Alexander Cockburn, who died in 2012, was an eccentric British journalist in the United States, famously insolent at The Village Voice during its years of glory in the 1970s and early 1980s and thereafter in other journals; and A Colossal Wreck is his posthumous book. The book came out late last year and aroused my curiosity because somehow I had gotten the impression that Cockburn had written an autobiography, which led me to remember that he did have talent and that his personal story was always more interesting than his opinions. The title itself, A Colossal Wreck, with its witty mix of the grandiose and the rueful, reminded me that, beneath his exterior appearance, Cockburn, the old rogue, could be wonderfully charming.
Only, a pity! Thirty seconds of flipping through the pages revealed the scale of my misunderstanding. The titular Wreck turns out to be, as I ought to have known, American imperialism, ever swinish, criminal, tawdry, and doomed. The book is merely a scrapbook of Cockburn’s railings in recent years against the Israel lobby, homosexuals, Democrats, liberals, and especially “Uncle Sam’s true face,” which is the CIA, Cockburn’s hobbyhorse: “Not a ‘rogue’ Agency but one always following the dictates of government, murdering, torturing, poisoning, drugging its own subjects, approving acts of monstrous cruelty, following methods devised and tested by Hitler’s men, themselves transported to America after World War II,” etc. More than five hundred pages of this seemed more than I could bear.
Still, many months later I have given A Colossal Wreck another try, and this time I note an attractive feature. At The Village Voice during Cockburn’s era, the big excitements, sometimes dwarfing the lowly questions of politics, tended to be countercultural, which prompted the rock critics and some of the other writers to erect giant amplifiers, as it were, and blast quotations from commercial movies and punk-band lyrics into the columns of the newspaper, as if Hollywood and the rockers defined the principles of a modern and suitable prose. Everyone was high on the “low.” Cockburn, by contrast, remained ensconced in a two-page column of his own called “Press Clips,” where the traditions of English literature appeared to be still in vogue, and he clung to tradition ever after. His Colossal Wreck draws its title from Shelley and goes on, in one passage or another, to invoke Browning and Conrad and Trollope and a dozen others, quite as if the English writers offered a fully adequate vocabulary for a modern conversation. As for Marxism—why, this appeared to be, for Cockburn, one more element within a civilized person’s home library: The Secret Agent on one shelf, The Eighteenth Brumaire on another.
Cockburn arrived in New York in the early 1970s, and it always seemed to me unfortunate that he never bothered to look into the principal Marxist or Marxist-influenced currents, past and present, of his new home. These were variously social-democratic and post-Trotskyist, and they differed from Marxist currents in certain other parts of the world because of their anti-totalitarian bent and also because of their origin in the city’s Jewish working class of a couple of generations before. The left-wing currents were entirely visible in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, and especially so at the Voice, where someone was always gazing in the direction of Dissent magazine; or at Dissent’s editor, Irving Howe, who happened to be the historian of the New York Jews; or at Howe’s stalwart comrade Michael Harrington, the socialist leader, who was himself a Voice writer. But New York’s political culture never grabbed Cockburn’s imagination.
His own Marxism was a product of the little world in London around the New Left Review in the 1960s—an Anglo-Marxism that had gotten its start in the 1950s by inching away from the British Communist Party, and after many years had failed to inch very far. Anglo-Marxism, in his presentation, looked on the Soviet Union as a gray and uninteresting place, which, by lending support to Third World liberation struggles in the remote tropics and hotlands, nonetheless served as the powerhouse of social progress. And Anglo-Marxism, in Cockburn’s version, looked upon the United States as the corrupt and hypocritical center of a doomed imperialism, filled with pitiable victims and with anonymous noble resisters who were all too prone to fall prey to the corruptions of imperial life. This was not a subtle picture of the world.
The picture lent itself to jeering, though, and he jeered on a weekly basis, year after year. The tenor of his jeers never varied. Reading Cockburn at the Voice, or later at The Nation and other journals, or today in A Colossal Wreck, you could feel that somehow he had gotten trapped in an anti–Vietnam war demonstration circa 1967 and was doomed forevermore to shiver in horror at Robert McNamara. He shivered also at Zionism, whose nature seemed to him intrinsically ghastly. Afghanistan after it had been invaded by the Soviet Union aroused him to orgasmic heights of sexual contempt: “an unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers.” More:
I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too.
