Alexander Cockburn


The main point about journalism is its perishability. That is also the main point about the reputation and sway of its practitioners. They are read or heard, have influence for good or ill, and are known only as long as they are at work. Then things move on. When I first became conscious of political journalism in the late 1960s, it was dominated by figures whose names would draw blank stares now. This is the life and the craft we have chosen.*

I mention this to explain a gap in reactions to the surprising news of Alexander Cockburn's death -- surprising because, very much unlike Christopher Hitchens, Cockburn had kept word of his cancer private. People who have come to journalism and politics during the Blogocene Era would scarcely have heard of Cockburn and might wonder why his passing is being noted. If they knew anything about him, it would probably be because of his more mainstream-journalist brothers, Andrew and Patrick, or his niece Olivia Wilde. But for people of my generation, Alexander Cockburn was a tremendously influential figure, despite his withdrawal from the main stage in recent years.

As Michael Tomasky points out in this appreciation, Alex Cockburn essentially pioneered the modern persona for which Christopher Hitchens became much better known: the fancily Oxford-educated leftie Brit litterateur/journalist who would say all the outrageous things his bland Yank counterparts lacked the wit, courage, erudition, or ├ępater-spirit to utter on their own. As both Tomasky and James Wolcott make clear, Cockburn was far more committed and purposeful in his outrageousness. His own brutal obituary about Hitchens both explains and exemplifies the differences. Short version: Cockburn said that Hitchens always knew just how far he could go; Cockburn knew, and kept on going. His "Press Clips" column in the Village Voice genuinely revolutionized the way people talked and thought about the mainstream press.

He was less broadly influential in later years, both because he had removed himself from the media-politico-salon world, working from his cabin in remote Humboldt County, California, and because many of his views were not just contrarian but noxious. I knew him somewhat in his salad days in the 1970s and 1980s; for years and years, our "articles in progress" internal list at the Atlantic had a line saying, "Cockburn -- tailfins." He was a fan of American cars from the huge-tailfin era and was going to write an appreciation of them. To the best of my knowledge, he never turned it in, but just thinking about how he would handle the subject pleased us.

I had not seen Alex Cockburn for many years, and I am sure that to him my current works represent the spineless American furrowed-brow cautious-centrism he despised. (To see an example of how he would deliver that verdict, check this out.) For instance, he had only scorn for people like me who, despite having once worked for Ralph Nader, were urging Ralph to back off his campaigning in the last stages of the 2000 race. But I could never help liking Alex as a person (also Nader), and I am glad that people who knew him better than I did are helping explain why he was so influential, when he was.

I don't see a way to embed this, but I highly recommend watching this C-Span interview he taped from his cabin-in-the-redwoods five years ago. Sympathies to his family.
* In the 1990s I wrote a newspaper book review of a biography of the Alsop brothers, Stewart and Joseph, which made this point. It does not seem to exist on line, but if I find it I will add a link.

UPDATE: Here is a point I meant to include earlier. Alex Cockburn obviously came of age in the pre-blog/Twitter era. But even then he turned out a prodigious amount of copy. When asked about it, he had a disarmingly self-aware reply. He would say, "I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and faster than anyone who can write better." Perhaps not original with him, but he was the first one I heard put it that way. (Update-update: Many people inform me that this originated with A.J. Liebling. FWIW.)