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Inflamed Literary Imaginations

Not everything memorable has found its way into David Talbot's catchy San Francisco retrospective.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love
By David Talbot
(Free Press, 452 Pages, $28)

ONE OF MY FAVORITE STORIES from the late 1960s, not told here by David Talbot, is set on the campus of San Francisco State College, then suffering from the longest student/faculty strike in U.S. history and besieged by various radical groups, some of them armed.

The hero of that story, also not mentioned by Talbot, is Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, an internationally respected semanticist (later a U.S. senator), named acting president of the college by desperate trustees. Hayakawa had made a simple promise: He'd restore order to the campus, so that students and their parents would get the educations they were paying for.

In a famous scene once shown coast to coast but ignored by Talbot, a band of thugs, the usual contingent of Bay Area militants and a good sprinkling of SF State faculty, milled around a truck parked at the college entrance. On the body of the truck they'd set up a sound system, into which various speakers shouted their demands.

Then Hayakawa appeared, just as he said he would, pushing briskly through the demonstrators, a small man, 62 years old and 150 pounds at the most. He climbed up on the truck, knocked several militants aside, and disconnected the wires of the sound equipment.

He brushed his hands, climbed off the truck, shouted back good-naturedly at several militants who'd shouted at him, told them all to get back to their studies, and returned through the crowd to his office.

Later he would blame much of the campus unrest on the faculty, especially members of the English department. During one demonstration, the writer Kay Boyle shouted at Hayakawa, "You are a fascist." "Kay Boyle," he shouted back, "you are a fool."

Many of the problems on campus, he said, could be blamed on "inflamed literary imaginations."

And that, in a nutshell, is one of the problems with David Talbot's book, an amalgam of colorful retrospective reporting on the plague years of the late 1960s to the early 1980s that touches on the Manson family, the Symbionese Liberation Army and kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the Zodiac murders, Jim Jones and the mass suicides, the murder of Harvey Milk, race riots, AIDS, the San Francisco 49ers' championship year-all rendered in vivid if sometimes overwrought prose, and informed by a somewhat jarring and at times incongruous advocacy for causes that one suspects have little place in the author's real life.

Talbot, founder of Salon and author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, a must-read for leftist conspiracy theorists, brings to his chronicle a literary imagination shaped and informed by that curious California blend of old hard-left mythology that still lives on in places like Hollywood and Los Angeles, where he grew up and where Stalinist heroes and heroines are still honored; and San Francisco, where he always wanted to live, with its curious blend of radical left politics, celebration of the bohemian life, and dogmatic insistence on the rightness and desirability of all things once considered perverse-a way of life that in the age of Stalin would have led to a one-way ticket to Siberia. There are no drag queens in Soviet poster art.

Talbot's view is reflected in the figures from the past he celebrates as well as those, in addition to S.I. Hayakawa, he chooses to omit. Among his heroes are radical San Francisco lawyer Vincent Hallinan and the black newswoman Charlotta Bass, who ran in 1952 for president and vice president on the ticket of the Progressive Party, whose first candidate in 1948 had been Henry Wallace, viewed by many as a Stalinist dupe. By the time Hallinan and Bass ran, the Progressive Party was in great part controlled by the Communist Party USA, which in 1952 was still taken seriously in Moscow and funded by the Comintern.

Other heroes mentioned: W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, both winners of the Stalin Peace Prize and welcome in Moscow. Du Bois, especially, was a strong and eloquent defender of Stalin to the end. Harry Bridges, the wharf rat-tough Australian Communist and longshoreman, gets space here, but there is no mention of Eric Hoffer-also a longshoreman-the self-taught philosopher and elegant essayist whose essentially conservative writings captured the unique point of view of the non-Marxist working man. There's also much about Allen Ginsberg and praise for the Beats, but nothing about the chief Beat, Jack Kerouac, who loathed leftists, both old and new.

During the years of Beats' influence and of their hippie successors, San Francisco billed itself as the City of Love. But that dreamy softness was replaced by a hardness, drug-induced and often violent, with the flower children making easy prey for a new breed of predators.

INEVITABLY, THIS HARDENING involved race. Expectations had been raised, often unrealistically, along with the liberal mindset that requires us to believe not only that black is beautiful, but also accept that it's better. Also, especially among academic white liberals, there was an added element of fear.

As Senator Hayakawa put it, "White liberals, in their hunger for humiliation, will take as revealed truth anything an angry black man says."

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.

"The moment Clark's feet hit the turf, the crowd exploded as if it had been holding its breath for years…. This was the exact instant of San Francisco's salvation."

Although, as it turned out, not quite. The dreaded Cowboys were beaten. But the reality of AIDS still had to be dealt with. Here, quite predictably, looking for a culprit, Talbot turns his attention back toward Ronald Reagan, who is raked over the coals for failing to have led a campaign against AIDS. But with the epidemic raging through the gay bars, bath houses and mens' rooms, spread by homosexual promiscuity, what could the president-or anyone, for that matter-have done, beyond urging homosexuals to alter their behavior?

Talbot brings his narrative to a somewhat strained close with an old homosexual, dying of AIDS, taking some pills and deciding he's going to live. But he won't. The pills to cure it haven't been found, and HIV transmission is at an all-time high. And as people continue to die, so does the myth of San Francisco as the City of Love, no matter how appealingly packaged by exceptional writers with inflamed literary imaginations.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).