One thing I haven’t seen mentioned in the many tributes to (and screeds about) Alexander Cockburn I’ve read since his unexpected death on July 20 was his unmitigated support of interns, and specifically, his singular tendency to open up his coveted column inches to the work of young, untried researchers, giving them valuable exposure and a clip that, back in the pre-Internet days, was a valuable asset in getting future work in what was then called the alternative media.
I was Alex’s intern in 1990 and in June of that month he asked me what I thought he should write about for his next column. (And I should mention that Alex was not being lazy here—he never had trouble coming up with column topics.) I mentioned something about how the FBI Cointelpro program to surveil and undermine domestic dissidents was still relevant and that parallels could be drawn from the repression of the Black Panther Party (something I’d written a paper on for a senior history seminar months earlier) to the spying on militant environmental activists associated with EarthFirst!, who were then staging a radical civil disobedience campaign called Redwood Summer.
Alex liked the idea and asked me if I’d like to draft the column, a task I took up with equal parts excitement and terror. But I managed to hammer something out, which Alex graciously and over-generously complimented. He then added some inimitable style points, a narrative about picking up some hitch-hikers and an unrelated but characteristic swipe at Vaclav Havel and published the 1,500 word column, warmly crediting me for the research and writing. This was something he did frequently with his interns, and it demonstrated a respect for our ideas that, at least in my case, helped instill a critical confidence that was invaluable when attempting the leap from intern to professional.
Here’s that column, originally published in the July 2, 1990, issue of The Nation. I think it still stands up, and one can draw a straight line from the column’s reporting to the current surveillance of Muslim Americans. (The column also demonstrates Alex’s reverence for history, something I always appreciated about his work.)
As a fellow former Cockburn intern, Mike Tomasky, eloquently wrote at the Daily Beast, numerous Nation writers at the time were extremely supportive of interns and always appreciative of the work we did. They included Christopher Hitchens, the great Andy Kopkind, who was felled way too young by cancer in 1994, and the kindly Marxist Polish-French European correspondent Daniel Singer. But Alex was unique in providing his actual column space for our work. For that, and for taking my callow ideas seriously, I’ll always be grateful.