I was just about to write something mean-spirited about the passing of Alexander Cockburn when I learned that Gore Vidal had died
. One post will have to service both.
Both men were were superb stylists, but Vidal was by far the better thinker. He was America's Orwell -- the finest political essayist this country has ever produced. Though I have long admired his work, something about the man's character always irked me. Snobby, patrician, arrogant
: You can toss such adjectives at him and few will tell you to stop; Vidal himself might have encouraged you to keep going. But he was also a political creature who made no secret of either his hunger for office or of his stance somewhere to the left of the mainstream Democratic party.
Can an elitist represent the interests of the common people?
This is very much the question of our day. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy never pretended to be anything but men of the upper class, yet liberals revere their memories even as they detest Mitt Romney. Vidal, when he ran for the Senate, tried to play the FDR game: Working people of America, I can speak for you even though I am not of you
. That's a tricky play. Just ask John Kerry.
I've recounted this story before, but it bears repeating. A friend who worked on Vidal's 1982 senatorial campaign told me about a time when Vidal walked into a meeting and announced: “I have just been to…Whittier.
” He delivered the line with a wince and a shiver, as though he had just kissed a baby. Everyone present laughed, of course. But when I heard the story, I thought: This guy went to Whittier because he wants people there to vote for him. How can he be their senator if he holds them in contempt?
(He also told staffers that if he lost the primary, as everyone knew he would, he planned to vote for a third party candidate in the general election. Even though I was not a huge party loyalist, I was disturbed to learn that a man who considered Jerry Brown so intolerable would ask for the votes of Democrats.)
Nowadays, even Republicans who run on the platform that The Rich Are Gods feel compelled to munch pork rinds and attend NASCAR rallies. If the class divide works against a politician on that
end of the ideological spectrum, it certainly should be a factor in those realms where one traditionally roots for the little guy.
In truth, Vidal wasn't born into great wealth. He earned his money through skilled labor, a claim that people like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush cannot make. We think of him as a patrician because he turned arrogance into a schtick; attitude gave him altitude. He was always more of a Frasier Crane than a Thurston Howell III. That's the paradox of our age: Many people would never vote for Frasier, even though he's the son of a cop and a self-made man -- but they will
vote for Thurston if Thurston pretends to like the Grand Ole Opry.
The Alexander Cockburn story takes us into more depressing territory. All politics is personal, and Cockburn's personality repelled. If Vidal made arrogance a schtick, Cockburn tried to make insufferability an art form. He based his career on daring people to punch him. Nearly everything he wrote revealed a psyche that resembled a Giger painting airbrushed with diarrhea.
A long time ago, a friend of mine made arrangements to interview Andrew Cockburn (Alexander's brother) and his wife Leslie; they had recently completed a book called Dangerous Liaison
. Before the interview proper, my friend asked: "By the way, are you related to...?" Before he could finish the sentence, Andrew Cockburn replied, in a tone that combined exasperation and apology, "Yes!
And Leslie Cockburn quickly interjected: "But he's not at all like
Alexander Cockburn's hypocrisy was infuriating. In his famous farewell-and-fuck-you to Christopher Hitchens, Cockburn writes
Then in the 90s he [Hitchens] got a bee in his bonnet about Clinton which developed into full-blown obsessive megalomania: the dream that he, Hitchens, would be the one to seize the time and finish off Bill. Why did Bill — a zealous and fairly efficient executive of Empire – bother Hitchens so much? I’m not sure. He used to hint that Clinton had behaved abominably to some woman he, Hitchens, knew. Actually I think he’d got to that moment in life when he was asking himself if he could make a difference. He obviously thought he could, and so he sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon and tried to topple Clinton via betrayal of his close friendship with Sid Blumenthal, whom he did his best to ruin financially (lawyers’ fees) and get sent to prison for perjury.
Cockburn neglects to tell his readers that he jumped through the same hoops, albeit at an earlier stage. When Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, Cockburn turned jihadi, filling column after boring column in The Nation
with the exact same conspira-crap that later became standard fare on right-wing radio. If you've read Conason and Lyons' The Hunting of the President
, you'll know about the inane tales that Clinton's enemies loved to spread. Early on, Cockburn believed every one of them.
