By Ruth Conniff
The great leftwing polemicist Alexander Cockburn died Friday night after a two-year bout with cancer.
His voice was one of the most eloquent, his pen among the most piercing, of any leftwing writer of the last 35 years.
He wrote first for the Village Voice and then The Nation, a ride that was not without turbulence. He didn’t mind the turbulence; he liked to create it, especially on issues of principle.
He also wrote an op-ed column for several years in the Wall Street Journal, pre-Murdoch.
And for the past 16 years, he was the co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the newsletter Counterpunch.
“He taught at least two generations how to think, how to look at the world, how to live a life of resistance,” St. Clair wrote in a loving farewell at www.counterpunch.org.
Cockburn did nine books with St. Clair, including “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press,” “Imperial Crusades,” “Dime’s Worth of Difference,” and “End Times: Death of the Fourth Estate.”
And we at The Progressive magazine were fortunate enough to publish him several times.
I first started reading the British-born Cockburn in 1980. Until then, I didn’t know that it was kosher to write with such verve and venom. For a young, aspiring political writer, it was a real rabbit trick. And I wanted to learn how.
Throughout the 1980s, Cockburn, more than any other writer in America, exposed the blatant lies and murderous frauds that the Reagan Administration was issuing. He highlighted Reagan’s shameful support for the death squads in El Salvador and his illegal war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
Cockburn had no use for Democratic Presidents, either. He criticized Jimmy Carter for his policies in El Salvador and East Timor.
And he excoriated Bill Clinton for destroying welfare and for pushing through his punitive crime bill.
“If ever there was a false populist, it was Clinton,” he said in a talk in Chicago in 1998. (You can see seven and a half minutes of that talk here.)
Cockburn also saw through Obama before almost anyone else.
“I’ve never heard a politician so desperate not to offend conventional elite opinion while pretending to be fearless and forthright,” he wrote in December 2006 at counterpunch.
He said Obama sent an early “signal to the corporate powers and Party donors that here was no boat-rocker from Chicago, but a safe pair of hands and an obedient pair of heels.”
I didn’t always agree with him—he had his head in the sand on global warming—but I admired his style.
Like many progressives, I’ll miss Alexander Cockburn’s clarity, his fearlessness, his disdain for the Dems, his indictment of the corporate media, and his deft phrase-turning.
He also had a left-libertarian streak that was appealing. He seemed to enjoy life. I met him a couple of times, and he was terrific company: witty, perceptive, and a wonderful storyteller, at ease talking about politics, literature, sex.
If he didn’t take himself too seriously, he took his job seriously: to strip the clothes off of emperors everywhere.
And progressives around the country—and around the world—are in his debt for that.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Obama Strikes Populist Chord on Taxes."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter