I last saw him in person a year ago in San Francisco. He looked thin and drawn but, as always, he was in good spirits. I'd been on long hikes with Cockburn where he walked me into the ground, and he'd looked thin and drawn then, too. If he was sick with something I knew he'd beat it, that he'd marshal his unique determination, his pure courage and emerge laughing.
That night in the city, he was driving one of his beater vehicles we later had to jumpstart. Another car he steered with a pipe wrench. His cars were always dense with the jumble of stuff Cockburn seemed to travel with. I always wondered if he ever quite off-loaded. There'd be a couple of rose bushes, piles of unsheathed audio tapes, books, maybe a car part or two. If you didn't know Cockburn you might think he was living in his car.
That last time I'd seen him, we'd walked down the street to a Burmese restaurant where, as the unhearing waiter turned Cockburn's salad over an absurd number of times, Cockburn asked, “Which one of us is going to have to restrain him?”
I've never known anyone even remotely like him. Everywhere you went with the guy was an adventure, and wherever he went he met someone he knew, and if he didn't know them he did by the time he left, beguiling the stranger with his unique blend of charm and interrogation. Cockburn was interested in everybody and everything, and he seemed to gulp experience. I remember him insisting on a hike in the Boonville hills the same afternoon I'd picked him up in Santa Rosa after he'd had oral surgery. He was still groggy from anesthesia, having been knocked out for three hours, and still bleeding from the mouth. “No, no. I'm fine,” he insisted, and off we went.
This other encounter a decade ago still makes me laugh: Warren Hinckle had gotten us some work with the interim Examiner. It was headquartered over the Warfield Theater on Market Street. “Cockburn's been a lion for our side for years,” Hinckle, an old lion himself, had remarked. Amen to that, I thought. Name the struggle, Cockburn was there. He brought the clarity. That day, Cockburn said he wanted to stop at a camera shop, also on Market not far from the Examiner. The instant he'd crossed the threshold the Pakistani proprietor had come to heel-clicking attention, snapped off a Raj salute and announced, “The excellent Mr. Alexander Cockburn, gentleman, scholar, journalist. I am honored to see you again, my friend.”
What I most admired about Cockburn was his refusal to hedge. He defended his opinions to anyone, not letting the incorrect slide simply in the interests of some fleeting harmony. I challenged him a few times. I told him once I liked Trollope. He looked skeptically at me and asked, “Which Trollope do you like best?” He probably had them all committed to memory, and I was annoyed that I was getting a pop quiz. But I'd just binged on Trollope, and I was ready! I said I thought Trollope was funnier than Dickens without resorting to caricature the way Dickens did, and that The Way We Live Now is the best deconstruction of capitalism in novel form that there is. Maybe Balzac is better but I don't know enough about Balzac to lay a violent opinion on you about it.” To smoke him out over his reason for quizzing me, I added, “You're asking because you don't believe I know anything about Trollope.” Cockburn came right back with, “I must confess…” I had to laugh. Even if you were irritated with him, he'd disarm you, as he did me on another occasion when I told him his lead sentence was confusing. “How?” he barked, very unhappy. But he promptly agreed and re-wrote it, and this was a guy who routinely batted out a nearly perfect first draft on anything and everything, as I saw him do for his Nation column one night at Peter Lit's Caspar Inn before he spoke there.
I first met Cockburn in 1986. He'd driven to Boonville with Fred Gardner — “My first friend in America,” as Cockburn often said — after I'd arranged with Cockburn to reprint his weekly column, then as now simply the best on national and international matters in the language. Michael Moore had just been fired by Mother Jones, and Moore called Boonville several times as he and Cockburn conferred on what Moore might do about it. Under Moore, Mother Jones had been briefly interesting, radical even, which is why Moore had been sacked. You stray from received opinion and you soon see you're pretty much out there by yourself. Moore has since strayed back in, as have many others. Cockburn, the rock, never trimmed his sails for anyone.
Lots of people are better equipped to remember Cockburn in relation to the American left, but for me, and I daresay a million or so other people, Cockburn was the left, the one person who consistently, relentlessly inspired the rest of us; he's been a steadfast friend to me and to so many people I often wondered how he fit us all in. He'll live on through CounterPunch, a daily newspaper of the left read daily by several million people, and what an irony it is that after years of left ghetto-ization in a few magazines, fewer radio programs, that he and Jeff St. Clair have created a daily newspaper of the left.
You can get a very good sense of Cockburn from a three-hour interview he did back in 2007 on C-Span's Book TV. (It's preserved on-line.) The callers-in are the usual parade of cranks and demagogues Cockburn's national appearances inevitably mobilized because he was the only major intellectual on our side who was always ready and eager to take on The Beast. On this program, the more shameless defenders of Israel call in to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, another nut calls in to go on about Building 7, and on it goes, as serial outpatients line up for their Cockburn comeuppance. Cockburn, with some heat, refuses to permit the liars and the crazy people to misrepresent his opinions. I remember seeing him on the old Donohue Show when he mopped up some New York Times opinion hack who was defending Clinton's handling of the economy. They'd never admit it, but the David Brooks-Mark Shields Axis were afraid of the guy, and now that he's gone watch them roll out with all the old snide slanders of Cockburn as some kind of holdout against reason and the great imperial consensus.
What's invariably left out of the Cockburn discussion is what a good writer he was, how witty and elegant his prose was. Compare any essay on the same subject by Cockburn and, say, George Will, the idiot's thinking man and one of the more prominent unindicted criminals of mass media, and it will be Cockburn all the way.
I'll always be grateful that I knew Alexander Cockburn, and prouder yet that we were friends and allies all the way.