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Alexander Cockburn


Alexander Cockburn, The Nation‘s "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America’s best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. He graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in English literature and language.

After two years as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, he worked at the New Left Review and The New Statesman, and co-edited two Penguin volumes, on trade unions and on the student movement.

A permanent resident of the United States since 1973, Cockburn wrote for many years for The Village Voice about the press and politics. Since then he has contributed to many publications including The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and the Wall Street Journal (where he had a regular column from 1980 to 1990), as well as alternative publications such as In These Times and the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

He has written "Beat the Devil" since 1984.

He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St Clair, of the newsletter and radical website CounterPunch( which have a substantial world audience. In 1987 he published a best-selling collection of essays, Corruptions of Empire, and two years later co-wrote, with Susanna Hecht, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (both Verso). In 1995 Verso also published his diary of the late 80s, early 90s and the fall of Communism, The Golden Age Is In Us. With Ken Silverstein he wrote Washington Babylon; with Jeffrey St. Clair he has written or coedited several books including: Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press; The Politics of Anti-Semitism; Imperial Crusades; Al Gore, A User’s Manual; Five Days That Shook the World; and A Dime’s Worth of Difference, about the two-party system in America.



  • Environment November 10, 2000

    The Best of All Possible Worlds

    So it all came out right in the end: gridlock on the Hill and Nader blamed for sabotaging Al Gore.

    First a word about gridlock. We like it. No bold initiatives, like privatizing Social Security or shoving through vouchers. No ultra-right-wingers making it onto the Supreme Court. Ah, you protest, but what about the bold plans that a Democratic-controlled Congress and Gore would have pushed through? Relax. There were no such plans. These days gridlock is the best we can hope for.

    Now for blaming Nader. Fine by me if all that people look at are those 97,000 Green votes for Ralph in Florida. That's good news in itself. Who would have thought the Sunshine State had that many progressives in it, with steel in their spine and the spunk to throw Eric Alterman's columns into the trash can?

    And they had plenty of reason to dump Gore. What were the big issues for Greens in Florida? The Everglades. Back in 1993 the hope was that Clinton/Gore would push through a cleanup bill to prevent toxic runoff from the sugar plantations south of Lake Okeechobee from destroying the swamp that covers much of south-central Florida. Such hopes foundered on a "win-win" solution brokered by sugar barons and the real estate industry.

    Another issue sent some of those 97,000 defiantly voting for Nader: the Homestead Air Force Base, which sits between Biscayne National Park and the Everglades. The old Air Force base had been scheduled for shutdown, but then Cuban-American real estate interests concocted a scheme to turn the base into a commercial airport. Despite repeated pleas from biologists inside the Interior Department as well as from Florida's Greens, Gore refused to intervene, cowed by the Canosa family, which represented the big money behind the airport's boosters. Just to make sure there would be no significant Green defections back to the Democratic standard, Joe Lieberman made a last-minute pilgrimage to the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa.

    You want another reason for the Nader voter in Florida? Try the death penalty, which Gore stridently supported in that final debate. Florida runs third, after Texas and Virginia, as a killing machine, and for many progressives there it is an issue of principle. Incidentally, about half a million ex-felons, having served sentence and probation, are permanently disfranchised in Florida. Tough-on-crime drug-war zealot Gore probably lost crucial votes there.

    Other reasons many Greens nationally refused to knuckle under and sneak back to the Gore column? You want an explanation of why Gore lost Ohio by four points and New Hampshire by one? Try the WTI hazardous-waste incinerator (world's largest) in East Liverpool, Ohio. Gore promised voters in 1992 that a Democratic administration would kill it. It was a double lie. First, Carol Browner's EPA almost immediately gave the incinerator a permit. When confronted on his broken pledge, Gore said the decision had been pre-empted by the outgoing Bush crowd. This too was a lie, as voters in Ohio discovered a week before Election 2000. William Reilly, Bush's EPA chief, finally testified this fall that Gore's environmental aide Katie McGinty told him in the 1992 transition period that "it was the wishes of the new incoming administration to get the trial-burn permit granted.... The Vice President-elect would be grateful if I simply made that decision before leaving office."

