Alexander Cockburn, 1941–2012
I am deeply saddened to have learned of the death of Alexander Cockburn, whose column was one of the highlights of The Nation [Victor Navasky, “He Beat the Devil”; JoAnn Wypijewski, “Alex,” Aug. 13/20]. I fear that his caustic tone and ability to totalize any political situation, large or small, are irreplaceable.
CARL G. MARTIN
Yes, Alex’s column often rescued The Nation from the expected position. His performance in the bar in the ’90s on a Nation cruise remains strong in my memory. And yes, the “worthies” (including Gore Vidal) are disappearing. But there remains one jewel: JoAnn Wypijewski.
CORRINNE C. WILLIAMS
I never dared hope to see a tribute large enough for the man. Happily, I was dead wrong. My heartfelt thanks and admiration to JoAnn Wypijewski.
Greetings from the Texas gulag. I heard about the passing of Alexander Cockburn on Democracy Now! and was stunned almost to tears. I wrote him several years ago explaining that I was in super-seg and indigent, and requested a subscription to CounterPunch to help ward off insanity from sensory deprivation. Every year he would renew my subscription. I’d occasionally write him letters about a book or article I’d read, or about the bad old days when we’d be beaten senseless and tossed into solitary for failing to pick our weight in cotton. I promised I’d give him a thank-you call in December 2014, when I complete my quarter-century sentence. I’ll not be able to make that call now, and it saddens me greatly. He was a persnickety ol’ curmudgeon with a keen sense of justice and a heart of gold. I already miss his presence in the world.
If Victor Navasky doesn’t wish to take a page out of Alexander Cockburn’s playbook and attack the newly deceased, I guess I’ll have to do it. I have long been horrified that my favorite magazine gave such valuable real estate to a man who continued to deny that global climate change is caused by humans. This warming is a far greater threat to life on earth than the issues Cockburn was wont to lament.
What amazes me about Alexander Cockburn is not that he died so young but that he lived so long. I always thought he would be assassinated. No one could get away with speaking the truth as he did. He gave me courage every day to be truthful myself and stand up for what I believe.
No abuse of civil liberties was too trivial. He published an article about my humiliating strip search in a Chicago airport when I went to my son’s graduation, calling it “How Dangerous Are Professor McDonald’s Hips?” (I have two replaced hips and set off every alarm; I gather the authorities feared that I, a grandmother, would whip them out and take over the cockpit.)
On many an evening we wrapped the atrocities of the world in a cocoon of drink so we could wake the next day as optimists with hope we could bring about change. I feel we never grew up, and we were both proud of it. Alexander died as he lived, a supernova.
Point Arena, Calif.
I met Alexander Cockburn in 1991, while writing for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the anarcho-syndicalist weekly in Boonville, California. Alex called the AVA “the best newspaper in America.” Another time he called it “the only newspaper in America.” Grand rhetorical gestures best expressed what he called “the moral truth.”
He didn’t use a computer on principle— I never knew exactly what principle—but offered me a job to serve in that function. Not exactly a Luddite, he loved his fax machine to the point where he carried it almost everywhere in his arms. He insisted I buy the same model from a particular person at a company in New York; his loyalties were fierce. Our work began around 7 am or sometimes 3 pm or occasionally at 3 am. Alex approached deadlines with cheerful intensity. He typed up a column and faxed it over for me to “punch in” on my Apple 170. His lively scrawl and fresh revisions kept rolling through—he was a tireless and eloquent reviser.
Alex had nothing but contempt for my faddish laptop, which, in the days before e-mail or AppleCare, served without complaint for seven years. Alex’s fax (and unwieldy rolls of thermal paper) lasted too. The fax and the Apple 170 are today the only functioning—yet useless—electronics in my arsenal.
His advice to a young writer strongly emphasized thrift. “Never, ever show your wallet,” he told me once. He advocated sleeping in one’s vehicle instead of squandering money on hotels. He described the occasional problem of lunch with a hostile interviewer on an expense account: “If I order from the bottom of the menu, I’m a desiccated reptile, and if I have the lobster salad, I’m a hypocritical elitist.” So what did he choose? Gentle exasperation: “Lobster salad.”
Bruce Anderson, the editor of the AVA, recalled a story Alex told him about money: Alex’s father, novelist Claud Cockburn, used to throw all the household bills into a box. Once a month he’d pull out three or four and pay them. Alex followed this model. He admired his father’s modus vivendi; in fact, his bio often noted the achievements of his father-the-novelist before his own. Alex had the novelist’s sense of story and the timing of a comic, but his true form was the diatribe.
R.W. Apple of the New York Times was a “swag-bellied gourmandizer of international repute.” Richard Nixon, whom he called the “greenest” president, “understood that ‘the environment’ could bring together every dreamer green enough to impale an avocado seed on a toothpick and raise it up in the thin light of the Me Decade.”
Once he drove down our mile and a half of unmarked dirt road in a 1959 Nash Rambler without directions, before cellphones or GPS, in a torrential rainstorm with lightning. He simply arrived. When I asked how he’d found us, he held up a flashlight: “I had a torch.” He brought many bottles of Minervois, which we drank at dinner, and his own Turkish coffee pot, in which he brewed a muddy broth in the morning. He described improvements to his property in Petrolia—a tower, frescoes, horses, his stable of vintage cars. He discoursed on the aesthetic crime of heavy beam construction (one of his favorite books was Edith Wharton’s manual The Decoration of Houses), the best preparation for salt cod, Christopher Hitchens, the state of the empire. In the morning he rushed downstairs with my college art history text under his arm and gently critiqued my margin notes.
Moments before he drove off the final time, he discovered a leak in the Rambler’s radiator, but it didn’t faze him. On the loopy back roads of Humboldt and Mendocino counties, Alex was occasionally seen standing beside some steaming automobile with the hood up or the gas tank empty, waving down motorists. This manic polemicist trusted completely in the kindness of strangers.
We failed to note in the table of contents that the cover art for our September 17 issue was by Steve Brodner. Our apologies.