Commentary — July 25, 2012, 2:20 pm

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Article
Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today