    Don't think this was a picayune issue with no larger consequences. Citizens of East Liverpool, notably Terri Swearingen, have been campaigning across the country on this scandal for years, haunting Gore. So too, to its credit, has Greenpeace. They were active in the Northeast in the primaries. You can certainly argue that the last-minute disclosure of Gore's WTI lies prompted enough Greens to stay firm and cost him New Hampshire, a state that, with Oregon, would have given Gore the necessary 270 votes.

    And why didn't Gore easily sweep Oregon? A good chunk of the people on the streets of Seattle last November come from Oregon. They care about NAFTA, the WTO and the ancient forests that Gore has been pledging to save since 1992. The spotted owl is now scheduled to go extinct on the Olympic Peninsula within the next decade. Another huge environmental issue in Oregon has been the fate of the salmon runs, wrecked by the Snake River dams. Gore thought he'd finessed that one by pretending that, unlike Bush, he would leave the decision to the scientists. Then, a week before the election, his scientists released a report saying they thought the salmon could be saved without breaching the four dams. Nader got 5 percent in Oregon, an amazing result given the carpet-bombing by flacks for Gore like Gloria Steinem.

    Yes, Nader didn't break 5 percent nationally, but he should feel great, and so should the Greens who voted for him. Their message to the Democrats is clear. Address our issues, or you'll pay the same penalty next time around. Nader should draw up a short list of nonnegotiable Green issues and nail it to the doors of the Democratic National Committee.

    By all means credit Nader, but of course Gore has only himself to blame. He's a product of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose pro-business stance was designed to regain the South for the Democrats. Look at the map. Bush swept the entire South, with the possible exception of Florida. Gore's electoral votes came from the two coasts and the old industrial Midwest. The states Gore did win mostly came courtesy of labor and blacks.

    Take Tennessee, where voters know Gore best. He would have won the election if he'd carried his home state. Gore is good with liberals earning $100,000-$200,000. He can barely talk to rural people, and he made another fatal somersault, reversing his position on handguns after telling Tennessee voters for years that he was solid on the gun issue. Guns were a big factor in Ohio and West Virginia, too. You can't blame Nader for that, but it's OK with us if you do. As for Nader holding the country to ransom, what's wrong with a hostage-taker with a national backing of 2.7 million people? The election came alive because of Nader. Let's hope he and the Greens keep it up through the next four years. Not one vote for Nader, Mr. Alterman? He got them where it counted, and now the Democrats are going to have to deal with it.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Political Figures October 26, 2000

    The Day After

    In Chicago, in mid-October, I did a radio show with the Bill Buckley-ish Milt Rosenberg of WGN, a big station. Rosenberg said that because of the fairness doctrine our discussion of Al Gore: A User's Manual, written by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself, could not be broadcast until after the election. So we spent an hour bathing ourselves alternately in the dawn light of the impending Bush and Gore administrations.

    It's Bush in the White House! And yes, he's there in part because of the Nader vote. The big liberal public-interest organizations, green groups, NOW, begin to roll out their mass mailings, delightedly fundraising against a backdrop of predicted catastrophe: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pincushioned with test drillings, polar bear cubs licking at the gobs of crude oil on their fur. With any luck Bush will nominate some James Watt look-alike for the Interior Department. Watt got nothing done, but he sure scared up a lot of money for green groups.

    Ralph Nader holds an unapologetic postelection superrally. It's packed to the rooftop with exultant young people, who will carry the memory of the Nader/Green drive of 2000 as their transformative political moment. He reminds the Democrats of why they lost. They offered no appealing reasons for enough progressives to vote for them. He points out that throughout American history there have been moments of renewal, of creative destruction and then refreshment of the political process. Nader sketches out the line of march for the next four years.

