This article first appeared in Isthmus on May 25, 2001.
John Nichols drives a 1990 Ford Escort station wagon with 154,000 miles on it. The cup holders are stuffed with Carmex containers, a button from a farm rally and a rubber monster finger puppet a friend gave him when he was 18. Nichols, now 42, editorial page editor of The Capital Times, columnist for The Nation, contributor to The Progressive, and one of the brightest voices speaking for progressive politics in the country today, pops the puppet on his index finger and wiggles it, attempting in vain to demonstrate its scary qualities: "I've just always moved it from car to car. I'm not sure why."
There is that kind of whimsy to John Nichols, coupled with an intense intellectual curiosity. He's proper, almost courtly, yet calls everyone "comrade." It's a kind of leveler -- an equitable term -- that at the same time seems almost tongue-in-cheek.
The Escort is equipped with the accoutrements of someone who spends a lot of time in his car: a portable CD player plugged into the cassette deck, a stack of CDs, a pile of books cascading across the back seat. Nichols admits he will start reading while stuck at a traffic light. He is not particularly good at staying in his lane, at least when he has a passenger, because he generally chooses meeting his listener's eyes over looking at the road. In conversation he'll often reach over and tap the your elbow or knee, as if to make sure the connection's still there.
The crumpled driver's side door of Nichols' Escort won't open from the outside. Someone backed into it during a Nader rally last fall and he hasn't yet gotten around to having it fixed. His solution has been to leave the door ajar, for he's generally unconcerned about theft.
"There's a disconnect on crime in Madison," says Nichols, who prior to coming to The Cap Times worked for The Toledo Blade, a paper that could pretty much set aside space on the front page of the Sunday paper for the story of the murder that would surely take place on Saturday night. Madison, Nichols repeats, just doesn't have much of a crime problem.
No bumper stickers.
Nichols figures that since he moved to Madison in late 1993, three days is the longest he's spent here without getting out of town, whether it's driving around the state or traveling the globe. He's covered the Gulf War, the 1992 Clinton campaign, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Yet he doesn't need high-stakes, adrenaline-producing situations to fuel his curiosity.
"I've never been bored," declares Nichols. "Give me a day -- I'll fill it with a fun activity." His friends complain that something takes most people two minutes -- walking down the Main Street of Mt. Horeb, say -- will take up his whole day.
You can take a seemingly pointless activity, Nichols maintains -- "and it may, in fact, be pointless" -- but find that the process of going through it, the discovery, is worthwhile. The process, in Nichols-speak, is known as "dorking around." It may be the single most important thing he does. Hobnobbing with politicians is one part of his job, but watching the UFO parade in Belleville, and discovering a pro-Nader float in that small community last fall, spoke volumes to him. He used the event in a column for The Nation. As Phillip Roth once said about being a novelist, it's all material.
On a recent bright, brisk day, Nichols and I in his Escort, driving to various Nichols-significant sites in south central Wisconsin.
The conversation ranges from the role Oleo has played in the state's history to contemporary Australian fiction, but what it comes back to again and again is progressivism, what Nichols calls Wisconsin Progressivism or "Capital P Progressivism." This is to distinguish it from the current, small-p variety currently in vogue among liberals and even Republican moderates like Tommy Thompson.
Compared to these folks, asserts Nichols, "Progressives are much more radical." They want, for instance, to see the government rein in big corporations. Yet they take a more libertarian approach to social reform. Wisconsin Progressivism, Nichols imagines, was born of long cold winters and dairy farmers in barns milking cows, thinking about "how things should be." For him, progressivism comes back to that average hard-working citizen who understands the power of special interests, but still is willing to fight for the underdog.
Nichols is one of the most visible proponents of that old-school progressivism, not just in Madison, but in the country today. His presence on the Cap Times editorial page has augmented its identity as "Dane County's Progressive Newspaper." Editor Dave Zweifel disputes that Nichols has made the paper more progressive, saying he's a good fit because of how progressive the paper already was. And although Nichols cannot claim to have made the paper more successful -- circulation now hovers around the 20,000 mark -- he has helped make it more vital, and increased its stature nationally.
UW journalism professor James Baughman credits Nichols for brining the paper his breadth of knowledge and commitment to progressive causes: "He gives The Capital Times' traditional progressive voice a new life. It's a great marriage."
