The fractured brilliance of Alexander Cockburn
“He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club,” Richard Wright wrote of H.L. Mencken in Black Boy, his autobiography. “Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were.”
Thoughts like these visited me when I first read Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice in the early 1970s. Like Mencken, Cockburn excelled at offense – both playing it and giving it. Long before the acid reporting and splenetic commentary of Spy magazine, decades before the predictable venom of blogs, Cockburn had mastered the art of vituperation. Dipping his pen into the sewer of news, he savaged all comers. He went after Nelson Rockefeller after his “coronation” as vice-president, he attacked Commentary Editor Norman “The Frother” Podhoretz whenever the mood moved him (which was often), and returned again and again to the villains he kept in his pillory: New Republic owner Martin Peretz, New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, or the owner of the Village Voice, and others.
When the targets shot back – Podhoretz famously described Cockburn’s pieces as setting “a new standard of gutter journalism in this country” – he loved nothing better than to hammer the trash talk into a medal and wear it proudly. He recycled Podhoretz’s line endlessly in his column, and printed it as a dust jacket blurb for his collection Corruptions of Empires: Life Studies & the Reagan Era.
“He is a talented, despicable writer who enjoys vicious teasing as a kind of journalistic blood sport,” film critic David Denby wrote in 1983, which I think shrinks the Cockburn method to its essence. Cockburn delighted in extracting pain from his adversaries, in searching the horizon for new enemies to attack, and in routinely converting friends into foes. But when I interviewed him in 1995, he disavowed the presence of bile in his work.
“Bile is something eating at you all the time,” Cockburn said. “Bilious people hate. I don’t hate.”
“I think I’m funnier than I am billier, if that’s a word,” he added. “After column after column of careful analytic work, you take a few swings and all that people remember are the vivid slaggings, and all the careful theory goes for naught.”
Vivid Slaggings: Now there’s a title for a Cockburn collection.
Cockburn didn’t invent the weekly press-crit column – John Leo wrote “Press Clips” for the Voice before Cockburn got there. But he defined the form with brilliant fish-out-of-water observations. Decades ago, I heard him speak about coming to the United States and discovering to his astonishment the “corrections” column in the New York Times. This was an act of transparency and accountability that didn’t exist in UK journalism. But Cockburn’s wonder evaporated when he realized that the corrections column was just the Times‘s devious way of saying that everything else in its previous editions was absolutely true.
I’ve used Bitly to bundle a dozen Cockburn clips from over the decades to convince you of his journalistic wit and sense. (My Web spelunking has failed to unearth any of the columns he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s.) See especially his 1982 evisceration of the NewsHour in Harper’s, his September 2000 New York Press take-down of Thomas Friedman, and “How to Be a Foreign Correspondent,” a May 1976 piece from [More] magazine. Unfortunately, several of my favorite Cockburn pieces aren’t online, such as his 1979 essay on Nelson Rockefeller’s final hours (try Nexis: keywords “Press Clips on a Famous Death”) and his May 1974 [More] piece about the clichés of disaster journalism. The first person who buys the [More] anthology (just $3!) that contains it won’t regret it. From the piece, here’s Cockburn’s direction on how to write an earthquake story:
Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in “remote Eastern Turkey” or in the “arid center of Iran.” But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then “for six seconds the earth shook.” Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.
Like all punch-out artists, his brawling occasionally got him in trouble. “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan,” he wrote after the Soviet invasion, drawing ire from multiple corners. He strangely took the Church of Scientology’s side in its 1990s battle with Time magazine and laughed off the idea that the organization was evil. The way he saw it, Scientology made a great ally because he shared so many enemies with them – the IRS, the pharmaceutical industry and the CIA, for starters. Some of his work in the 1990s simply misfired – his writings on the Clinton “scandal” at the Mena, Arkansas, airport, which I could never fathom; his flirtation with the mid-’90s militia and jury nullification movements, which smacked more of left-wing opportunism in my eyes, and his less-than-rigorous attacks on global warming science.
Cockburn reinvented himself in 1998 by moving the eclectic, radical newsletter “CounterPunch” that he and Jeffrey St. Clair ran to the Web. This transition from ink to electrons was a surprise considering his aversion to technology. In a 1986 Mother Jones piece, he identified the personal computer as a culture danger that would lead to the mass industrialization of the mind. Cockburn insisted that he was a typewriter man, goddamnit, and always would be! That view must have shifted when Cockburn realized that the Web was to his revolution as electricity was to Lenin’s.
I’m tempted to theorize that the collapse of communism disoriented Cockburn. An unbeatable New Left intellect, he was also the inheritor of the old leftism of his father, communist journalist Claud Cockburn. The New Leftism he espoused was supposed to prop up and supplement the decaying old leftism of his father, but as the New Left evaporated in the 1970s and 1980s, his only touchstone was the never-ending military parade that was Eastern Europe. Then the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union slid down the swirly, leaving him and his ideology stranded. Where could he turn for inspiration? China? North Korea? Never. The man had some standards, after all. (I must say he stayed pretty sweet on Fidel.)
But I don’t think the fall of the Wall transformed him from a precision bomber into a scattergunner. Fanning through four decades of his clips, I find ample consistency in his work. He’s almost always anti-war (and anti-Israel). He’s consistently pro-gun and never stopped attacking liberals. In fact, he reserved more hatred for liberals like Barack Obama than conservatives like Jesse Helms. If he had a kind word to say about the free market, I never read it (he was an unrepentant Marxist to the end). He routinely sided with the powerless, sometimes even when they were wrong, and sometimes, I suspect, precisely because they were wrong. That was Cockburn’s kind of fight.
The man was a biblioklept! When they divide up his estate, I want back the copy of Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s Washington Confidential I lent him in 1995. Send overdue books to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and have your mind industrialized by my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.