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BACK IN THE '60s, riding the winds of manic craziness that filled the era, came what the straight press called "underground newspapers." The phenomenon began back before that, actually back in the summer of 1956, when the first Village Voice rolled off the presses in New York. The first issues of The Boston Phoenix and The Back Bay Guardian were based on the proposition that rock lyrics are poetry, too, and in an era of Dylan, Hendrix, Beatles and Stones, were for the most part sustained by a rock mania that translated into record and stereo ads. But if rock was their foundation, politics was their strength--radical politics.
Well, times change, and the underground papers have changed with them, or have gone under; the survivors have reached the suburbanites who worry about which lawn sprinkler system to buy. The Real Paper is probably the biggest American publishing success in the last decade--from a staff that once went six months without pay to a twenty-story high rise on Mass. Ave. in five years. But to do that, something had to go. The record ads and the stereo ads are still there, but the cover story of The Real Paper this week is a long feature about The Ritz downtown.
Into this void springs Politicks & Other Human Interests, almost straight from the brain of Thomas B. Morgan, former editor of The Voice in the pre-Rupert Murdoch days, and once press secretary to former New York Mayor John Lindsay. Morgan had the good fortune to be a protege of Gardner Cowles during the last days of Look magazine, and maybe even more important, to marry Nelson Rockefeller's daughter. Morgan tried to buy The Nation last year, but that deal fell through, and so Politicks was born. It looks very promising.
As The Real Paper has proven, the steel and glass '70s, if not quite the winter of our discontent, are still no summer of love; as if to underline that point the lead feature in the first issue of Politicks delves into the enigmatic soul of Jerry Brown. It is a good piece: reporter Nancy Skelton thoroughly details Brown's backtracking in preparation for a run against Carter in 1980--the "era of limits" is now the "era of possibilities," E.F. Schumacher notwithstanding. It is one of the best of the pieces that have been written on the ex-Jesuit who at 39 is bound to be on the national political stage for a long time to come, and who, it will be remembered, beat Carter in six straight primaries during his abortive run for the presidency last year.
The shorter features are also good. Fortnightly News is a section in the front containing reports from around the country, this week reporting on anti-nuclear demonstrations at Seabrook; Cesar Chavez's first major organizing attempt outside the Southwest; native Hawaiians' battles with the Defense Department, and the utilities companies' efforts to take over rights to solar energy. The inevitable Washington column is written by Alan Baron, who puts out an insider's newsletter from the capital, and contains some interesting tidbits: Carter's inability to get around Senate recommendations in his efforts to appoint blacks and women to federal judgeships, and his difficulties with American Jews over his Middle East policies--Hamilton Jordan flew to Los Angeles to help push tickets for a $1000-a-plate dinner headed by Lew Wasserman of MCA two weeks ago, and it's seen as a big test of his approval.
THE COLUMNS--regular and occassional, it says, so we won't know who will be showing up week to week--are a pleasant surprise. Ronald Steel on foreign affairs and Walter Karp on Carter's Trilateral Connection both are provocative reading. The back columns deal with the arts, and are uniformly excellent. Reed Whittimore, who too rarely writes for The New Republic, weighs in with a good blast of William "Fishbait" Miller's kiss-and-tell "expose" of how Congress really works--a book that deserves to be burned if ever one did. Edward Diamond tells the depressing story of CBS News's Watergate coverage as recounted by Daniel Schorr. Not surprisingly, it turns out you really can't trust Walter Cronkite very far.
But the real goldmine in the tabloid may be The Citizen's Companion, a listing of meetings and demonstrations to make if you're a political activist with a Lear jet. One example is a birthday party for The Citizens for Political Action featuring Eugene McCarthy, I.F. Stone, Reps. Michael Harrington (D-Mass.) and Robert Drinan (D.-Mass.), held here in Boston just last week. (You missed it.) Or there is an address to write if you're interested in helping the Institute for Policy Studies get a special prosecutor appointed to look into the murder of Orlando Letelier, the late Chilean ambassador to the U.S. Or ways of helping the National Organization of Women get the ERA passed in those crucial four last states. Even if you're not interested, it's good to see what leftists are up to.
There are some things that aren't so good--a long, predictable article by Barry Commoner on Carter's energy plan, claiming the sun is the solution. And the interview with Vernon Jordan, director of the National Urban League, is alternately sad and boring. Boring because Jordan refuses to answer questions, playing cagey. Sad because he still doesn't realize that Jimmy Carter was elected as a total outsider, and while he may have a moral commitment to the blacks who elected him he doesn't have a political commitment, because he knows better than anyone else that they really haven't got anyplace else to go.
But rough spots and all, Politicks is a worthy conception well carried out. Its tabloid form is very attractive--you almost want to buy it just for the pictures and for the cartoons by Ed Sorel, the Voice cartoonist who is a true inheritor of Thomas Nast's tradition of political caricature in this country, among others. The real factor of course, will be money. This week's 28-page issue contains about four pages of ads, and the general rule of thumb says that to break even about half the issue has to be advertisements. Look for a 24-page issue two weeks from now.
Newborn babies and all aside, Politicks is a good magazine; it would be nice if it could survive along with the other bi-weekly politics and arts journals like The Nation and The New Republic. Its difficulties should smooth out, and if Morgan can snare some other old friends from the Voice to write--like Jack Newfield, for instance--it can become solid reading about politics that have a focus--at least as much as they can in America--away from Washington. If not, then we'll be left with the lawn sprinkler evaluations, sandwiched in with reviews of the latest from Linda Ronstadt.
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