Friday, August 26, 2016

REMEMBERING THE WARREN HINCKLE I KNEW

I was sad to hear of the death of Warren Hinckle, the outspoken, hard-writing, hard-drinking San Francisco journalism legend.

He was both a testament to muckraking journalism and a character of excess and outlandish behavior. Some praised his willingness to take on tough issues like Vietnam, the Catholic church and San Francisco politicians, while others decried his scattered writing, drinking and ruffled image.

I was glad to see that today's S.F. Chronicle gave him a prominent spot above the fold on Page One.

I got to know him in the 1990s during my four years at the S.F. Independent, a now-defunct citywide free paper that covered both city issues and local neighborhoods. Hinckle, with his ever-present eye-patch (the result of a childhood accident), had burned bridges at the S.F. Chronicle and S.F. Examiner and was now writing for our gritty small paper.

While I covered City Hall, I got to see him tweak local politicians and push his favorite issues. After helping to get Mayor Frank Jordan elected in 1991, he turned the tables on him, making the first outward request that former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown run against Jordan.

Brown won in 1995 and again in 1999.

In between, we shared drinks at S.F. watering holes on a few occasions, and once in New York when I met up with him years later. At both the screwdrivers flowed.

Then there was Bentley, his companion basset hound that followed him to meetings, bars, City Hall hearings and more. With Bentley near death and needing to be "put down," Hinckle organized a "last supper" at Stars restaurant, among the top eateries in the city at the time. The menu: sparkling water and a premium hamburger.

I never had to edit Hinckle, which I learned quickly from others could be a nightmare for those who suffered his late deadlines, outlandish prose and bad spelling. But I did learn from him the need for newsmen to demand answers, anger the powers that be and challenge authority.

Bill Fazio
Once when I was under attack by a candidate for San Francisco District Attorney for writing a series of stories that exposed his corruption and questionable approach, Hinckle advised me to take it as an honor. When the candidate, Bill Fazio, lost, his brother, Joe Fazio, called and left a threatening message on my phone.

Joe Fazio also happened to be an investigator in the D.A.'s office, a job he soon lost for such criminal behavior.

One of my favorite possessions from those years is a copy of Hinckle's book, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade. He signed it to me after an SF Weekly article on the Independent that wrongly re-hashed the Fazio incident referred to both of us as the paper's "political hitmen.
I lived in San Francisco from 1990 to 1997, a final era of much of the city's great news times. Along with Hinckle there was the Chronicle's legend Herb Caen, the famed three-dot columnist who personally led efforts on many issues; Examiner editor Phil Bronstein, who was a great mix of flamboyant character and smart newsman; and The Bay Guardian's Bruce Brugmann, who used to say the job of a newspaper is to "report the news and raise hell!" 

The city had a handful of great news sources that could compete and dig into all areas of politics, issues, culture, bohemia, and style. Much of that is gone with the Chronicle cut down in size and staff and most of the others either gone or reduced.

Journalism will likely not see the likes of Hinckle again for a while if at all. But I am glad that I at least got to see him in action. And never had to pick up the bar tab.

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