Erwin Knoll, progressive without any apology


WASHINGTON -- There is considerable irony in the fact that until Erwin Knoll, the editor of The Progressive magazine, began to appear as a regular panelist on public television's "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour," characteristically going against the conventional grain, he was unknown to the average American.

The irony is that Knoll, who died Wednesday at 63, had such a broad stable of friends in public life that his popularity became a running gag with some of them. When he was a reporter in Washington in the 1960s, it was impossible to walk a block or two with him without encountering somebody who would stop to shake his hand and say hello.

The same thing would happen in restaurants and even on airplanes, and not only in Washington. This eventually maddening phenomenon led one friend to have a limited quantity of buttons printed that asked: "Who Is Erwin Knoll?" The buttons then were clandestinely circulated, so that they appeared from time to time in unexpected places in a playful mockery of his ubiquity.

Once, when he had surgery, he awoke and found his doctor leaning over him wearing the button. A Cabinet member would greet him for an interview wearing one. And when Knoll accompanied President Lyndon Johnson on a 'round-the-world trip, he stepped off the press plane in Pago Pago and spotted a local inhabitant sporting another.

Yet it was probably not until Knoll became a regular roundtable panelist on television's most intelligent and best evening news show that Americans at large came to know him. And at that point, it was impossible not to discern that he was a unique voice in journalism.

Amid a lineup of moderate to conservative commentators, Knoll was the house iconoclast. It was convenient shorthand to refer to him as a liberal, or an ultraliberal, or even a radical. But the name of his magazine best described him: a progressive who deeply believed in the basic tenets of the Constitution and just as deeply insisted on holding public officials, of whatever party or temperament, to strict account for any violations of it, in deed or spirit.

Covering the White House during the Vietnam War, he was strenuously opposed to the American involvement and Johnson's deceptions in its pursuit. Yet, unlike many reporters today, he accepted the professional discipline that dictated he separate his personal views on the war from his factual reporting of LBJ's daily conduct of government.

He believed in the ambitious goals of Johnson's Great Society but was relentless in reporting its shortcomings. His heroes were men like more renowned pamphleteer I.F. Stone, whom Knoll emulated with the same commitment to the truth that made Stone respected.

Another of Knoll's heroes was Saul Alinsky, the one-time Chicago neighborhood organizer who rallied poor urban communities to fight City Hall

Knoll, left Washington to become editor of The Progressive in Madison, Wis., in 1973, carried on journalistic guerrilla warfare against the Washington establishment. He did so under Democratic and Republican presidents alike whenever he deemed it in the wrong, which was often.

Knoll won a place in American journalistic history when he stood up to the Justice Department in a 1979 case in which the government obtained a restraining order blocking publication of an article called "The H Bomb Secret, How We Got It -- Why We're Telling It."

The article amounted to an account of how a hydrogen bomb worked, gleaned entirely from public sources and written to demonstrate the folly of excessive government secrecy and the imperative of nuclear arms control. The article was sent to the government for clearance, at which point the Justice Department filed for the restraining order.

Knoll appealed.

The Justice Department dropped the case when a letter to the editor appeared in a small Madison publication containing similar information.

It was not until Knoll began appearing on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour," however, that Americans generally encountered his good-humored assault on wayward political and social institutions, always for falling short of the highest aspirations of the founding fathers of the great American experiment that he revered.

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