Appreciation: Alexander Cockburn

Remembering the writer and polemicist, who died last week at the age of 71.

Once asked why he became a permanent resident of the US in 1973, Alexander Cockburn tersely replied: “Oh, England was horrible.” It was perhaps appropriate, then, that the radical journalist’s death on 21 July at the age of 71 was barely reported in the land he spurned. Though he wrote for a succession of British titles in the early years of his career, including the New Statesman, it is for his columns in the Village Voice (the pioneering Press Clips), the Wall Street Journal and the Nation, that he will be remembered.

His column for the latter, which appeared bi-weekly for 28 years, was entitled “Beat the Devil” after the 1951 noir novel by his Irish father, Claud, best known as one of the finest practitioners of 20th-century muckraking journalism. Though his mother longed for him to become an oilman – “she dreamt of me becoming the vice-president of Exxon”, Cockburn quipped – his father’s radical politics (he was an activist of the British Communist Party) and exemplary prose, alternating between comic irony and lofty invective, provided Cockburn with a model to emulate. Among Claud’s bon mots was the rule that one should “never believe anything until it’s officially denied”. Alexander adopted this gently mocking style, once declaring Gerald Ford to be “America’s greatest president” on the Hippocratic grounds that “he did the least possible harm”. Such qualities are also present in the work of his brothers, Andrew and Patrick, who collectively represent one of the greatest journalistic dynasties of modern times. Patrick, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, is responsible for much of the best reporting from Iraq, and Andrew’s books, including Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy and Saddam Hussein: an American Obsession, are essential chronicles of America’s imperial decline. To this list, one can add Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s economics editor, who is a half-niece of the brothers. But through the range of his journalism and the strength of his political commitments, it was Alexander who emerged as his father’s successor.

Intellectual odyssey

Much of his finest writing is collected in The Golden Age is in Us (1995), an intellectual odyssey in which Cockburn turned his pen to Colette, transvestism, sexual manners and hate mail. His polemics against US and Israeli foreign policy were clear-sighted and often prescient, but his political writing was marred by nostalgia for Soviet Stalinism. Cockburn was at his best when assailing the “lesser evilism” of an American left that excused policies enacted by a Democratic president (in this case, Bill Clinton) which it would never tolerate from a Republican. Yet he exhibited just this defect in relation to the Soviet Union, celebrating it as a “counterweight to US imperialism”. He never recognised that it was a rival empire to be denounced, not an ally to be applauded. Even more egregious was his denial of man-made climate change and insistence that the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen was “quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France”. To describe these stances as “contrarian”, as so many did, would be to unfairly impute bad faith to Cockburn. He was simply and unforgivably wrong.

Announcing Cockburn’s death from cancer, Jeffrey St Clair, with whom Cockburn co-edited the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch, wrote that his friend “kept his illness a tightly guarded secret”, adding that he “didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done”. For much of his life, Cockburn’s name was indelibly linked with that of Hitchens. Both were expensively educated émigrés who recognised early in their careers that there was a market for Oxford radicals who would say the outrageous things their staid American counterparts would not. Comrades for years at the Nation, Cockburn terminated their friendship after a succession of feuds, branding Hitchens a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian”. When I interviewed Hitchens for the NS in 2010, he told me that he “avoided responding in kind” out of respect for the rest of the Cockburn family, with whom he enjoyed more fraternal relations. One sensed that Cockburn’s pathological criticism of Hitchens was partly born of envy at the greater fame of a man, eight years his junior, who first emulated his achievements in US journalism and then surpassed them.

While Hitchens emerged as a literary critic of distinction, writing elegantly about Proust, Bellow and Nabokov for the Atlantic, Cockburn retreated into the world of pamphlet wars and quick-fire polemics. But his best political writing was still infused with a range of literary and poetic reference now rare in the industry. Like Hitchens, Cockburn stood in the radical tradition of James Cameron, I F Stone and Gore Vidal. In this age of high specialisation, one searches in vain for their successors.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue