In the late 1960s in England when I worked for The New Statesman I used to travel down to the printers at High Wycombe each Wednesday in the company of the editor, Paul Johnson, mad though not as mad as he is now. On the train Johnson would ruminate on issues and persons of the hour (“Tony Richardson, a homosexual sadist of the worst sort”). Relief from these explosive allocutions would come in the form of Andrew Kopkind’s weekly dispatches from Washington, telexed overnight and waiting for us at the printer.
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of these pieces. They were collected in a Penguin edition published in 1969 called America: The Mixed Curse and in the days after Andrew died I leafed through my old copy. Andrew worked hard at his opening lines and after a quarter of a century I can still remember many of them: “To be white and a radical in America this summer is to see horror and feel impotence” (1967); “In America, the cult of personality is the faith of the outcast, the politics of salvation” (1967, on R.F.K.); “History is full of last chances, lost opportunities and unperceived possibilities. The history of political liberalism in America for the past twenty years is composed of very little else” (1968, on the McCarthy campaign); “There is a cord which is strung from the winter of 1948 until now, and along it hang the politics, the events, and the personalities of one long, cold season of history” (1968); “I used to work for Time; or was it sell? A Lucemployee is always a salesman first, and then a journalist of whatever degree” (1968).
There was polish and wit in such prose, but the rhythms had a tempo that stretched beyond elegance or aphorism:
The Movement is dead; the Revolution is unborn. The streets are bloody and ablaze, but it is difficult to see why, and impossible to know for what end. Government on every level is ineffectual, helpless to act either in the short-term or the long. The force of Army and police seems not to suppress violence, but incite it. Mediators have no space to work; they command neither resources nor respect, and their rhetoric is discredited in all councils, by all classes. The old words are meaningless, the old explanations irrelevant, the old remedies useless. It is the worst of times.
It is the best of times. The wretched of this American earth are together as they have never been before, in motion if not in movement. No march, no sit-in, no boycott ever touched so many. The social cloth which binds and suffocates them is tearing at its seamiest places. The subtle methods of cooptation work no better to keep it intact than the brutal methods of repression; if it is any comfort, liberalism proves hardly more effective than fascism. Above all, there is a sense that the continuity of an age has been cut, that we have arrived at an infrequent fulcrum of history, and that what comes now will be vastly different from what went before.
This was Andrew, writing in August of 1967 in an essay on Martin Luther King Jr. for The New York Review of Books. I had a line about Andrew in the wake of his death that many people didn’t like, to the effect that “If it ever needed it, he gave extremism a good name.” I suppose the noun makes people nervous. But what extremism meant here was following a simple logic:
Martin Luther King once had the ability to talk to people, the power to change them by evoking images of revolution. But the duty of a revolutionary is to make revolutions (say those who have done it), and King made none. By his own admission, things are worse in the US today—for white people and black—than when he began the bus boycott in Montgomery eleven years ago.…