The online journalism pioneer shares why he chose to write about San Francisco in his book Seasons of the Witch, how the city’s inhabitants pushed social progress and relates its 1960s values to current social issues.
Salon.com founder David Talbot
Tavis: David Talbot is the founder of Salon.com and best-selling author of a book about the Kennedys called “Brothers.” His latest is “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love.” David, that’s a heck of a title. (Laughter) That was your idea?
David Talbot: It was. Well, it’s a heck of a city.
Talbot: I had to pack a lot in there.
Tavis: Yeah. The city we’re talking about, of course, is the city of San Francisco. The book really is about tying in the issues, the social issues of today, the culture wars, if you will, tying them in today with how and where and when all this got, these culture wars, that is, got started. Why San Francisco as the epicenter?
Talbot: Well, I think San Francisco, it exploded in the 1960s, right? This is where, when I was growing up, if you were young, if you were different, if you felt like an outcast, for whatever reason, you wanted to head to San Francisco. It was liberated territory.
There was a shelter for runaway teens, the first of its kind, because it was illegal in those days for teenagers to be on the run and for anyone to shelter them. It was called Huckleberry House, and it was named after Huckleberry. That’s where Jim and Huck would have headed, that’s what the founder of Huckleberry House said, if they had been alive at that time.
So there was freedom, there was sexual freedom, there was music. The Fillmore auditorium brought together Black music, white music, Otis Redding, the Jefferson Airplane. It was just a great mix and a great time to be alive.
So everything was possible, and I think that’s why the cultural revolution began in San Francisco.
Tavis: One way to look at this is to thank San Francisco for pushing social progress a little bit faster and helping the pace advance. The other way to look at it, of course, is San Francisco is the cause of all the hell that this country is enduring right now. Why look at it one way and not the other?
Talbot: Well, because I think this is as relevant as President Obama’s decision on gay marriage last week. These were the San Francisco values that have been derided and scorned by Fox News and the far right in this country for so long that finally have prevailed.
It’s all about personal freedom. It’s about the right to choose. It’s about women’s right to choose, it’s about gays’ right to have the kind of partnerships and unions they want.
So it did take a city that was willing to take those risks, to push the envelope and to go through all the kind of bloody conflicts that San Francisco went through. By the way, San Francisco values, Tavis, were not born with flowers in their hair. People think this is a hippie-dippie kind of thing. There were bloody conflicts.
San Francisco was a very conservative, very Catholic city in the 1960s when this culture war began there.
Tavis: I want to go back to two things you’ve just said. Let me just, before I forget, right quick – getting older here – (laughter) when you say this was not –
Talbot: You and me both.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. When you say this was not flowers in their hair, that it was a bloody conflict, tell me more about that process.
Talbot: Well, first of all, as I say, the city was very Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, kind of an old boy network that ran city hall and the police department. They really drew the drawbridge up when the kids started to flood into San Francisco in the Summer of Love in 1967.
Kids were arrested, were hassled all the time, there were raids all the time, even on the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which was one of the great institutions that comes out of the Summer of Love. Here you have thousands, literally, of kids on the streets, like the Occupy movement today, and they were sick, many of them, they needed attention, they needed care.
The only place that was willing to do that – no hospital would treat them, their drug problems – was a free clinic that sprung up with $500 from a heroic young doctor name Dr. David Smith, and began treating these kids.
So these were some of the institutions that also came up as a result of San Francisco values. Free medical care, free clothing when people needed it, free music in the parks, and this notion that there’s certain basic rights to life and pleasure in life that should be free that start bubbling up in San Francisco.
Tavis: To your point now, given how conservative a city San Francisco was during this time, what made it such a fertile ground, such fertile territory, for this kind of social advance?
I ask that because there are a lot of conservative cities in the country. Why San Francisco?
Talbot: Well, San Francisco did have its kind of wild and crazy frontier roots. Of course, it goes back to the gold rush days. People from all around the country trying to make it rich. It was the kind of city where the madams, the top prostitutes in town, when they came into the opera house, the gentlemen stood up and applauded.
It was a wild and crazy town, and that sort of frontier spirit continued into the next century. But as I say, there was this old order that resisted it. There was a brutal conflict, and then, of course, the book goes into this in part two – the political assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the great champion of gay rights, riots in the streets, the biggest mass suicide in history, Jim Jones, which I call actually more of a massacre than a suicide, Jim Jones and People’s Temple.
One calamity after the next really strikes San Francisco as that dream of the ’60s starts to fall apart and shatter. But the great triumph of San Francisco is that it gets through those dark days as well and ultimately wins, I think, in the 1980s.
Tavis: You also talk about, speaking of triumph, San Francisco sports and its relevance, namely, the 49ers. I’ll come back to that in just a second, because I don’t want to lose sight of something you said a moment ago.
You used a word that I found curious, and maybe you meant the word, maybe you want to adjust it; I don’t know, you tell me. But when you suggested, talking about gay rights, that just because Barack Obama expresses a personal opinion, that it prevailed, I think “prevail” is a strong word.
