I first met Erwin Knoll in a Turkish restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, where he had been editing the Progressive since 1979. One of Erwin’s younger colleagues asked me several times in the course of lunch what could possibly interest a right-winger in such a magazine. As leftist as the Nation in many respects, the Progressive nonetheless was the last vestige of Midwestern populist-progressivism that stood up both to American imperialism and corporate plutocracy. And it was this strain of American revolt that interested me. Knoll, for his part, wanted to hear about Russell Kirk, whom John Judis had assured him was something more than the run-of-the-mill lackeys of the regime who call themselves conservative.
In this and subsequent meetings. Knoll was affable, courteous, and fairminded. When we debated on Milt Rosenberg’s radio show in Chicago or when Erwin interviewed me for his own program in Madison, he was able to maintain his own position without attacking the character of his antagonist. Indeed, it was hard to think of him as an antagonist at all, only a genial uncle who had been unable to detach himself from a leftism that was increasingly incapable of resisting the power of the regime.
Knoll and the Progressive became famous, or rather infamous, for their militant advocacy of the rights of a free press. When they published H-bomb plans that were in the public record—in order to reveal the danger of both nuclear weapons and slipshod security—he was denounced by right-thinking conservatives as a traitor, and when he published advertisements for Feminists for Life and the American Tobacco Institute, he was denounced as a turncoat to his principles. He smiled his way through all these episodes, briskly swatting specious arguments like so many flies—I think of Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca.
Erwin Knoll showed what he was made of during the Gulf War, when most of the leftists who had protested the Vietnam War jumped at the chance to show themselves as safely hawkish as the editors of the New Republic. I was asked at the time, by a network television news producer, if I could name an effective antiwar spokesman, and my first suggestion was Knoll. “That’s funny,” said the producer, “he told me to call you for advice.” One of the few consolations of that dreadful conflict was the opportunity it gave the American people to see a principled journalist slipping his truths in between the lies.
A number of our subscribers were puzzled by Erwin Knoll’s appearance in our October 1994 issue on journalism. Ironically, I had asked several conservative journalists to contribute to the issue. Some refused; some promised and did not deliver; others did not answer my letter. Erwin Knoll was a professional journalist to the last, and although we had a temporary misunderstanding over the deadline, he came through in the end, as he always did.