Remembering Alexander Cockburn

Looking back on the author and writer's legacy.

WEST CHESTER, Pa., July 30, 2012 — After a two year battle with cancer, author and columnist Alexander Cockburn has passed away. The announcement of his death was delivered by Cockburn’s friend and co-editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, on their website “Counterpunch.”

Though a liberal himself, Cockburn never carried the liberal establishment’s water, which was seen in many of his writings. He was a known crusader against liberal orthodoxy and was fierce in his criticism of others and the policies that they sought to promote, irrespective of Party, even when that individual/policy was wrapped in liberal paper.

Cockburn maintained many positions that angered those on the left and attacked characters who were viewed by many liberals as sacrosanct; because of this, he was often disavowed by the left as a contrarian. Unlike most liberals, Cockburn opposed all forms of gun control, rejected the consensus on the left that global warming was manmade, and was unrelenting in his criticisms of such liberal figures as Bill Clinton.

When the catastrophe of Waco occurred under President Clinton, the left passionately defended the President. Cockburn wrote: “We live in the militarized police culture of SWAT teams, tactical squads, elite storm units, Delta teams and kindred commandos: Don’t knock on the door to solve enforcement problems but break it down with a bulldozer. The President and his attorney general seem to have signed on to that culture with alacrity.”

When many Democrats and liberals lined up behind Obama’s candidacy in 2008, Cockburn refused, instead supporting Ron Paul, saying of him: “Paul is the last of the breed. As a small-government tight-money Republican this gynecologist-obstetrician (4,000 babies claimed as a career total) regularly votes No on pork barrel projects that would put money into his own district. But as a Republican in the isolationist, libertarian tradition he also votes No, sometimes alone among the 535 members of the US congress, on war funding, on laws allowing US presidents to order arbitrary imprisonment, “coercive interrogation”, suspension of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The “radical leftist” never contained his anger or held his tongue when he attacked those who unconditionally supported abhorrent policies. Cockburn assailed those who had extensively supported the war against Iraq. He attacked individuals like Christopher Hitchens for traveling to the White House in the spring of 2003 to give a war “pep talk,” and three time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Cockburn referred to Friedman as “one of the most pompous people on the planet,” thinking it disgraceful that a pro-war journalist was awarded so many Pulitzers.

Cockburn also very publicly quarreled with “The Nation” magazine’s editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, when he was a featured columnist at that magazine. Cockburn and vanden Heuvel’s debates would center on Cockburn’s deviation from the left. In one debate, Cockburn attacking the Democrats and the left, wrote at the end of a column for “The Nation”: “The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as “obscure.” I suggest a poll of the American people.”

In another incident, Cockburn came to the defense of fellow “Counterpunch” contributor Dave Lindorff after vanden Heuvel attacked Lindorff for writing an article comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler. Cockburn wrote: “I thought Lindorff’s measured assessment of the two leaders’ rhetorical talents indicated appropriate objectivity … I don’t think you’d see that sort of gentlemanly sense of fair play and politeness from the likes of the [Wall street Journal’s] ordure-encrusted [James] Taranto or that fat, lying drug-addicted hypocrite, Rush Limbaugh.” Vanden Heuvel always tried to distance herself from Cockburn’s remarks saying, “I don’t read Counterpunch … It’s been our experience that we’ve had differences with our writers. It’s a strength of the magazine that it accommodates a range of perspectives.”

Alexander Cockburn was a rare exception to today’s political left. He broke with liberals and progressives on issues such as war, gun control, and climate change, and was never afraid to charge liberal politicians and figures with betraying their principles, even though he was denounced for his “right-wing extremism.” Despite being excommunicated from liberal circles, he continued to write even as he suffered with cancer. St. Clair said of Cockburn: “His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever.”

Regardless of whether we agree with Cockburn’s overall body of work, we should remember him for remaining principled until the very end, and for serving as a true example to many hard liners on the left and right that principles should always take precedence over party.

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Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is currently a college student majoring in History and Political Science. His writings have appeared in The Daily Local, Lew’s blog, The Washington Times,, and Freedom’s Phoenix Online Digital Magazine. He has been a popular guest political contributor to numerous national radio shows across the country, offering his perspective on a wide array of issues. 

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