Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Season of the Witch" is a Reason to Bitch

    David Talbot, son of movie actor Lyle Talbot and founder of Salon.com, has written a book entitled "Season of the Witch" that chronicles the horrific history of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. Sounds a lot like "Philips Code" so naturally some people wondered if  I knew Talbot. The two books deal with the same time frame, but that's about all they have in common. My book makes no claim to being a history. It's a critique of the news media, one I hope was done in an entertaining way.  I tried to contact David Talbot  several times, but to no avail. Even his underlings did not return my messages, which led me to conclude that while the post office is "snail mail" contemporary communications methods are often "fail mail." I met David Talbot only once. That was more than a decade ago when I interviewed his father who lived in San Francisco, resulting in one of those "you-know-his-face-but-not-his-name" stories. Later, I wrote Lyle Talbot's obituary. His son's book is subtitled "Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love," which I think should be changed to "San Francisco History for Dummies." If you are not a native of San Francisco - and Talbot isn't -  "Season" is a good place to start your education.

   The book recounts a terrible time that saw the Zebra killings, the Symbionese Liberartion Army  (SLA), the mass suicide by the Peoples Temple followers of Jim Jones, the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. etc., etc., etc.  If the sources listed in the back are any indication, the author did gumshoe work during his research. However, he seldom cites a source in the text, which can be jarring when he writes about something or someone the reader knows. For instance, he said Tom Cahill, San Francisco's police chief at the time, "urged fathers to use the rod on their children - and their wives." Talbot fails to note where that information came from. I knew Tom Cahill. A friend of my wife's family, he was at my wedding at Star of the Sea in 1962, and, of course, we connected during my work at UPI. I can't think of anyone less likely to beat his wife. I concede Cahill may have made a remark in jest, but if so the information should have been clarified. The book also mentions - barely -  "sociologist Todd Gitlin" for observing that the SLA was the graveyard of the 1960s New Left. It fails, however, to note that Gitlin, one time president of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, but known to many as Shit Disturbing Students), wrote the powerful book, "The Whole World is Watching," which postulates that mass media is the incubator for radical movements, a theory proven almost every day. For example, any protest that drew four "occupiers" was good for some coverage while 35,000 anti-abortion protesters marching on the San Francisco waterfront were virtually ignored.

    I wish Talbot had gone more deeply into how the news media shaped San Francisco's reputation and clout during this time, which is what I  tried to do.  He quoted Herb Caen and some local reporters, but did not go in to how AP and UPI, which both had well-staffed bureaus in San Francisco, carried the city's story to the rest of the nation. After all, this was a time when newspapers were just about the only game in town. They were powerful enough to support two major wire services, unlike the moribund empress dowagers newspapers are today, a description that could apply to San Francisco itself.
    The author describes San Francisco Examiner Guy Wright as a "conservative," an adjective that's a kiss of death from Talbot. Wright, he said, "sounded" like killer Dan White "himself" when, after the assassinations of Moscone and Milk, Wright told his readers San Francisco had become "aberration city ... a city without a norm." If Wright left a journalistic legacy it was not this. It was his lone wolf crusade to show that fire department recruitment standards were lowered to the point "that skin color and gender will count for everything and ability for next to nothing."  A few years later the fire department would be devastated by the so-called "swastika incident," which was a pure fabrication aided and abetted by the Chronicle and the wire services. Then there's the Zebra killings, which saw whites killed for no other reason than their skin color. Talbot writes that the killings that went into double figures "faded" from the city's collective memory. How does something that terrible "fade" unless it is allowed to do so?
      Also unnoticed is the role Ramparts, the muckraking San Francisco-based magazine, had in shaping San Francisco into an outpost of radical change. (See earlier posting) Warren Hinckle, the power behind Ramparts, is noted but once. The book reports that Diane Feinstein tried to dump a drink on Hinckle, an amusing incident that was news to me. I find the omission of Hinckle strange because Catholics seem to be favorite targets of both men.

      Talbot blasts the "old boy" network of Irish and Italian Catholics he said ran the city (strange that one never sees terms like "new boy" or "old girl"), forgetting that the likes of Mayors George Christopher or Elmer Robinson hardly fell into either of those camps. The police department was a bastion of a "rosary and billy club culture," he said. Talbot concedes that the Irish values were "family oriented" but says it's a good thing they were replaced by today's San Francisco values of "live and let live." He postulates that San Francisco was healed from its time of terror by "learning how to take care of its sick and dying," a reference to AIDs. He should have talked to someone old enough to recall a time when "Catholic values" helped bring about a string of emergency hospitals throughout the city, emergency hospitals that did not charge. Even the ambulance service was free.

     For all the ranting against Catholics, there is only one person in the book who strikes me as someone I wish I had known and  he was Catholic: John Barbagelata, Moscone's main political rival. Barbagelata knew of Moscone's sexual escapades but refused to use the information. "Barbagelata was old school, and he believed you don't do certain things to another man's family, no matter how passionate the feud," Talbot writes. Sounds like good values to me - even if they might be Catholic or conservative.




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