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Alexander Cockburn by Harry Browne

The ‘non-contrarian’ who died last year, was the Irish-produced journalist with the best prose


Time to fess up, here. Some of us used to be quite fond of John Waters. We even had evidence to back up our feelings: In Dublin, under his editorship in the 1980s, was a pretty good, sharp index of the urban zeitgeist. Some of us still envy him. What combination of his ability and Geraldine Kennedy’s cackhandedness a decade ago managed to render him undroppable as a newspaper columnist? For years he has represented viewpoints that are at least as unpopular among the general population as those of, say, the far left, but various editors seem convinced that he should be permitted to carry on. Fair play to him, it must be a knack.

Alexander Cockburn

It’s worth asking, though, what it is about the Waters form of authoritarian populism that fits it within the norms of an elite that ostensibly rejects his views. (I realise it’s hard to squeeze resistance to parking regulation, for which Waters has now done two hours of hard time in Wheatfield, under the heading “authoritarian”, but the man is not entirely inflexible.) Compare that success, for what it’s worth, with the professional fate of another man who like Waters was often wrongly labelled “contrarian”, probably the finest journalistic writer, as measured in sheer quality of prose, that Ireland produced over the last half-century or so, the late Alexander Cockburn. The comparison is prompted by the recent publication of ‘A Colossal Wreck’, the final collection of writings by Cockburn, who passed away at 71 last year. Ireland produced him all right, but it shared the task, not least with his father, the great British journalist Claud Cockburn, and with his equally brilliant mother Patricia, formerly Arbuthnot and of Anglo-Irish stock. Alexander had probably already mentally transcended Ireland by the time in the late 1950s, as a teenager home from school in Scotland, he was writing unsigned humorous leaders for the Irish Times. (The obituary in the Irish Times itself managed to mangle the chronology.)

He lived for the last four decades of his life in the US. His first collection, ‘Corruptions of Empire’ (1988), was selected from a wide range of renowned and well-paying publications where Cockburn plied his trade in the 1970s and 1980s, plugged right into Washington and New York society, though withering in his assessment of it. ‘A Colossal Wreck’, on the other hand, finds him, no less hilarious, erudite and insightful, on the outer fringes of US life, at least as defined by mainstream-media success. This may have been a professional disaster – no more fat paycheques from glossy magazines and the Wall Street Journal – but the collection shows it to have been a political and literary boon. Living, for most of the period covered in ‘A Colossal Wreck’, deep in the beyonder portions of the back of beyonds in northern California, and driving around America in barely road-worthy but dearly beloved old cars, Cockburn shows a connection with the unfashionable lives of “ordinary” Americans that would be unimaginable in most successful journalists. He didn’t, despite the distance, grow entirely indifferent to the concerns of DC and Manhattan. In fact he mocked them and their elite opinion-formers more mercilessly than ever. In this passage, for example, he could be talking about the Anglo tapes and the eternal, diversionary search in any given scandal for a “smoking gun”: “… committee rooms on Capitol Hill and Sunday talk shows were filled with people holding up guns with smoke pouring from the barrel telling one another solemnly that no, the appearance of smoke and the stench of recently detonated cordite notwithstanding, this was not yet the absolute, conclusive smoking gun”.

Sometimes hard to pigeonhole politically – Cockburn happily met some libertarians and paleoconservatives on what was for him the most valued common ground of anti-imperialism, for example – he differed from the vast majority of journalists, and probably sealed his career fate, with an unfailing mistrust of power and authority. He was the loyal son of the father who coined the oft-quoted, and more-oft-ignored, dictum: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied”. Alexander perhaps never came up with a one-liner quite as good as that, but ‘A Colossal Wreck’ is packed with passages that are irresistible for quoting aloud to whoever will hear you. The fact that for his last 20 years the mainstream media no longer wanted to hear him makes those insights feel all the more vital.