    It's Gore by a nose! Enough progressives who had been tilting toward Nader and the Greens were scared back into the fold those last weeks. Four more years of you-know-what.

    "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." How quickly the Gore liberals adopted a totalitarian mindset, sounding like Soviet commissars back in the old days, who would urge the voters toward a 98 percent turnout for the Communist candidate, arguing that any deviation from absolute loyalty would "objectively" play into the hands of the imperialists.

    A vote for Nader was first and foremost a vote for Nader. And since the programs of the Democratic and Republican candidates are pretty much the same on issues ranging from corporate welfare to Wall Street to the war on drugs to crime to military spending and the war in Colombia, a vote for Gore was actually a vote for Bush, and a vote for Bush a vote for Gore. You're getting them both.

    Those waning days of the campaign there was a desperation to the alarums of the Gore people about Nader. For one thing, they knew that the Nader superrallies in New York, across the upper Midwest and in the Northwest had a hugely energizing effect on young people. Nothing like it since Jesse Jackson's populist bid for the nomination back in 1988. Back at that time Jackson folded in behind the Democratic ticket and rolled up his Rainbow, leaving hundreds of thousands of supporters with nowhere to go and nothing to do. It was one of the most despicable acts of self-interested betrayal of people's hopes in living memory. If Jackson had led the Rainbow out of the Democratic Party back then, it would have been a far better base for a third party than what the Greens have to offer.

    The enthusiasms of these young activists weren't about to be quelled by lectures from Gloria Steinem or Barney Frank or Jesse Jackson Jr. about the need to take the mature view and root for Gore/Lieberman. For one thing, they watched the debates. Did they take from those labored encounters any nourishment from Gore on issues that they have an appetite for, like trade or sweatshop labor or the drug war or the growing divide between rich and poor?

    Gore liberals such as Steinem, Patricia Ireland of NOW and Carl Pope of the Sierra Club have been trading in false currency for so long that they don't realize that as shills for the Democratic Party their credit was used up long, long ago.

    Listen to Ellen Johnson, an organizer for the Arizona Greens, who teaches at Arizona State in Tempe. "Since the onset of the Clinton presidency NOW's once-stalwart support of many women's rights issues has eroded. While reproductive rights are important, so is quality childcare, a living wage, healthcare and eradication of environmental toxins. Although Clinton/Gore promised to address these issues in '92 and '96, no acceptable plans for improvement have been implemented. Why is NOW so willing to give Gore another chance? Oh yeah, I forgot, for abortion rights. What is Roe v. Wade worth to you, NOW? If it's the wholesale sellout of a constituency you once pledged to serve, then you are on the right track."

    What the fall campaign did most of all was to show up the bankruptcy of people like Ireland and Pope--the people who soft-shoed for Clinton and Gore for eight years. The sort of people, come right down to it, who are now trying to fire Pacifica's Amy Goodman. Yes, Mary Frances Berry, consultant to the Pacifica board, was a prominent presence at an October 24 gig organized by People for the American Way, presided over by Bill Clinton, and designed to scare progressives back to Gore.

    Of course they want to fire Amy Goodman! She puts on the best show on public radio, doesn't she? The liberals who run Pacifica would much rather have manageable mediocrity than Democracy Now! There's nothing so irksome as success not achieved on their terms, under their rules and their rubrics. Amy has edge. She doesn't take "guidance." She's a loose cannon. She brought Ralph Nader onto the floor of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. She's not Tweety Bird or Terry Gross. So she has to go!

    How is the Pacifica directorate trying to dump the most popular voice on the network? Easy. Choke the woman with bureaucracy. Demand that she file broadcasting flight plans a week ahead. Insist that she get prior approval for all her speaking gigs. Put it about that Pacifica needs "new voices," a bigger share of the yuppo audience. Murmur not so softly that Amy is old hat, is not really and truly part of the big Pacifica Picture.

    It's a control thing. There's nothing on this earth liberals hate more than radicals straying outside the reservation. Let's stray. Onward!