And yet an air of bookish sophistication hovered over those weekly columns, and this had its attractions. The Voice in the early 1980s, when he and the newspaper were at the height of their fame, used to sell a quarter of a million copies at a dollar apiece, not only in New York, and a great many of the readers turned to Cockburn’s pages every Wednesday precisely in hope of discovering his odd and clever combination of English literary self-satisfaction and outrageous raillery.
He ran into difficulties at the Voice, however, and the troubles derived precisely from his inability to understand the New York public. The loathing that he used to express for Howe and the old-fashioned New York social democrats; his failure to recognize how close was the New York he had adopted to the catastrophes of Europe not so long before; his failure to understand why so many entirely humble people among his new neighbors looked with sympathy upon the Zionist entity—these several traits of his journalism seemed perfectly within bounds, in the eyes of a good many readers, who treasured him as a bold and witty mischief-maker. Yet other readers began to worry, after a while, that his several mischievous traits pointed in a single direction, which was antipathy for the Jews. This, too, could have been acceptable, so long as he knew when to give it a rest. He enjoyed goading his public, though, and was never any good at calculating the reaction. Even in A Colossal Wreck he can’t help writing, “So now it’s anti-Semitic to attack banks and bond houses?” A tin ear did him in. Several years of this, and finally the Voice’s chief political writer, Jack Newfield, stood up and, in the pages of the paper itself, bludgeoned Cockburn to death.
Newfield was a product of the plebeian Jewish New York that Cockburn never took the trouble to comprehend. He was the enemy of greedy landlords, of lead paint, of corrupt judges. You could imagine Newfield going home at night and gnashing his teeth at society’s neglect of children in the projects. He was also the master of a journalistic method that he liked to call, as if employing a technical term of the newspaper trade, “the axe murder.” The method consisted of assembling damning facts, confirming them with photographs, and smiting death-dealing blows. In Cockburn’s case, Newfield noted how systematically the man had gone after Israel, and how reluctant he was to say a word of criticism about the Soviet Union or the Islamic Republic of Iran or the terrorism of the anti-Zionists. Newfield took note of Cockburn’s hostility to Natan Sharansky, who in those days was a persecuted Jewish dissident in the Soviet Union. Downward swung the axe.
Either you actually feel empathy and outrage when Sharansky is jailed, or when a Jew is executed in Iran, or you don’t. When I denounce apartheid, or the Salvadoran junta, or British colonialism in Ulster, I don’t calculate if others will do it for me. I think Cockburn doesn’t write about horrors inflicted upon Jews in Communist and Arab nations because he feels nothing about their fate. When it comes to the tears of Jews, Cockburn’s heart is made out of stone.
A few more quotations, and he struck again: “These quotations reflect the views of someone who I think can accurately be called an authoritarian of the left, in Irving Howe’s memorable phrase”—with the blow consisting of the invocation, at the end, of the author of World of Our Fathers.
Cockburn responded to Newfield: “Have a sense of humor once in a while, just as I have a sense of humor when I read that you are a democratic socialist.” Congratulatory postcards doubtless filled his mail-slot at the Voice. And yet Cockburn must have noticed, post–axe murder, that whereas a small ideological faction remained faithful to him, and a tiny world of fashionable and wealthy people was always delighted to indulge him on pretty much anything, the Voice addressed a broader public, too, the subway masses, who never seemed to doubt that Jack Newfield was the voice of social justice.
No sooner did Cockburn pick himself up off the floor than, by unlucky happenstance, he undid himself with a peccadillo, which consisted of neglecting to inform his editors of a grant to write about Israel that he had received from something called the Arab Studies Institute, which had Middle Eastern financing. The editors learned about Cockburn’s grant from The Boston Phoenix, which, from the editors’ standpoint, would have been annoying under any circumstances but was doubly vexing at a moment when their own judgment in allowing him to fulminate so excessively on Jewish and Israeli themes had been called into question by their own chief political writer, the axe-murderer. Cockburn decamped in disgrace to The Nation, a few blocks away.
This ought not to have been a tragic fate. But in moving from the Voice to The Nation, he seemed to have dented his trumpet. Maybe he was dismayed to discover how large was the New York that no longer gave a damn about him, and how marginal was his new readership at The Nation (though his contributions to the magazine did a great deal to build the circulation). Maybe the lead time at The Nation, longer than at the Voice, crimped his style. Or maybe—this was my theory at the time—the ailments of the Soviet Union and the East bloc, which appeared to worsen from month to month, depressed his spirit. He cheered himself by promoting the solidarity movement for the Marxist armies of Central America. Still, he must have suspected that Marxism’s advances in the Central American tropics were never going to make up for the Soviet setbacks in the European industrial heartland. In any case, the brio of his old Voice columns never reappeared. After 1989, he was a man bereft.