At the time, many of those allegations -- mostly involving Clinton's supposed involvement with various coke smuggling operations -- were seeded into prog circles by an operative (I will not name
him) who, as a calling card, used a claimed connection with the then-popular Christic Institute. Even though Cockburn disdained the Institute (and even though the connection was apparently a ruse), he fell into the tarpits of reactionary paranoia, becoming so enmeshed that he even sought out the notorious Michael Riconosciuto. As some of you may recall, Mikey was a wanna-be spook imprisoned on drug charges; he liked to get his name into print by spinning tales about UFOs and free energy and God-knows-what-else. Word spread that Jailbird Mike possessed hot new info on The Great Clinton Coke Conspiracy. In his desperation to get hold of the imprisoned Riconosciuto, Cockburn rang up a woman who (he had heard) could act as a go-between. Unknown to Cockburn, this woman was one of the McMartin mothers, whom he had previously trashed in print. Hilarity ensued.
(How do I know this stuff? Back then, I got around.)
In those days, editorials still mattered -- and the unlovable Cockburn was one of the few "progressive" writers who, for reasons I could never comprehend, got into the opinion pages of major newspapers. Almost without exception, his pieces gave left-wing rationales for right-wing positions, opposition to Clinton's health care initiative being the most obvious example.
Many were surprised when Cockburn later joined the global warming deniers. I would have been astonished if he hadn't.
That was Cockburn's act: He was Roger Ailes' idea of the perfect lefty. He personified the left that the right wanted
. Whenever possible, Cockburn found ways to justify support for conservative ideas; when doing so was not possible, he made opposition to conservatism seem as appetizing as a cockroach sandwich.
Despite his history of applauding the Clinton paranoids, despite linking arms with loonies who think that scientists around the world have plotted against mankind, and despite having once written an influential article arguing in favor of a second gun in the RFK assassination, Cockburn expressed disdain for conspiracy theorists. Here's his final word
on that topic. Of course, I agree with his contempt for the 9/11 nuts (although by 2011, they had descended beneath respectable notice). Moreover, he has some wise words about the likelihood that American intelligence had penetrated Al Qaeda before the attacks. But when he speaks on the general topic of conspiracy, we get this:
Of course there are conspiracies. The allegations that Saddam Hussein had WMD amounted to just such a one. I think there is strong evidence that FDR did have knowledge that a Japanese naval force in the north Pacific was going to launch an attack on Pearl Harbor.
that Saddam Hussein had such weapons does not amount to conspiracy. If a dozen people say that Mars has intelligent life, we can say that they are wrong without presuming either complot or bad intention. Notice that the only "real" conspiracy that gets Cockburn all het up is one that points toward FDR, a man whom a generation of Nation
readers were taught to consider the enemy of mankind. Cockburn has praised pacifists of that era who opposed America's entry into the World War II. You know damned well that if Alexander Cockburn had been writing in 1942, he would have come up with a lefty rationale for supporting the Bund
For years, Cockburn, Chomsky, Hitchens, Navasky and their ilk institutionalized on the left an attitude that matches the policy now prevailing on Fox News: It is permissible to posit any conspiracy theory, however bizarre, as long as the target is a Democrat. (Chomsky used to tell audiences that JFK killed Patrice Lumumba, even though Lumumba was killed before JFK took office.) Like the Murdochian hordes, Cockburn believed that conspiracy theory becomes foolish only when the finger points to the intelligence community or to the right.
We thus come to our final word on Vidal, Cockburn and their comrades. The word is failure
For years, they were the intellectual leaders of the progressive community. Of course, they would have denied that charge -- in fact, they probably would have assailed the very concept of leadership. Let's get real: Back in 1985, if you asked a well-read person to name a prominent lefty, you would have heard mention of Cockburn, Chomsky, Hitchens or Vidal. The Nation
crowd set policy. They decided which thoughts were Thoughtcrime. When this country lurched toward the far right, they issued a directive to all who hoped to mount an opposition: "Never, ever allow yourself to be persuaded that any good can come from the Democratic party, or from any politician or organization. Reform is impossible. It's hip to be hopeless."
As a generation of elitist progressive "giants" passes away, we must ask a fundamental question. How did the left fare under their leadership?
Did the masses find the left attractive or repellent? In the 1980s and 90s, did the left become stronger or weaker?
The answer is obvious. The progressive elite compiled a resume quite similar to that of the captain of the Exxon Valdez. Yet as the years and decades passed, they maintained a position of command.
Now mortality is finally ridding us of the Nation
crowd and their legacy of incompetence. The internet has given us new voices. Let us hope they learn from the past.
The greatest lesson is this: Politics is not literature
. The two endeavors require different equipment, or at least different tactics. Everyone expects literary folk to scorn the hoi polloi
; in that realm, waspishness is part of the fun. But arrogance provides a poor basis for a mass movement. You can't heal a sick society if you'd rather trade barbs at the Algonquin.