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Political Figures October 12, 2000

    ‘Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears’

    Take this as a national parable. Once upon a time--in the early eighties, actually--there was a progressive coalition in Vermont designed to become a third force in politics. One of its prime spokesmen was Bernie Sanders, who became mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington. Sanders duly became a leading proponent of the idea that America needed a third party of the left.

    In 1988 the coalition backed Sanders for Vermont's single seat in Congress. Then as now, orthodox Democratic liberals accused the radical progressives of being wreckers. The radicals said that yes, some creative destruction was necessary. A Sanders candidacy might put Republican Peter Smith into Congress over liberal-populist Democrat Paul Poirier, but that wasn't the concern of an independent force. Just as he's now bashing Ralph Nader, Barney Frank bashed Sanders' candidacy as bad for gays (whose legislated well-being Frank regularly conflates with the fortunes of the Democratic Party) and liberals. And so it came to pass. Sanders swept up Poirier's liberal base and denied Democrats the victory they would otherwise have obtained. Smith won with less than 50 percent.

    The progressive coalition had a long-term strategy. It knew Sanders would not win on that first outing. The essential victory was to persuade progressives to vote, finally, for their beliefs, to stop deluding themselves that the Democratic Party would fulfill even a sliver of their expectations. Two years later, Sanders again made a bid, this time against the incumbent Republican. The Democrats effectively quit the field. Sanders swept to victory.

    Creative destruction worked. The progressive coalition matured and expanded. It replaced Sanders with Peter Clavelle as mayor of Burlington and took numerous seats throughout the state. Last year it formally constituted itself as the Progressive Party of Vermont and put up Anthony Pollina, a leftist with years of grassroots activism in the state, as its gubernatorial candidate for November 2000.

    Once again, the state echoes with the anguished bellows of liberals that Pollina's candidacy will install Republican Ruth Dwyer and take Vermont back to medieval darkness. The Progressive Party has refused to stand down. Incumbent Governor Howard Dean is a DLC-type Democrat who never met a corporation he didn't like or a mountaintop he wasn't willing to sell to a ski-resort developer. Pollina, who had led Vermont's successful fight for public financing of statewide elections, became the first to benefit from it. As required by law, he raised $35,000 (from donations averaging $22), then qualified for $265,000 in public money, the only funds he can spend. Pollina was on an equal money footing with Dean. But not for long. A court threw out the law's spending limit, and immediately Dean inoperated years of pious blather about campaign finance reform. Five days after lauding such reform at the Democratic convention, he rejected public financing and put himself back on the block for corporate contributions and soft money from the Democratic Party.

    Pollina and the Progressives have taken the Democrats' scare strategy straight on. They say, Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears. The campaign is rich with proposals on healthcare, environmental protection, a living wage, stability for small farmers and small businesses. Pollina has plenty of ammunition against Dean, who has been running Vermont longer than Clinton/Gore have been in the White House. It's the pathetic national story. In Vermont, 95 percent of men under 22 in prison do not have high school equivalency. In the past ten years prison spending has increased by 135 percent, while spending on state colleges has increased by 7 percent. One of every seven Vermont men between 18 and 21 is under the supervision of the Corrections Department.

    And Pollina doesn't shrink from reminding voters that at the very moment in the early nineties when Vermont was poised to become the first state to have universal healthcare, Governor Dean, a physician by trade, killed off all such hopes, as he did a bill this year that would have established prescription-drug price controls.