Naturally he remained faithful to his early doctrines, but in later years he also appeared to be on the lookout, in a desultory fashion, for newer thoughts and inspirations. Ecology in a bristly militant version suited him for a while, even if, in the end, he took to jeering at the climate-change scientists. Human rights was never an issue that could appeal to a man of his spirit, but he did brighten at the idea of animal rights. To judge from A Colossal Wreck, mostly he cultivated an interest in vintage cars and highway Americana. The scrapbook entries record his lonely automotive prowls along the interstate highways during his final seventeen years, savoring the down-market flavors of American idiosyncrasy, the Western towns with funny names, the oddball motels, and the Pentecostal radio broadcasts. A Colossal Wreck is in this respect a European tourist’s road book, unusual only for its warm enthusiasm for the folkloric American ultra-right.
Among Voice writers, the first Amendment was always the god of gods, but Cockburn dwells fondly over the Second Amendment. The Voice writers, some of them, loved rock festivals, but Cockburn’s inclinations bring him to gun shows. The Tea Party arouses his respectful attention. Ron Paul seems to him preferable to Bernie Sanders, because Sanders supported the war in Kosovo. He expresses an ardor for P. G. Wodehouse. He concedes that, during the World War, Wodehouse made the mistake of allowing himself to be broadcast over Nazi radio from Berlin, but he chooses to celebrate Bertie Wooster’s maker, even so, as “the greatest writer of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of Flann O’Brien”—a sincere literary evaluation, I suppose, but also a sincere gesture of solidarity for one more upper- class Brit with ultra-right–wing instincts who, unappreciated at home (given the broadcasts), felt obliged to live out his years on the lam in far-away America.
Cockburn’s political journalism, judged as reporting, never amounted to anything. Newfield and his team at the Voice, Wayne Barrett, Joe Conason, and others, produced a scoop a week, but scoops were not Cockburn’s thing. Mostly he was a spritely and mordant commentator on issues of the day, capable of delivering what might seem to be devastating rhetorical punches to the Wall Street exploiters and obedient Democrats and “the lobby.” And yet even a rhetorical punch, in order to land, requires a degree of journalistic credibility. But credibility was also not his thing. His thing was vilification. About Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, Cockburn recounts an anecdote involving a man named Marable. He writes: “It’s Marable’s hope that stories of Christopher’s closet queendom will soon circulate inside the Beltway, doing harm to the reputation of the pinstriped lawyer.”
About Barney Frank, he remarks that Frank preferred Bill Clinton to Ralph Nader on the grounds that Clinton had done more for the poor—to which Cockburn adds: “There may be a personal edge there since Nader once said publically it was disgusting of Frank to run a homosexual prostitution ring out of his congressional office.” He quotes Richard Nixon: “You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags.” The gay rights movement strikes him as racist:
There’s no more glaring expression of the inequalities of race and class than the manner in which the death penalty is operated in our society, yet many gay rights groups have been silent on capital punishment, including the biggest and richest of them all, the Human Rights Campaign. They’re mute as the state hauls off the poor and the black to die.
He outdoes himself in his discussion of Christopher Hitchens, his own disciple who later went astray. He writes: “Many people go through life rehearsing a role they feel that the fates have in store for them, and I’ve long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss”—though in A Colossal Wreck he omits the next couple of sentences, on the topic of kissing, that appeared in his column in 1999: “Indeed an attempted physical embrace has often been part of the rehearsal. Many’s the time male friends have had to push Hitchens’ mouth, fragrant with martinis away, as, amid the welcomes and good-byes, he seeks their cheek or lips.”
The colorfully insistent remarks may suggest that homosexuality was especially disturbing to him. Androgyny, if not homosexuality, was certainly on his mind during the years when he composed A Colossal Wreck. He reminisces about the girlish costumes of his boyhood in Scotland and Ireland. “I was seldom out of skirts.” But mostly he was motivated, or so I judge, by a desire to injure, and by a desire to cavort scandalously in print, as if in drag, and additionally by a desire to dismay anyone who had made the mistake of taking him seriously; and his animus toward homosexuality was strictly situational. Ultimately his problem was an unreliable sense of humor.