Maybe you meant something by that that I didn’t, but I think because one guy, even if he is the president, says he’s for gay marriage, I’m not sure that agenda has prevailed. Maybe you meant something different. Maybe I’m missing a point.
Talbot: Well, no, the president has a ways to go, you’re right. When President Kennedy spoke about civil rights in the same kind of, I think, grand moment in his presidency, he backed it up with legislation. I think that’s what the president needs to do next, to make sure that does become a right that every American enjoys.
But it’s a huge first step, and I credit President Obama for doing that. I do think there’s a connection between his decision, ultimately, and what began bubbling up in San Francisco. Let’s not forget Mayor Gavin Newsom, way back in 2004, who stuck his neck way out by endorsing the right for gays to marry in city hall, and he instructed city hall, the city clerk, to begin issuing licenses back then.
The Democratic Party went nuts; Barney Frank even chastised him for that. So Mayor Newsom is to be also commended for that.
Tavis: If the president ends up losing, in part as a result of these culture wars and his position on this issue, your word prevail will be transformed into what?
Talbot: Well, I still think you have to do the right thing, do the right thing. I think what he’s done is cause a national conversation right now that’s essential for this country to grapple with.
So to me, as a progressive, I’ve been pushing Barack for a long time – take a stand. Do the right thing. When the president does that, I feel like he has to be backed up and supported.
Tavis: Okay. Back to the 49ers, because we could debate this issue ad infinitum. We won’t.
Back to the 49ers, though. You can’t talk about San Francisco without talking about the 49ers. Even of late, of course, last season they had a pretty good season. It had been a while. Had a good season last year.
Talbot: Yeah, don’t remind me. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, it had been a while. They had a good season last year. But you talk about that in the text specifically, and one of the iconic figures in this city of San Francisco is Bill Walsh.
Talbot: Amazing man – more of a poet than a gladiator, as I say in the book, in some ways. Here’s a guy who really had not been given a break by the NFL, despite his genius. He was known as the genius because he was emotional, he was a volatile character.
No NFL owner would trust him with a team until finally Eddie DeBartolo gave him the 49ers out of desperation, because as you say, the team had been so bad for so long.
But here’s a man who brings in Harry Edwards, Dr. Harry Edwards, who no NFL team would have touched. He was the great instructor, sociology instructor at Berkeley who had risked a lot by backing the athletes in Mexico City in 1968 who protested with the raised fist, the clenched fist, the track stars.
Harry Edwards was a very controversial figure, but Bill Walsh brings him in to deal with race relations in the team. He hires an openly gay trainer, Lindsy McLean, because he was a great trainer. No NFL team to this day has done that.
So again and again, Bill Walsh is ahead of his time, and the team married kind of his eccentricities. They kind of mirrored that. There were some has-beens, washed-up veterans, a young, untested quarterback, Joe Montana, who’s kind of a spindly legged, Sea Biscuit type guy. People felt he wasn’t physically ready for the NFL.
Yet he puts together this unlikely team and leads them to this amazing Super Bowl victory in 1982, and by doing that starts to heal the wounds in the city, the city that had been through so much, through assassinations and as I say, Jonestown, the SLA and Patty Hearst – one trauma after the next.
That victory parade; and I was there in January 1982, they came around the bend onto Market Street in downtown San Francisco, and Bill Walsh had first thought no one was going to be on the streets because it looked empty at first.
Then suddenly there’s this explosion of celebration of humanity – Blacks, whites, Asian, young, old, people of all classes, hanging out from windows and on lampposts, and he began to cry because he saw what this team had finally done for this wounded city.
Tavis: I’m thinking now, looking at the title of the book, the subtitle, “The City of Love,” that there are a number of cities that have laid claim to that notion of love; Philadelphia famously comes to mind, the City of Brotherly Love.
When you say, in reference to San Francisco, that it is a city of love, by that you mean what?
Talbot: Well, of course, that hearkens back to the Summer of Love in 1967.
Talbot: San Francisco very much saw itself as in opposition to the war, as opposition to the prevailing values of the country at that time, and it was where no one was left outside your golden gate, as the song goes.
We were going to embrace everyone, and that’s the true spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, who of course is the namesake of the city. But it was not until the ’80s, I feel, when the city had to deal with the AIDS epidemic, that you finally see the spirit of St. Francis really in full effect, because the city, just as President Reagan is rejecting AIDS, he’s not even speaking the name AIDS, the city in San Francisco realized we have to take care of our own, because the country, the federal government’s not, and the city came together to do that.
Tavis: I think it’s fair to call this a love letter to the city of San Francisco. (Laughter)
Talbot: A bloody Valentine, as I put it, because there’s some harsh stuff in there too.
Tavis: It’s called “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love.” David Talbot, best-selling author of the book, “Brothers,” out with his latest. David, good to have you on.
Talbot: Great to be here, Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store and I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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