A Brilliant Life: Remembering Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn passed away on July 21 at age 71. He wrote many pieces for Harper’s Magazine over the years, among them “The Tedium Twins,” a classic of humor writing and media criticism.
Alexander Cockburn was no saint, and he always hated the idea that obituary writers should sanctify the dead no matter how egregious their high crimes, misdemeanors, and other failings, so he’d no doubt disapprove of what follows. But his death hit me hard, and so I apologize to him for this highly sentimental remembrance.
I first discovered Alex when I was a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Like any sensible collegian I’d taken up radical politics, though not necessarily radical writers, as so many were dull, sectarian, and humorless. For all the virtues of Harry Braverman, for example, I didn’t come away from Labor and Monopoly Capitalism wanting to invite him out for a drink or take mushrooms (another passion at the time) with him.
Then I stumbled upon Alex and his funny, vicious, and generally wonderful Press Clips in the Village Voice, and was immediately hooked. When I graduated from Evergreen I sent him a silly letter (as countless wannabe young writers surely did over the years) saying that I hoped to move to New York and wanted to volunteer to work for him.
Needless to say, I never heard back. However, some years later I did move to New York, where I worked as an intern at The Nation and got assigned to Alex. He expected a lot from interns, and I routinely put in eighteen-hour days, but it was as great of a journalism education as one could hope for.
I continued to work with Alex after the internship ended. In July of 1988, I woke up one morning to learn that the USS Vincennes had shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 civilians. The Pentagon instantly went into spin-control mode, claiming that the Iranian plane had been descending toward the Vincennes (and hence looked to be planning an attack), that it was outside of the normal commercial air corridor, and that its transponder was emitting signals that identified it as a military aircraft. Initial reports from a credulous press corps (some things truly never change) accepted this account at face value.
Alex immediately smelled bullshit and called me with a list of sources to contact. Those interviews quickly led to a Wall Street Journal column he wrote that was the first major story to challenge the Pentagon’s account and show that the Vincennes had shot down the Iranian airliner because it mistook it for an enemy warplane. Later Alex and I co-authored a piece here at Harper’s about the incident. It concluded, “A pair of binoculars could have told the officers of the Vincennes what was flying overhead. But binoculars don’t cost half a billion dollars. The more complex the weaponry, the deeper the pork barrel and the more swollen the bottom line.”
I moved to Brazil in 1989 and then to Washington in 1993, when I started CounterPunch. Alex joined the following year, and we worked together until I left five years later (at which point Jeffrey St. Clair came aboard full-time as co-editor). During that time we co-authored Washington Babylon, which is still available on remainder tables and at fine used bookstores everywhere.
Over the years we had our disputes, personal and political, and at one point went several years without speaking. (I can’t imagine any friends of Alex’s didn’t go through a lengthy period during which they vowed never to speak to him again). But though I hadn’t seen him much in recent years, we patched things up long ago and talked occasionally.
When I heard that he had died, I searched through my emails with him. One of my favorites came a few years ago, after CounterPunch had been sued (I can’t remember the details, but the lawsuit was later dismissed) and I had been included as a defendant because the litigant, who was seeking $5 million, mistakenly believed I was still part of the editorial team. Alex assured me there was nothing to fear: “I wrote to the litigant saying that while current staff of CounterPunch west of Rockies were now located in North Korea, true leader is indeed one K. Silverstein, a man of modest means, and that a simple phased system of payment at $50 a month would see satisfaction of the debt in a tad more than 33,000 years.”
I’ve read a number of dumb things in Alex’s obituaries, among them the oft-repeated and entirely bogus charge that he was anti-Semitic. Go back and read what he was writing about Israel thirty years ago; much of it has been borne out. It only generated controversy at the time because he was one of the very few people then willing to say it. Alex’s sin, as James Wolcott wrote on Monday, “was in aligning with the wrong team.”
(There have been many great remembrances of Alex. Wolcott’s was among the best, though I also recommend this piece by Michael Tomasky and this one by John Fund.)
A Los Angeles Times piece quoted Marc Cooper as saying of Alex, “He forfeited becoming a very influential writer in favor of becoming a mud-throwing polemicist,” a statement which in addition to being wrong completely misses the point. Alex was an influential writer precisely because he was such a fabulous mud-throwing polemicist. He was simply too good to ignore, which is why he didn’t write for only The Nation and Harper’s but also the Wall Street Journal and many other mainstream publications that no doubt hated every word he wrote for them.
It was a privilege to work with Alex and to be his friend, and through him to have met so many wonderful people. Among those, but by no means the only ones, were his brothers, Andrew and Patrick; the astute Pierre Sprey, who back in 1988 patiently and precisely explained to me why the Pentagon’s initial story on the Iranian airliner was so fraudulent; Ben Sonnenberg, the former editor of Grand Street; and Alex’s long-time editor and friend JoAnn Wypijewski.
“Alexander the Brilliant,” Edward Said called him. He was indeed, and he led a brilliant life.