In A Colossal Wreck he recounts secondhand a story said to have been told by a limousine chauffeur who had driven Hillary Clinton and a couple of other women through a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C:
They passed a beggar, and as they did so the First Lady expressed her disgust for the mendicant, adding, “He wouldn’t be a bum if he had a piece of ass.” The driver was able to shed no light on how or why she had arrived at this conclusion, stunned as he was by the coarse nature of her observations. Then they passed two young black women with babies. “There go two welfare cases. They make me sick. They’re too lazy to work,” said Senator Clinton, champion of mothers and children everywhere.
The purpose of this kind of writing is to make a fool of anyone who would sputter in objection, “But, but ...” It is a display of superiority, akin to the smile of a gangster who, as he helps himself to your pack of cigarettes, looks you squarely in the eye. Naturally there are readers who respond enthusiastically. Society has its norms, which are mediocre, and Cockburn’s feats of vilification allowed him to boast that he was mediocrity’s enemy, and his readers were thrilled. On the other hand, the journalism of personal abuse sows a climate of rancor and hatred. Newsstands used to occupy every corner of New York, and during several years every one of those stands featured a stack of Voice s with Cockburn’s byline in big letters frequently on the cover, and his byline figured as one more sign of a city in distress, along with the glassine vials on the sidewalks and the landlords who burned the Bronx. Out-of-towners sigh nostalgically for those days.
The verbal precision of Cockburn’s columns was refreshing to see. He wrote as if pronouncing his syllables correctly. His finest literary gift was an ability to compose rambling essays of a page or two that appear to be making a point, only to wander artfully into some kind of barely apposite personal observation—essays composed with an air of ease and self-assurance, gesturing silently at emotions that never get disclosed. The wistful and sometimes intimate suggestions can make you wish that he would allow himself a fuller confession. He appears almost to be teasing us with hints that a hidden story underlies his peculiar career—perhaps a terrible wound or humiliation or disappointment that has driven him to desperate gestures and to the endless flight that ultimately led him onward from New York to a new home in a motel in Northern California and then to a hamlet in Humboldt County and from thence to the lonely American highway.
His persona on the page resembles, in this respect, the bookish characters in Melville’s novels who sail the desperate seas in order to escape a past that we never discover. And yet Cockburn insists on boasting about the beau monde that he has left behind, as Melville’s characters never do. He reveals that his mother grew up on an Irish estate called Myrtle Grove that used to be Walter Raleigh’s. In his cousin’s house is a portrait of Marie Antoinette that was painted for his grandmother by someone who had been a page at Versailles. His grandfather used to play “horse” with the future consort of George VI when she was a little girl, which leads him to suggest, if only for fun—or who is to say?—that his grandfather could have been the biological father of the present Queen Elizabeth.
His father’s family, he has us believe, has been composed of reactionaries and scoundrels for hundreds of years. One of his paternal ancestors was a medical con man. Another was a leader of British imperialism against the Chinese. Still another was Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who, as a commander of the British fleet during the War of 1812, burned down the White House. Alexander always took pride in the admiral and even went so far, in one of his earlier books, Corruptions of Empire, to display the burning White House on the cover—with the corrupt empire in question being, of course, the American republic, not the British Empire and its piratical navy. He regales us with Evelyn Waugh, who was some kind of cousin, and Malcolm Muggeridge, a family friend, and so on, and each new distinguished personage comes trailing his or her very own anecdote.
He adores these anecdotes. His motive in reciting them appears to be nothing but his own enjoyment. His writing is, from this one standpoint, entirely free of the slightest stain of self-promotion or self-pity. And the feudal anecdotes add one more curious touch to his journalism, which has to do with his readers. You wonder, as you turn the pages, who those readers can possibly be. Sometimes he addresses A Colossal Wreck to the neighbors whom he describes in Northern California, the subscribers, presumably, to a publication called the Anderson Valley Advertiser, where his column appeared for many years. Sometimes he affects a hippie dialect, as if chumming it up with the vegans. He makes plain that a great many of the Californians who fill the audience when he speaks at public events turn out to be 9/11 Truthers—whose views, it is good to learn, he does not share (though he does attribute 9/11 to “recent Israeli rampages in the Occupied Territories”). Still other people among his readers despise him wholeheartedly, as shown in A Colossal Wreck by a curious sampling of irate letters-to-the-editor condemning his nonsense, usually accurately. A portion of his readers appear to be naïve leftists of the sort who fail to see a difference between Republicans and Democrats. An occasional note hints at readers from the Communist Party USA, the nonagenarians who must have come his way from the subscription lists of The Nation long ago.