But Baughman does quibble with a "nostalgia" he finds in Nichols' writing. "I think John is guilty of having a very romantic view of the past and of progressivism and democracy, of how people informed themselves 100 years ago that is not supported by scholarship," says Baughman. "It's a rhetorical use [of history] and not as accurate as he would like it to be."
Nichols' role at The Cap Times may be about to change, however. He has been negotiating with The Nation regarding a position as its Washington correspondent. Nichols says this would mean increasing his national reporting and the number of cover stories he writes for The Nation, but vows, "I won't leave The Capital Times."
He is unequivocally proud to be working for The Capital Times, which he admires for having "an almost eccentric devotion to the old-school idea of Wisconsin." He has written of how the late Bill Evjue guides his editorial principles (in an article somewhat creepily headlined "Our Publisher Dictates From 'The Other Side.'") Indeed, in conversation, Nichols sometimes seems to be subconsciously paraphrasing Evjue's famous motto: "Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well."
Whether Nichols will remain editorial page editor is still up in the air. He expects to keep Madison as home base and remain a large presence at The Cap Times, but spend more time in D.C. and cut back on his other freelance work -- resulting, he says, in a "less hectic schedule overall." As far as juggling his Cap Times work and other projects, he doesn't think the balance will change: "But maybe it will."
This spring, Nichols won two Milwaukee Press Club awards for his work at The Capital Times -- one for editorial writing and one for general columns. "His columns are well-researched, timely, and written with a strong personal voice and clear point of view," wrote the judges.
Nichols is also the coauthor, with former UW professor Bob McChesney, of a recently published book, It's The Media, Stupid, and he writes a regular column for The Nation, "The Beat," which sheds light on progressive actions around the country. Most of his articles for national publications deal with progressive electoral campaigns and legislative strategies.
Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, notes Nichols' rising national profile as a left-wing journalist: "He has an amazing breadth of knowledge and writes with extraordinary quickness and skill and is able to churn out articles almost all the time."
Nation editor Katrina vanden Huevel calls Nichols "a star. He has a versatility that's extraordinary." She praises his "encyclopedia" knowledge of mainstream and left politics, history, and his sense of strategy: "He understands the importance of linking a vision to a strategic purpose." Moreover, Nichols almost uniquely "can explain D.C. to the country and the country to D.C."
The morning of our excursion is the last Tuesday of the month, when Nichols does his regular gig on Wisconsin Public Radio. There he joins host Jean Feraca to talk about the U.S. from an international perspective, a concept he calls "From Sheboygan to Shanghai." Nichols shows up at the studio with a half-dozen foreign newspapers tucked under his arm, prepared to talk about global reaction to U.S. bomb raids on Iraq. He also discusses Edwin Black's new book IBM and the Holocaust and renewed interest in the morality of corporations before listeners begin to call in.
Nichols greets them as if they are old friends, always noting something about where they're calling from, no matter how obscure: "I have a sister in Oshkosh"; "There are not that many people in Wittenburg"; and, to an out-of-stater, without missing a beat: "It is always painful to acknowledge good questions from Minnesota, but they do come."
Often, the callers are disheartened about the state of politics or political discourse; Nichols is relentlessly optimistic. "Politicians listen more than you expect," he assures the woman from Oshkosh. "They're afraid of active citizens." And he disputes glum assessments that most people don't care.
"Most people are excited by progressive ideas," Nichols tells me later. "They're excited by people on TV or radio saying something they agree with. Then they're not scratching their heads and wondering, 'Am I the only person thinking this way? Am I crazy?'"
The left, says Nichols, has missed the boat when it comes to offering people "a chance to be part of something," as the right, from the NRA to Rush Limbaugh, has done. Nichols goal is to give people that chance. To that end, he appears on radio shows across the country a half-dozen times a week. It's a populist medium: People listen to the radio at work. When he writes an editorial, he imagines it as if he'd just sat down on a barstool, or walked into a coffee shop and asked, "What's up?"
Nichols' writing, like his conversation, is peppered with references to music, from Johnny Cash to Lou Reed. Many people, he feels, first turned to activism the way he did, through music. He's joining forces with a loose coalition of musicians, including Rage Against the Machine, to increase the profile of progressive politics. In a recent posting to the online version of "The Beat," he eulogized punk rocker Joey Ramone as "an artist with a conscience" who "surprised casual listeners to the raw and raucous band by evidencing a more serious and decidedly political bent."
