A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture

Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists.

New Statesman
Decline and fall: relics of an American empire. Image: Tema Stauffer.

A Colossal Wreck: a Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture
Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 498pp, £20

The introduction to Alexander Cockburn’s posthumously published ramble across the American landscape contains a shot across the bows from his brother Andrew for anyone from this magazine who dares to review it. “Some fool back in the 1990s excoriated Alexander in the leftish English weekly the New Statesman for being ‘anti-American’ . . . It may have been the very stupidest of all the insults hurled over the years at Alexander.” If “anti-American” is the most stupid slur Cockburn attracted in more than 40 years of condemning the failures of US politicians, his life as a campaigning journalist must be deemed a failure.

It is true that “anti-American”, like “un- American”, is an abusive term often misapplied by sloppy thinkers, but Cockburn’s elegant ambiguity about his adopted home was designed to throw people off the scent. Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists. It is not so much a nation as a mishmash of disparate cultures, spread thinly across a vast continent, and any attempt to reach (let alone hammer a stake through) its hard heart is a fool’s errand.

As with most of his family – a distinguished clan of sub-aristocratic radical writers – Cockburn’s shtick was to pose as an outsider. The son of Claud Cockburn, the communist editor and reporter who first identified the Cliveden set as a nest of appeasers in the run-up to the Second World War, Alexander was brought up in County Cork. He was despatched to the rugger-bugger public school Glenalmond in Perthshire and then he went to Keble College, Oxford, where he rubbed shoulders with fellow members of the complacent class he claimed to despise.

A not-so-distant relation who saw the Cockburn universe in reverse was Evelyn Waugh, a bourgeois curmudgeon with his envious nose pressed firmly against the pane of privilege. The author who played this ohso-English game of inverted snobbery most successfully was George Orwell. Old rivalries continued into the next generation, leaving Alexander to defend his father from Orwell’s ghost: “Unlike Orwell, he didn’t rush to squeal, secretly squeal, on his comrades to the British secret service . . . Orwell certainly was suspicious of Jews, blacks and homosexuals. My father was a communist agitator.”

By the time Alexander was ready to right the world’s wrongs, the world had moved on. The British empire was defunct and the battle between Labour and the Tories had become a consensual sham. He headed instead to the new capital of world imperialism: Washington, DC, which a distant relative had burned to the ground in the war of 1812. For the best part of 50 years, Cockburn kept that flame alive, writing elegant, idiosyncratic prose for everyone from Murdoch’s Village Voice to the house organ of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal. His writing was always eloquent, erudite and original.

Inevitably he found himself cast in a grudge match against the compulsive attentionseeker Christopher Hitchens, a fellow New Statesman alumnus whose lust for fame and ability to perform casuistic somersaults put him at a distinct advantage in the age of hate radio and cable TV scream-fests. His pent-up frustration at watching Hitch chain-smoke his way to drunken stardom reached its peak at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, when Cockburn’s louche nemesis abandoned the triangulating Bill Clinton and turned on a dear friend, the president’s sidekick Sidney Blumenthal.

“I’ve long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss,” Cockburn wrote. “And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Hitchens has made the big time.”

Cockburn calls as evidence of Hitch’s ideological depravity his dislike for the German Red Army Faction, whose members, to show their disdain for capitalism, mounted grisly killing sprees against public officials and their blue-collar helpers. At a typical late-1970s dinner party in Washington, Americans lined up to watch the pair of literary Brits claw each other over long-forgotten slights. Hitch accused the murderous Germans, then on the run, of giving the left a bad name.

“If one of them came to my front door seeking shelter,” Hitch said, “I would call the police in an instant and turn him in.” Cockburn backed the killers: “Wouldn’t you just, I remember thinking at the time. I’ve often thought about that outburst since, and whether in fact Christopher was at some level already in the snitch business.”

For Cockburn as for Hitch, the internecine battles of the early Soviet revolutionaries were an inspiration against which everything was measured. Through what appears to be a ragbag of journalism, diary entries and blogs, behind all the critiques of America – particularly its interventionist foreign policy – Cockburn’s belief system remains intact. His first point of reference is often the Roman history that he learned at school: so the demands of the military-industrial complex on Bush and Gore in 2000 are compared to the Roman praetorian guard auctioning off the imperial throne in 193AD after the assassination of Emperor Pertinax.

It was this effortless cultivation of references that made Cockburn so loved in the US, where journalism is not the knockabout trade it is in Britain but more of a smug priesthood. American journalists can rarely write like an angel nor can they deliver a left hook; Cockburn could do both. If from an Englishman’s point of view there was too often a Pooterism in his writing, it did not, in this volume, prevent him being endlessly refreshing in his observations.

Timorous Americans, who even in brutal, mannerless New York recoil from no-holdsbarred argument, deemed Cockburn unduly “mordant” and “acerbic” – both adjectives that appeared in his New York Times obituary. In reality – and alas – he was a pussycat who barely laid a finger on the American empire that took him to its bosom.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£12.99)