The writer and critic Doug Ireland died on Saturday, alone in his apartment in Manhattan, presumably from a stroke. He had had two previously. He was 67. I think that is exactly how Dougie wanted to go, on his own terms and nobody else’s.
I knew him in his later years, well after he joined Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s, at the tender age of 16, worked as a labor organizer in New Jersey, helped run Allard Lowenstein’s successful antiwar campaign for Congress and then managed radical feminist and antiwar activist Bella Abzug’s winning campaign for Congress in 1970 and her losing bid for the Senate in 1976.
It was said that he could have been the “next Jimmy Breslin,” but I think Dougie was too pure about his politics to ingratiate himself with enough people to win that label. And he came out in 1973, back when, as he put it, “you could count the number of openly gay journalists writing in the mainstream press on two hands.” Being gay and out was certainly not a positive career move.
Dougie was one of a dying breed of print mavens who knew how to get the early exit polls on Election Day, who worked the phones like a demon and who knew how to craft a bon mot. (The Nation, he once said, is “the best quarterly that comes out weekly.”) Nearly every politician and political hack he knew was a “gonif”; I suspect that Dougie knew more Yiddish than many Jews.
To his credit he made the switch from print to digital about a decade ago and launched his own blog, Direland (at my persistent urging), but he continued to write long and erudite essays and book reviews, contributing to In These Times, New York magazine, Paris’s Libération and many other publications, serving as Gay City News’s international contributing editor right up to his passing.
I first got to know Dougie through his stewardship of the “Press Clips” column at the Village Voice, which he wrote from 1989 to 1993 and turned into a fierce outpost of all that was true and needed to be said about New York, the media and national political trends. The column made him more enemies than friends, though, and the Voice eventually dumped him as part of its general purging of left-wing contributors that began in the mid-1990s.
I was an associate editor at The Nation then, and made the case to Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel that we reach out to Dougie to contribute regularly to its pages. It was a lifeline that he appreciated, but it wasn’t a perfect fit. Dougie’s politics were to the left of Katrina and Victor’s (as were mine), and that led to some intense conflicts. And that wasn’t just because Dougie liked to test and provoke all of his editors. Those were the Clinton years.
The Nation has always been the fractious home for a wide range of liberal-left views, but its general editorial stance back then was loyalty to the Democratic president, in spite of his many flaws, because he (and his spouse) were being so viciously vilified by the right. At the same time, there was a dissenting faction, consisting of several editors and writers, who thought the left shouldn’t align itself with any Democrat, let alone that one. Dougie and I were on that side of the argument. I think one of my most trying experiences as a young editor was being in the middle of his push to publish a damning indictment of the Clintons for Whitewater, Travelgate and other sordid affairs, and Katrina and Victor’s discomfort with his ferocity and willingness to infer the worst from a mixed bag of solid facts and not-so-solid surmises.
That particular piece never ran, but history, I think, shows that Dougie was more right than not about Clintonian corruption in the grand sense. There was a coherent (and distressing) set of values underpinning Clinton’s opportunism, starting with the Whitewater land deal (which was based on ripping off gullible working-class retirees who didn’t realize they’d lose their principal if they missed a mortgage payment) and running up through his rushing from New Hampshire back home to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally impaired African-American during the 1992 campaign (the better to win over white Reagan Democrats), to his embrace of the Defense of Marriage Act, welfare repeal (in the guise of reform), free trade and, most consequential, the Robert Rubin–led repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the deregulation of Wall Street (a subject Clinton continues to lie about).
When Clinton was impeached in 1998, Dougie wrote and I co-signed, along with Marc Cooper, an editorial in The Nation arguing that it was “no surprise…that the head of an Administration so riddled with the systematic selling of access, influence and policy should now be caught in the web of his personal corruption.” While we acknowledged that Clinton’s conservative enemies were trying to destroy him, we argued that “integrity and honesty have always been the sine qua non of progressive politics” and called on the president to resign. The Nation had already editorialized in support of Clinton, but to its credit, it let us and others dissent from that view.
Dougie was a champion of all the oppressed, but no cause was closer to his heart than that of gays and lesbians, bisexuals, queers and transsexuals persecuted all over the world. If you read just one of his many essays, go sit with “Should We Forgive Bill Clinton” one of the last pieces he wrote for Gay City News, last March. In it, he reviews Clinton’s recent admission that he was wrong to sign the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996. What Clinton didn’t mention was that he had also renewed an executive order issued originally by the first President Bush banning admission to the United States of anyone who was HIV-positive. Dougie’s life partner, Hervé Couergou, who lived in France, was one person thus blocked from entering America.
“After Hervé became too ill to work,” he writes, “I had to stay here to earn a living for both of us—and so, thanks to Bill Clinton, I was denied the right to nurse Hervé during the illness that took his life. This broke my heart…. If I were to run into Bill Clinton again today, I would spit in his face, not only for Hervé but for all those queers and people with AIDS, in uniform and out, whose lives were destroyed by his opportunism. He showed us no mercy, and we owe him none.”
It was not easy to be Dougie’s friend, because he had such high standards for friendship. There was no such thing as a quick catch-up with him; a morning phone call would usually stretch to an hour at a minimum, as we bantered about current events or picked deeply at some political scab. He had had polio as a child and was never in the best shape (mal faux was how he described his body). And in his later years, as his health declined and he stopped going out, those phone calls became a lifeline. To my regret, I stopped calling him a few years ago because, in his view, everything was going down the tubes: in America, in his beloved Europe, the world. You couldn’t bring him good news, because he usually knew something more about whatever you were telling him about, and it proved that so and so was a sellout or such and such had been tried before and wouldn’t make a difference.
Whatever happened to Dougie’s body, his mind remained sharp. And knowledge, especially the kind of political knowledge he had accumulated, can be a heavy burden. I think most of us, at some point or another, want to forgive and forget, to let things slide. Dougie, to his credit, refused. Like I.F. Stone, the great iconoclast whom he admired and at whose feet he once sat as a young man, Doug Ireland followed the truth wherever it took him. He didn’t believe in the afterlife, but he will live on nonetheless, through his body of work.