    Democrats of the stripe of Dean and Gore know how to talk the talk. They don't move a finger to expand human freedoms or opportunities, then boast that they alone are the bulwark against right-wing attacks on such freedoms and opportunities. After undermining choice and gay rights for much of his Congressional career, Gore now tells women and gays that he is the prime defender of choice and gay rights. At a gay event in Los Angeles, Dean claimed the hero's mantle for signing Vermont's civil union law giving gay couples the same state benefits as married couples. But he was never out front on this issue, moved only under direct order of the courts and then, in an act of consummate cowardice, nervously scribbled his signature to the law secluded from press or camera. So what does our Vermont parable add up to? Independent in name only, Sanders sold out to the Democratic machine long ago. He's no longer part of a movement. He's not a member of the Progressive Party and has not endorsed Pollina. In his re-election race for November, he's outflanked on both politics and gender, facing a Democrat to his left (Peter Diamondstone) and a transsexual moderate Republican (Karen Kerin). But the big story is not Sanders' dismal trajectory; it is that third-party politics in Vermont has moved out of his sad shadow and is changing the face of the state. The Progressives have also endorsed Nader.

    "This race, a lot like Nader's nationally, has posed the question: If we want good people to run, and they get on the ballot, what do we want to do with that? Do we wish to use their campaigns to build up a progressive movement, or do we once again want to squander our power on business as usual?" Thus Ellen David Friedman, a long-term Progressive organizer in Vermont. "People under 30 don't give a damn about the spoiler stuff. Most of Pollina's campaign workers are under 25. They want to be able to work for what they believe in. Demographically, these are the people who will be making the difference, organizing progressive campaigns in the years to come."

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Environment September 28, 2000

    Gore and His Reinventions

    What an odd presidential race! So long as George W. Bush keeps his mouth shut and remains in seclusion he floats up in the polls. His best strategy would be to bag the debates, take Laura on an extended vacation and come back a couple of days before the election. Meanwhile, Gore reinvents himself on an almost daily basis. Nothing has been more comical than his "populist" posturings about the Republicans being the ticket of Big Oil and himself and Lieberman being the champions of the little people.

    This is the man whose education and Tennessee homestead came to him in part via the patronage of Armand Hammer, one of the great oil bandits of the twentieth century, in whose Occidental oil company the Gore family still has investments valued between $500,000 and $1 million.

    At the LA convention the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was on the 42nd floor of the Arco building, and the symbolism was apt. In 1992 Arco (recently merged with BP Amoco) loaned the Clinton/Gore inaugural committee $100,000. In that same year it gave the DNC $268,000. In the 1993-94 election cycle it gave the DNC $274,000. In the 1995-96 cycle it ponied up $496,000 and has kept up the same tempo ever since.

    Was there a quid for the quo? You bet there was. Early in Clinton-time, the President overturned the longstanding ban on the export of Alaskan crude oil. Why that ban? When Congress OK'd the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the seventies, the legislation triumphed by a single vote only after solemn pledges were made that the North Slope oil would always be reserved for domestic markets, available to hold prices down. Congress had on its mind precisely such emergencies as this year's hike in prices and consequent suffering of poor people, soon to be trembling with cold for lack of cheap home-heating oil.

    With the help of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Arco was also, at the start of the Clinton era, in the process of building refineries in China. Hence Clinton's overturn of the export ban was an immense boon to the company, whose CEO at the time, Lodwrick Cook, was given a White House birthday party in 1994. The birthday presents to the favorite oil company of the Clinton/Gore era have continued ever since.

    While the Democrats and mainstream Greens fulminate about Bush and Cheney's threat to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nary a word has been mentioned about one of the biggest giveaways in the nation's history, the opening of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Back at the start of the nineties Arco's Prudhoe Bay reserves on Alaska's North Slope were dwindling. Now Arco will be foremost among the oil companies exploiting a potential $36 billion worth of crude oil.

    Gore's "populism" is comical, yet one more facet of a larger mendacity. What suppressed psychic tumult drives him to those stretchers that litter his career, the lies large and small about his life and achievements? You'd think that a man exposed to as much public derision as was Gore after claiming he and Tipper were the model for the couple in Love Story, or after saying he'd invented the Internet, would by now be more prudent in his vauntings. But no. Just as a klepto's fingers inevitably stray toward the cash register, so too does Gore persist in his fabrications.