It's all part of what Nichols sees as his main task: to "figure out how to leap the chasm," to make progressive politics, as he says, "thrilling, fun and significant."
It's hard to distinguish between Nichols' up time and down time, to determine whether he's always working or always having fun. Or to figure out how he has time to accomplish everything he does. Zweifel and longtime Nichols' friend Phyllis Rose claim he manages to see all the current movies and reads fiction and non-fiction widely. He is perpetually attending and hosting events, appearing on panels and introducing speakers. And he denies he's someone who can get by on only a couple hours of sleep.
When he is home, Nichols lives on the near east side with his 13-year-old cat, Sidewalk, and part of the time with Mary Bottari, a trade activist who travels back and forth from Washington, D.C.
"He's a dynamo," says Zweifel. "It's hard to get him to take a vacation. He's always filing a story from somewhere."
John Harrison Nichols was born Feb. 3, 1959, in Racine, Wisconsin, the oldest of three children. The family lived in nearby Union Grove, where his parents still reside. He had club feet, which the local pediatrician treated successfully with casts before age two. Nichols used to flip himself out of his crib at night and crawl around: "I wasn't inclined to be limited by the casts." As a youth he continued his preference for unsupervised exploration, once climbing over a barbed wire fence and slicing his leg open while trying to scale the hill with the big "M" on it while visiting relatives in Platteville.
Dad was the Union Grove village attorney; Mom was a former teacher and librarian. Dad took him to courthouses; Mom took him to see the Dalai Lama. But Nichols says his house was not a place where conversations about politics took center stage. He recalls a great deal of driving around Wisconsin visiting relatives; Christmas was a pileup of stops: Platteville, Mineral Point, Madison, Oshkosh, Shawano.
Nichols' fellow students were mostly either farm kids or had parents working at Kenosha's American Motors plant or the Case plant in Racine; he calls school an "egalitarian" experience, in the best way. He seems remember the name every teacher he ever had, and it's easy to imagine that most remember him too. But he was bored with school and gravitated to the library, where a librarian started giving him history books meant for older kids.
He doesn't recall an early desire to be a journalist. And yet he was writing articles for the Union Grove Sun by the time he was 10, and finagled an interview with Hubert Humphrey when he was 12.
In high school, Nichols started getting into the early punk and glitter bands: Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop, Blondie, Talking Heads. He and his friends would occasionally get a car and drive to New York to see bands at the punk club Max's Kansas City. Nichols was especially big on Laura Nyro and Patti Smith (whom he later came to interview, going with Smith on an expedition to Walt Whitman's grave, where, he says, "We dorked around.")
Nichols elected to go to college at nearby UW-Parkside, in part because it had an excellent program in labor history. He also lived at home, having no desire to escape the homestead. Even today, he's close to his parents, and his mom still cuts his hair.
He worked at a couple of record stores, including an indie place called Ludwig Van Ear. The staff was not unlike the record geeks in the film High Fidelity, ignoring customers whose requests weren't cool enough.
After graduating from Parkside, Nichols continued clerking at the record store while he "studied stuff" -- taking a few courses at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette while considering going into law. "One might call it a slightly unfocused period," he says dryly.
The focus returned when he started thinking seriously about journalism. He applied to the graduate program at Columbia, furiously typing the application at the UWM library while trying to make it to a Thompson Twins concert.
Nichols brushes off his acceptance to "regional affirmative action" at Columbia; the New York-based school was looking for students from the heartland to balance the high number of Ivy League grads. Nichols says his classmates were fresh from high-speed internships and jobs like "Assistant to Barbara Walters," while he was interested in working-class folks in Brooklyn and the south Bronx, people "trying to keep their neighborhood bakeries open." He wrote for a Jamaican newspaper in Brooklyn, turning in copy at the office in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 1 a.m. "because I didn't know how stupid it was." His master's thesis was on Urban Redevelopment in Traditional Ethnic Neighborhoods. And upon graduation, he craved a job in a largish, heavily labor city. He went to Toledo.
