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On the Road With the Master

Cockburn’s America

by BEN TERRALL

Alexander Cockburn, who died of cancer at the age of 71 on July 21, 2012, was a prose powerhouse who left an admirable body of great columns about all manner of matters political and cultural.

Cockburn’s last book, the posthumously released A Colossal Wreck (Verso), is a collection of some of his favorite writing from the early 1990s until shortly before his death.  Its subtitle, A Road Trip Through Scandal, Political Corruption and American Culture, says it all.

The book is such a great read it even got a favorable review in that bastion of received mainstream wisdom The New York Times, a frequent Cockburn target. But in a classic Times touch Dwight Garner’s review is graced with the headline “Finding Fault Everywhere He Looked.” Though Alex had a particularly sharp bullshit detector, he was far from a crank who found “fault everywhere.” A more appropriate title for the review could have been stolen from another great left-wing columnist’s memoir, the British writer/activist Mark Steele’s Reasons to Be Cheerful. Because as depressing as so much that Cockburn wrote about could be, he had the depth, inner resources and adaptability to look at bright sides of life and to communicate his enthusiasms in winning fashion. He had no patience for humorless, terminally dour lefties, always among his favorite objects of ridicule.

Here’s an example of how entertaining his writing could be: after a day on the campaign trail with Ted Kennedy in 1980, Cockburn recalls that “I suggested to Kennedy’s press man that it would surely be more a rational use of everyone’s time and money to have a central campaign studio in the Washington suburbs, entrusted to one of the big Theme companies. Here the essential ‘theme rides’ of American electioneering could be permanently installed, under appropriate corporate logos. Campaigning politicians would be able to use the facility, getting the corporations to pick up some of the tab and collecting the balance from the press corps.” No word on the Kennedy staffer’s response, alas.

Elsewhere in the book Alex calls Obama’s January 2011 commitment to “clean, safe” nuclear power “as insane a statement as pledging commitment to a nice clean form of syphilis.” Never a booster of any but the most renegade Democrats, in December 2006 Cockburn wrote, “It’s depressing to think that we’ll have to endure Obamaspeak for months if not years to come: a pulp of boosterism about the American dream, interspersed with homilies about putting factionalism and party divisions behind us and moving on […] I’ve never heard a politician so careful not to offend conventional elite opinion while pretending to be fearless and forthright.”

Cockburn came from a family of great writers. His father Claud put out the influential left-wing newsletter The Week and wrote several incredibly funny novels, most famously Beat the Devil, which was made into a John Huston movie of the same name. Alex’s brother Andrew is a veteran Washington and Middle East specialist who is currently Washington bureau chief for Harper’s Magazine. Older sibling Patrick, one of the world’s great war correspondents, authored The Occupation, among other books.

The Anglo-Irish wordsmith graduated from Oxford in 1963 and went to work at the Times Literary Supplement. From here he went on to The New Left Review and The New Statesman before leaving London in 1972 for the relatively sunnier climes of New York City. In the U.S. he launched the “Press Clips” column at the Village Voice, then still an independent paper with room for radicals. Alex’s co-author on that column, James Ridgeway, referred to Cockburn as “the master.”

Alex Cockburn’s Nation magazine columns went out of their way to puncture pomposity, attack privilege and to give support to a huge variety of underdogs. Being a regular reader of those broadsides, and later his Anderson Valley Advertiser column “Nature and Politics,” written with Jeffrey St Clair, helped me make up for my crappy education in U.S. public schools. Cockburn was wildly erudite, with a stunning command of the English language and a seeming ability to write knowledgeably about virtually anything, from global and national politics to gardening, the natural world, architecture, jazz, blues, literature and any other conceivable art. He had a tendency to go for the jugular when he was taking on bullies or abusers of power, and he didn’t mince words. Regarding his tendency to use his column to skewer anyone who pissed him off, a good friend of his once told me that “what other people would take out, Alexander will leave in.”

John Straussbaugh, one of his publishers, wrote “I found him brilliant, witty, irascible, vain, complicated, unpredictable, and never dull. A charming rascal.” He was never afraid of taking unpopular, even exasperating positions, sometimes to his detriment (sorry, humanity’s carbon emissions have been definitively pinned to global warming).

Ken Silverstein, a veteran of the Cockburn intern experience, began the political newsletter CounterPunch in 1994. Alex joined Silverstein as co-editor, and when his younger colleague left to become a full-time freelancer in 1996, Jeffrey St. Clair replaced him. St. Clair also helped usher in the CounterPunch website, which he now edits along with the outlet’s print edition.

I came into Cockburn’s orbit as a Nation intern, where I served as an assistant to the great investigative journalist Allan Nairn. My pal Scott Handleman was Alex’s intern, and after we left that quasi-job (with complimentary Nation hat and t-shirt, oh the perks of such noble toil!) Scott visited Alex at his gorgeous property on the Lost Coast of Humboldt County in Northern California. I went along for the ride through redwoods and a chance to visit the great radical journalist on his home turf. When introduced to him, Alex asked me where I came from. “Connecticut,” I answered sheepishly. “You poor bastard!” came the reply. I guffawed, not for the last time that weekend.

I remember thinking that waking up on Alex’s couch and listening to him rummaging through his house, talking to his cat and various friends on the phone was a little like hanging out while Segovia noodled around on his guitar. The turns of phrase just  bubbled out of him, and there was never a pedestrian or remotely boring word to be heard. Intrinsically entertaining, he was also a most gracious host. He even let me roam through his library and borrow any book I wanted to (I snagged a history of British leftist writers). Said book repository lined the walls of his study/writing room which had a revolutionary Mexican mural on its ceiling and printed matter inches deep covering its floor. What a great role model for a work space!

Scott and I got a nice tour of Alex’s property, which included a pasture for his horses, and and went for a long walk along the Lost Coast, one of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline I’ve ever seen. It was indeed a beautiful break from city life.

Alex loved country living, but he also loved being on the road. He cruised the heartland in one of his classic American cars (not a catalytic convertor in the bunch, despite his life-long friendship with Ralph Nader) trying to tune in to something interesting on local radio frequencies, increasingly dominated by pablum-generating conglomerates like Clear Channel, as he was quick to point out in print. His travels took him to countless old and new friends and acquaintances throughout the U.S. This vast array of interesting sources steered him toward material for the various columns he kept up (in addition to The Nation, at various times he wrote for The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Press, and others).

Alex describes his father in a tribute included in A Colossal Wreck. These words could just as well apply to Alex: “He wrote fast, with a beautifully easy style. His prose could be light, ironic, also savage. He was learned but never overbearing, cultivated but never patronizing. He respected and enjoyed people at all social levels and ages […] He never soured on his ideals, never lost faith in humanity’s nobler instincts, never failed to see the humor in life.”

Ben Terrall is a writer living in San Francisco.