Bay Area left, agreed to represent Jones in his legal battles… telling the press, ‘There is a conspiracy by government agencies to destroy the Peoples Temple.’”
“After visiting Jonestown in October 1977, the radical lawyer announced, ‘I have seen paradise.’”
Then came the Kool-Aid, the mass suicides of men, women, and children ordered and orchestrated by Jones. “As the news images of bloated corpses sprawled in the dust were beamed back to San Francisco, the city shuddered. The same free air that had nurtured to beats, hippies, gays, and a growing garden of the imagination had given birth to a monster.”
Indeed. And to many of us, it seemed inevitable that Talbot’s “free air” would do just that.
From here, Talbot’s efforts are directed toward telling us how “San Francisco finally made peace with itself and its new identity.” That process involves a football game, and, to describe it, Talbot resets the stage and re-creates and recasts the 1981 playoff game between the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys.
As the pre-game excitement grew, he writes, “San Francisco seemed closer and closer to exorcising its demons-at least those that could be expelled by dancing in the streets and kissing strangers on the lips. All that stood in the way of the city’s deliverance was the grim-faced executioner Tom Landry and the horsemen of the apocalypse known as the Dallas Cowboys.” (Editorial note: AKA America’s Team.)
Shifting back into high-conspirator mode, he links the Cowboys’ ownership with the FBI, the Mafia, the Kennedy assassination, and, of course, Richard Nixon, and he tells us that “Many black players [he cites one, a notoriously unreliable running back] felt the team was run like a plantation.”
Up against that, he gives us the 49ers’ head coach, dripping with compassion for his players, a “meditative” man with family connections to the gay community, a sensitive man held in contempt by old football hands like Tom Landry, who “clearly thought Bill Walsh’s offense was nothing but fancypants gimmickry, as sinuous and vaguely sinister as San Francisco itself.” (There’s no evidence whatsoever that Landry “clearly thought” that, although anything is fair game for an inflamed literary imagination.)
As for the game itself, which San Francisco won with an off-balance pass from quarterback Joe Montana, Talbot gives us a somewhat dreamy Montana, lead dancer in slow-motion ballet, functioning in “his deeply tranquil zone,” throwing “a high soft pass” that arced toward the end zone “like a prayer” and was caught by Dwight Clark, who pulled it in with a fingertip reception.
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