He reported for the Toledo Blade and the jointly owned Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, eventually becoming an editor there. Though Nichols covered the 1988 presidential elections and traveled to places as far-flung as Israel and New Zealand, he most inclined to talk about Toledo's punk music scene and The Blade's status as the largest daily newspaper in the U.S. to oppose NAFTA. When the chance came to return to Wisconsin and write for The Capital Times, one of the few ideologically progressive dailies in the country, it was too good to pass up.
Coming home again turns out to be not impossible after all. Shortly after returning to Wisconsin, Nichols describes a moment when it all seemed to come together for him: Driving to meet his parents in Door County, with African township jive blaring out of his car stereo, he remembers thinking, "This is very good. This is the way it should be.
"See the woman in that car?" asks Nichols, referring to a sedan making its way through a confusing intersection in Mineral Point. "She's 93!"
It's not entirely surprising that Nichols knows this, because he seems to have a passing acquaintance with almost everyone, whether it's at Ancora Coffee Roasters in Madison, where Nichols often meets with pols and activists, or Shake Rag Street in Mineral Point.
Not far away is Nichols Street, a steep, block-long alley that connects Commerce Street to the railroad tracks. When Abner Nichols came from Cornwall to Mineral Point in 1824, this is where he opened a bar. Today, the street's complete lack of utility as a thoroughfare seems to delight Nichols, who joyfully points out the eponymous signpost.
We buy cheese at the gas station (best place to buy cheese), pop into Foundry Books (best collection of historical Wisconsin material in the state) and settle down at the Red Rooster Cafe for Cornish pasties. Nichols skips the pasties -- he's a vegetarian -- but takes home a frozen one for his mom. He asks the waitress if they still sell saffron, a Cornish folk medicinal, at the bakery. No, but she thinks they do in Dodgeville. We head to Dodgeville.
In Dodgeville, nosing around Thistle Hill, a high-end home accessories shop, Nichols ponders aloud whether Frank Lloyd Wright's influence has increased local awareness of good design. Next stop: across the street to the Iowa County Courthouse, where judge (and former Madison Mayor) Bill Dyke is holding court. Nichols stops to say a few words to Dyke, whom he leaves laughing, and we drive north, detouring into Governor Dodge State Park ("It's a real problem, my need to stop everywhere") to look at rock outcroppings. His boyhood interest in scrambling up cliffsides remains, but he's an extemporaneous explorer, not interested in mountain climbing equipment. Nor is he a camper (not patient enough to erect a tent).
We veer off highway 23 toward Clyde, where relatives on Nichols' mother's side of the family have farmed and made cheese for the last 150 years. He soaks in the scenery, which he calls "the most beautiful in the state." On a side road in the Wyoming Valley, we hike up a steep hill to the Wyoming Township Cemetery, where generations of Nichols' ancestors are buried. Nichols' parents have already staked out a nice plot at the top of the hill, near a bench for visitors to look out over the valley. "Not a bad place to spend eternity," he says, with a little more satisfaction than sadness. He thinks he might join them there someday.
John Nichols is the state of Wisconsin's number-one fan. He has written appreciatively of how the arduous winters "make Wisconsin unappealing to those who seek an easy, thoughtless life" and create "demands that ultimately define Wisconsinites." Every year, Nichols walks the street in Blue River, Wisconsin, that his great-grandfather and other village board members named "LaFollette" after the man Nichols calls "the most courageous political leader this nation has ever produced." Robert LaFollette is joined in the pantheon of Nichols' idols by Jefferson, Whitman, Thoreau, F.D.R., Gaylord Nelson and Frank Lloyd Wright.
"I still maintain someone should run for governor on the platform of bringing Frank Lloyd Wright's body back from Arizona," says Nichols, only half joking, as we drive out of the valley past the Unity Chapel, the final resting place of other assorted Lloyd Joneses and Wrights.
Hanging out in southern Wisconsin, says Nichols, "you get to talk to people who aren't reading The Washington Post. You get the wisdom that comes from being in a separate place."
Is he never discouraged, downhearted, depressed?
"There are easier days and harder days, but I have no doubt we are heading in the right direction. Not at this moment," he says, referring to the new Bush regime. "But we have to acknowledge we have made progress and it has been caused by the left. Our duty is to keep struggling."
"If we can fix the structural problems and allow democracy to flourish, the people will get it right," says Nichols, with characteristic optimism. "Then I can go back to writing about music. There's a real renaissance going on in gardening and food. There's a ton of cool stuff to write about."