Obituary: Andrew Kopkind

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The Independent Online
Andrew Kopkind, journalist: born New Haven, Connecticut 24 August 1935; died New York 23 October 1994.

'It is a policeman's prerogative,' the American journalist Andrew Kopkind once wrote, 'to choose the felons he fancies and overlook the others. So it is with world cops.'

The observation is vintage Kopkind: assured, acerbic, and as pertinent today as it was when it appeared in the New Statesman in 1966. The most important radical journalist of his generation, Kopkind was also the most radical - and easily the most entertaining. 'Congress declared war on poverty in 1964 and has been trying to withdraw from battle ever since,' he wrote back in the days of the Great Society, before Richard Nixon (whom Kopkind described as 'America's one-man credibility gap') and his successors made the welfare state a term of abuse.

The son of the Republican District Attorney of New Haven, Connecticut, Kopkind studied Philosophy at Cornell, where he edited the student newspaper, and then began a conventional ascent up the ladder of American journalism. He worked the night police beat at the Washington Post, and, after completing an MSc at the London School of Economics in 1961, became a correspondent for Time magazine in California. 'Serving Time', his account in the New York Review of Books of his adventures hotelling with Conrad Hilton and bullfighting with El Cordobes, still stands as the definitive anatomy of 'group journalism'. In 1964, with Lyndon Johnson in the White House and a few US 'advisers' in Vietnam, Kopkind moved to Washington to become associate editor of the New Republic.

His pieces in the New Republic, and in the New Statesman, whose Washington correspondent he became at about the same time, chart Kopkind's transit from wised-up liberal to hard-edged radical. Not coincidentally, they also trace his country's descent into madness abroad and despair at home. As with many of his generation, his real political education began in Mississippi, where he had gone to cover the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's attempts to organise rural blacks. The courage of activists like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, and their commitment to the very long haul, stayed with Kopkind for the rest of his life. So did the bitterness of their betrayal by white liberals, who, under pressure from President Johnson, voted to recognise a delegation of white segregationists instead of the black Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

Setting out to discover whether SNCC's campaign had inspired similar efforts in the north, Kopkind came across a group of young whites who had come to the same conclusions he had about the bankruptcy of traditional politics.

This was the Students for a Democratic Society. For the rest of the decade, until the remnants of SDS blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1971, Kopkind's reports, first in Ramparts magazine and the New York Review of Books, and then in Mayday, an underground journal he co-founded in 1968, were the outside world's main window into the American student movement and a mirror in which they examined themselves. He marched with them, got busted with them, and in 1969 flew to Hanoi with them to meet the Viet Cong. Many of these articles were collected in America: the Mixed Curse, which Penguin published in 1969.

But even as all about him were losing their heads, and sometimes their lives, Kopkind remained remarkably clear-sighted about the hard truths of American power. He considered Robert Kennedy an opportunist, an accomplice to 'the counterrevolutionary crusade, which began with candy and ended, inevitably, with napalm'. And yet, he wrote in 1968, 'for anyone looking for a political way out of the Vietnamese disaster, it is impossible to reject the Bobby phenomenon, even if it is equally impossible to enjoy it. Kennedy is real. The radical protests, the Senate doves and even the McCarthy campaign are not.'

In the Sixties Kopkind was ubiquitous. Even the New York Times magazine drafted him to reassure readers that revolution was not just around the corner. 'I did not exactly decide to sit out the Seventies, but I wasn't marching any more. I found myself a new set of friends who swallowed rather large quantities of LSD on a regular regimen.'

He moved to a commune in southern Vermont, tended his garden, and came out as a gay man. A new movement was born out of the agonies of the New Left and, battle-weary as he was, he joined the fray. With his lover, John Scagliotti (they would remain together for 24 years), he started The Lavender Hour, the first gay programme on American commercial radio.

Describing himself as 'a zeitgeist sniffer,' he joined the Village Voice and produced a series of seminal articles on disco music, the politics of fashion and the emergence of a self-conscious gay culture.

He joined the Nation magazine in 1982, where he continued to sniff the zeitgeist, covered national elections (he was perhaps the most influential white supporter of Jesse Jackson's insurgent campaign) and wrote unsigned editorials until the week he died. He also contributed articles to publications ranging from Esquire and House & Garden to the left-wing Italian newspaper Manifesto.

Every summer he would invite the young student interns from the Nation up to the 90-acre farm he and Scagliotti shared in southern Vermont for a weekend of planting, eating, and intense political discussion. He was a large man with large appetites, an extraordinary cook and a brilliant raconteur. It was on one of these weekends that we first met, and I suspect most of his young admirers felt, as I did, that we learnt more around his kitchen table than in any institution of higher education.

For the past four years he waged a brave fight against bladder cancer, keeping his famous sense of humour intact through surgery, chemotherapy, more surgery and more chemotherapy. He even managed a long report on the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time of his death he was working on The Thirty Years' Wars, a collection of his writing which Verso will publish next year. His Nation colleague and longtime friend Alexander Cockburn said: 'He was the best radical reporter and writer of his time, the most graceful stylist, and spiritually, the person least amenable to conformity I've ever met.'

Joan Didion, another longtime friend, said: 'It wasn't just that he had a first-rate mind. A fair number of people have first-rate minds. Not so many put those minds to being good human beings, and Andy did. He was just the best person I knew.'

(Photograph omitted)

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