    Recently he's claimed to have been at the center of the action when the strategic oil reserve, in Texas and Louisiana, was established. In fact, the reserve's tanks were filling in 1977, when Gore was barely in Congress, a very junior member of the relevant energy committee. The legislation creating the reserve had been passed in 1975. At around the same time as this pretense, the VP claimed to have heard his mother crooning "Look for the union label" over his cradle. It rapidly emerged that this jingle was made up by an ad man in the seventies, when Al was in his late 20s.

    As a clue to why Al misremembers and exaggerates, the lullaby story has its relevance as a sad little essay in wish fulfillment. Gore's mother, Pauline, was a tough character, far more interested in advancing Albert Sr.'s career than in warbling over Gore's cot. Both parents were demanding. Gore is brittle, often the mark of the overly well-behaved, perfect child. Who can forget the panicked performance when his image of moral rectitude shattered at the impact of the fundraising scandals associated with the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles?

    "He was an easy child; he always wanted to please us," Pauline once said of him. The child's desire to please, to get the attention of often-absent parents, is probably what sparked Gore's penchant for tall tales about himself.

    Gore's official CV is sprinkled with "epiphanies" and claims to having achieved a higher level of moral awareness. In interviews, in his book Earth in the Balance and, famously, in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, Gore has shamelessly milked the accident in which his 6-year-old son was badly hurt after being struck by a car. Gore described how, amid his anguish beside the boy's hospital bed, he peered into his own soul and reproached himself for being an absentee dad. He narrated his entry into family therapy. But Tipper and the children didn't see more of him as a consequence. Despite that dark night of the soul beside Al III's bed, Gore plunged even deeper into Senate business and spent his hours of leisure away from the family, writing Earth in the Balance while holed up in his parents' old penthouse in the Fairfax Hotel. Soon after, he accepted Clinton's invitation to run for Vice President.

    Gore's a fibber through and through, just like Bill. A sad experience in the closing weeks of the campaign is to encounter liberals desperately trying delude themselves that there is some political decency or promise in the Democratic ticket. There isn't. Why talk about the lesser of two evils, when Gore is easily as bad as Bush and in many ways worse? The "lesser of two evils" is by definition a matter of restricted choice, like a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine. But in this election there are other choices, starting with Nader and the Greens. It isn't just a matter of facing seawater or piss.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Cops and Dogs

    In California, as in most states, any election aftermath involves a wan hunt for silver linings. As always, it's hard to find them.

    Alexander Cockburn

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  • Politics January 27, 2000

    WTO: Workers of the World United?

    San Francisco

    In his December 20 "Beat the Devil" column, "Trade Wars, Trade Truths," Alexander Cockburn got it exactly

    Alexander Cockburn and Our Readers

  • Police and Law Enforcement January 27, 2000

    Crazed Cops, ‘Fallen Heroes’

    Those endless wars on crime and drugs--a staple of 90 percent of America's politicians these last thirty years--have engendered not merely our 2 million prisoners but a vindictive hysteria that p

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Activism December 2, 1999

    Trade Wars, Trade Truths

    Here's a might-have-been for you.

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Jails and Prisons November 4, 1999

    California’s Gulag on Trial

    Welcome to Corcoran State Prison, 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley; built at a cost of $271.9 million on what was once Tulare Lake, home of the Tachi Indians; opened i

    Alexander Cockburn

  • Media July 22, 1999

    Pricks Up Your Ears

    In the August 9/16 issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn discusses Pacifica's alleged plans to use "scab" programming. KPFK General Manager Mark Schubb has told The Nation that he is not aware of any plans to use KPFK programming as "replacement" programming during KPFA's internal conflict, and that he would not condone such use. The producers and host of RadioNation stated to Schubb that they will not allow RadioNation to be used as replacement programming under any circumstances.
    The column also incorrectly described the role at KPFK of Nation contributing editor Jon Wiener. He is a one-day-a-week unpaid volunteer.

    Alexander Cockburn