He also addresses members of the Cockburn family and, by extension, still other people of the same social class who might be keen on hearing one more retelling of the gossip tidbits of long ago about the great English and Irish estates and their lordly inhabitants. His readership appears to be, in short, a potpourri of sulky university students, nursing-home Bolsheviks, the die-hard opponents of homosexuality and Zionism, cheerful health- loving proponents of animal rights, trailer-park denizens, conspiracy paranoids, gun collectors, occasional members of the American journalistic elite, and a tiny circle of bluebloods from a British aristocracy indescribably remote from democratic and screwball California. An implausible readership; but it was clever of him to evoke it on the page.
The distinguished blueblood who looms most prominently over his journalism was always his father. Claud Cockburn was a much-detested figure in his own day, though Alexander prefers to describe him as “the greatest radical journalist of his age.” Alexander appears to have spent a lifetime blinking in awe at the grandeur of his old man. More than a few passages of A Colossal Wreck begin with a filial reverie along the lines of, “As he dandled me on his knee, my father used to tell me the story of how he and some trusty comrades. ...”—with an anecdote that reveals his father to have been a merry fellow devoted to amusing pranks. And yet some of those dusty old stories touch on large affairs.
Claud Cockburn was a propagandist for the Communist Parties of Britain and the Soviet Union during the period of the Great Purge. Stalin’s purpose in launching the purge was to eradicate the last vestiges of non-communist leftism from czarist times, to eradicate any remaining strands of alternative opinion within the Communist Party itself, and, in addition, to eradicate entire social classes from the ranks of the living, and, in this way, to establish a revolutionary new mode of production in the Soviet Union, consisting of forced labor and prison labor. The campaign required Stalin’s propagandists to persuade the world that Trotsky and Bukharin and other people within the Soviet Union, Stalin’s rivals, had enlisted in Hitlerite and imperialist conspiracies. And then, in 1936, once the Spanish Civil War had broken out and the Soviet Union had begun to intervene, Stalin extended the Great Purge into Spain as well—which required, on the part of the propagandists, still more feats of journalistic fabrication. And, for these purposes, Claud Cockburn, the prankster, proved to be, among the English-language journalists, the man of the hour.
He wrote for his own publication in London, The Week, which was in fashion, but also for the British Daily Worker under the name “Frank Pitcairn,” and for Pravda, which lent him the best of credentials. In Madrid his access to Soviet officials was at the highest level, such that one day he found himself listening to the voice of Stalin himself on the other end of the telephone line. His son assures us in A Colossal Wreck that Claud Cockburn was, in spite of appearances, a fine man who would never have turned over names to the Soviet police in Spain. But then, proud of his father, Alexander includes within the Wreck a brief memoir by Claud of his Spanish experiences, which leaves the impression that, in regard to the Soviet police activities, Claud was not a reluctant participant. About his friend Guy Burgess and the other Cambridge spies, Claud remarks that idealistic motives were at work, and these were “sensitive and informed” young men. Claud cites his own “experience in the field of espionage, or rather, counter-espionage.” He was “a section leader of the counter-espionage department of the Spanish Republican government dealing with Anglo-Saxon personalities,” which does sound like a job dedicated to informing the police. He also exhibits a deadpan sense of the droll and the absurd, and, all in all, he seems to be saying: Soviet policy during the Spanish Civil War and its secret apparatus and execution squads and generally the Great Purge that murdered millions, what a lark!
On the other hand, Soviet journalism alarmed still other people, and one of those frightened persons was George Orwell. In Homage to Catalonia, his own account of the Spanish war, Orwell subjected the Soviet propaganda to a sharp analysis, generally without singling out individual journalists. But he did single out Frank Pitcairn, meaning Claud Cockburn, whose news stories evidently drove Orwell into a fury. I have always supposed that, when Orwell laid out the principles of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of his inspirations was Claud Cockburn, British correspondent: a cheerful example of a man willing to say everything and its opposite in the interest of a totalitarian state, committed to the renunciation of truth, to the hatred of free-thinkers, to the cause of persecution, and to the cult of obedience.
In Orwell’s portrait, the totalitarian mentality was never a matter of ideology gone awry, nor a matter of lower-class resentments. The mentality was a contempt for everyday morality and human considerations. It was a flippant nihilism, attached to no cause or principle at all, apart from love of tyranny. And, to be sure, no sooner did the Spanish anti-fascists go down to defeat than Claud Cockburn turned on a dime and set about composing justifications for Stalin’s pact with Hitler, on the grounds that, from a global perspective, the truest enemy of progress was not fascism, after all, but British imperialism. It may be that, among the sundry appalling Cockburns from across the centuries whom you can read about in A Colossal Wreck, Claud was the most distinguished of all, and this was because, without having meant to do so, he sat for an immortal word-portrait by Orwell.
