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Alex Cockburn and I became close friends in the mid-1980s, when my family and I were living in Riverside, CA and I was teaching at UC-Riverside. The location is important, because one of the main reasons I got to know Alex so well was because he loved coming to Riverside, and staying for long stretches. This was because Riverside—then as now—was decidedly un-hip, the opposite of, say, West Los Angeles or the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
There has never been a houseguest like Alex. We always welcomed his visits, even though it was never clear that we had invited him in the first place. He would arrive invariably in a beautiful old 1950s American car, including, for a while, a spectacular red Chrysler Imperial convertible, that he then kept in our garage for about a year. A measure of Alex’s fundamental inner tranquility was that, the one and only time we took the Imperial for a drive in Alex’s absence, we parked it in the K-Mart parking lot near our house. Sure enough when we came out of K-Mart, the car had been scratched. I was prepared to receive Alex’s wrath, but instead he took the news in stride, asking whether we had enjoyed our spin in this amazing chariot of a vehicle.
This was well before the Internet era, so Alex would bring large bags full of newspapers, magazines, studies, his typewriter and fax machine, and just camp out for days. The only way we knew for sure Alex was coming was that a day or two before his arrival, we would start getting calls on our home phone—since this was also before cell phones—often from the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Perry Anderson, Noam Chomsky, Jean Stein, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, and Michael Moore. Alex would work the phone hard with such people at our house, but he always seemed more interested in spending time talking with local Riversiders he had come to know, such as our car mechanic George. George and Alex became good friends. I’m quite sure George knew absolutely nothing about Alex as the world renown leftist journalist, and if he had known, wouldn’t have cared.
Alex also became good friends with our two daughters, Emma and Hannah, when they were about 9 and 6 years old. Emma once had a school assignment to write an essay on the person she most admired in the world. Without asking or telling anyone beforehand, she wrote it about Alex. After I had sent the essay to Alex, he told Emma how honored he felt. He said that nobody had ever captured him so well in words. I think he really meant it.
The true measure as to how much Alex respected my daughters occurred after he had written something very nasty in one of his columns about, of all things, Sesame Street. I told Alex that he had written many great columns about, say, Reaganomics or U.S. imperialism and Nicaragua, but that he had totally missed the boat on Sesame Street, which my kids, along with zillions of others, loved. After Alex heard confirmation on this directly from Emma, he published a lengthy retraction and apology. Since Alex died on Friday, I have seen many descriptions of him as a fierce and relentless critic who would never, ever back down. But my family and I knew otherwise.
Robert Pollin’s latest book is Back to Full Employment (MIT Press).