Monday, July 23, 2012

The Golden Age Is Passing

Alexander Cockburn was never a friend. An influence, an occasional publisher, an uncle to my friend and political colleague Laura Flanders, yes. But we weren't pals.

Still, for the longest time I admired him. Early on, I imitated him. A lot of young lefty writers did.

In his prime, Cockburn was a first-rate press critic and stylist. Perhaps the best writer on the left. Certainly its best polemicist.

When I moved to NYC in 1982, a coke-hungry communist I'd met turned me on to Cockburn's Press Clips column in the Village Voice. It was an electric read in a paper that offered James Wolcott, Ellen Willis, Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, and more.

One hell of a weekly line-up. Yet Cockburn's column, at times co-written with James Ridgeway, was the highlight. At least to my avid mind.

Comedy was my main interest; Cockburn showed another path. I'd never thought of writing political pieces until I read Press Clips.

Thanks to Cockburn, I began reading and researching history books, bound back issues of various ideological magazines, writers like Hazlitt and Chesterton, and his sworn enemies in The New Republic and Commentary.

In 1986, back in NYC from LA, I joined FAIR, and that's where it really took off.

When I was hired to write a weekly press column for Downtown, my main models were Press Clips and Beat the Devil, Cockburn's Nation column. My editor told me it was the most remarked upon part of the paper. Readers were drawn to my intensity and humor.

Feeling confident, I sent clips to Cockburn and Hitchens. Both responded favorably.

Cockburn said that my writing was "excellent." He invited me to visit The Nation's office anytime he was there and we'd chat. Summoning the courage, I eventually did.

He decidedly stood out. Bright Hawaiian shirt. Straight-legged jeans. Red suede shoes. Longish brown hair uncombed. Aviator glasses. Wide smile.

I introduced myself. He was friendly and gracious. We made small talk. He lightly chastised me for reading too many right wing magazines. I replied that that was my corner at FAIR.

Alex said, "Oh yes! You're young! Ambitious! You want to read it all! Well, you have to make smarter choices."

I wasn't sure if Cockburn was mocking me. If he was, I didn't care. Then a radio outside his office played Jumping Jack Flash. Cockburn grabbed a pretty intern and danced with her. The rest of the office looked on as if this was standard behavior.

Through Alex I became friendly with his younger brother Andrew, who was equally intelligent but far less judgmental. We once met for lunch on the Upper West Side. Andrew said that Alex was out of town. He invited me along to pick up Alex's mail. Among letters and bills were Workers Vanguard, the American Guardian, Foreign Affairs, and yes The New Republic.

Entering his apartment mesmerized me. Pure writer's chaos. Stacks of books. Papers and magazines strewn about. And then there was the desk.

A long plank of wood resting atop two sawhorses. A large typewriter. Framed photos. Typed pages with hand-written corrections and edits. I stared on in awe.

This is where the magic happens, I told myself. This is how a real writer lives. It was a jolt of pure inspiration.

Over the years, Cockburn and I crossed paths, most memorably at a party in LA where I met and talked extensively to Noam Chomsky. Alex had two giggling young women hanging all over him. They whispered into each other's ears, then cackled uproariously.

Alex broke free for a moment and whispered something to Noam, who chuckled to himself. I have no idea what he said, but Noam seemed to appreciate it.

Then there were our spats in the letter's pages of New York Press. He had attacked Michael Moore and (pre-9/11) Hitchens, both of whom I defended. I baited Cockburn with sarcasm, suggesting that his time was nearly over. He replied with both barrels, denigrating my intelligence, taking shots at my sexuality.

Alex did this several times when we clashed. It seemed like an odd tactic, doubtless rooted in his private boys' schooldays in England. And yet, if I had something he liked or needed to bolster an argument, he'd use it, giving me full credit.

He posted several pieces of mine at Counterpunch, which boosted my readership. When I offered another piece, Cockburn delivered an ultimatum: if I wanted to keep appearing in Counterpunch, I had to stop writing about Hitchens on my personal site.

I asked why. He thought I had a weird gay crush on Christopher which he didn't want associated with his site.

This stemmed from my story about seeing Hitchens naked in his apartment. Christopher took it in stride. He didn't care that I saw him sans clothes. But for some reason it bothered Alex.

I told Cockburn that I'd write whatever I pleased. If he didn't like it, that was his neurotic problem. So I never wrote for nor spoke to Alex again.

Like many others, I was surprised to learn that he died of cancer. But then, I wasn't part of his inner-circle. Still, Alexander Cockburn helped shape a part of my writing life. For that I thank him and hope that he passed peacefully.