My own run-ins with Alexander Cockburn took place in the late 1970s and 1980s, working shoulder to shoulder in the newsroom at the Voice and more briefly at The Nation; and the Spanish Civil War hovered over our every interaction. The blame for this was entirely mine. He generously recruited me, soon after I began writing for the Voice, to join him and a couple of friends at a table at the downtown restaurant Odéon, where he drew me out by asking me to name the books that had most powerfully shaped my thinking. And, alas, because I did not know that “Frank Pitcairn” was his father, I responded by launching into a catastrophic exposition of the virtues and inspirational quality of Homage to Catalonia. Alexander explained, as if it were a matter of little importance, that Orwell was not his own favorite author, and the book in question was written as an attack on his father. He was gracious about it. And yet I noticed, when I excused myself from the table for a moment, that as soon as I had turned my back he stage-whispered a military order to an imaginary underling named “José” to have me shot. A witty man!
In his column he took to sniping in my direction, not always wittily, which other people in the Voice newsroom attributed to his distaste for the Jewish concerns that sometimes cropped up in my writings. He accused me of “pandering” to the Jews by writing about Holocaust denial and Noam Chomsky (a rich theme), and the accusation figured among the infinity of incidents that prompted Jack Newfield to do his duty. But Alexander was bonkers on the topic of his father, and I always figured that his animosity to me was mostly a matter of Spain and the family honor.
My greatest sin, in his eyes, was to write critically about the Sandinistas and their revolution in Nicaragua, where the Spanish Civil War seemed never to have ended. Soviet machinations, cynical propaganda, fanatically deluded international volunteers— everything from the 1930s that Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia was all too visible in Nicaragua fifty years later, naturally in different versions. Sometimes in the same version: at the Soviet Embassy in Managua, elderly veterans of the Spanish war formed part of the military staff. My reports from Nicaragua hinted at these developments. Cockburn, from his parapet at The Nation, responded, as his father doubtless would have, with fusillades, joined by still more fusillades from various of his comrades, unto Michael Moore, who was for the moment the editor of Mother Jones—all of which allows me to attest that hostile attacks in the columns of Alexander Cockburn made for a distinctly unpleasant experience. It was because, even if almost no one took his journalism at face value, certain kinds of people nonetheless knelt at his feet, and a smidgen of his every absurdity had a way of seeping into the general discussion.
I am struck by how few and meager were his ideas. History offered him a large opportunity, which was to respond to the truly colossal wreck that took place during his lifetime, namely, the collapse of communism. His father’s legacy meant that, in the world of English-language journalism, no one was better situated than Alexander to offer a few insider observations. He did not lack information. In A Colossal Wreck he devotes a handful of pages to summarizing a scathing account of the Stalinist system by Orlando Figes, and the summary could almost make you believe that Cockburn was genuinely troubled, as no one would have predicted, by how things had turned out. A flicker of social conscience at last—though nothing comes of the flicker, no fresh thoughts or personal retrospectives.
I wonder if the discipline of his writing style didn’t contribute to his intellectual narrowness. In A Colossal Wreck he avows that an exposure to the swaggering prose of certain American writers liberated him from “the corsets of Latinate gentility” into which he had been strapped by his British education. But I think he exaggerates the liberating influence. The quest for verbal exactitude and the deft touches and modulated tone were, on his part, entirely serious. He devoted to it his full attention. Only, the effort left him no time or energy to unstrap his corset sufficiently to breathe and contemplate the landscape. He knew how to zoom along the interstate in his antique cars, but could never figure out how to allow his thoughts likewise to zoom about, unconstrained.
The last time I saw him was on a Brooklyn sidewalk some years ago. It was late at night. We recognized one another with an air of startled disappointment, as if saying to each other: “You? Still alive, when many a better man has departed the scene?” Together we descended the stairs into the subway. He chatted about a new book of his. He said nothing about the Voice, or Spain, or the Mossad. Nor did he repeat in person any of the printed jeers he had lately aimed in my direction regarding my antipathy toward Saddam Hussein. Nor did I say anything about hundreds of years of odious British aristocracy. The conversation was a model of stilted amiability. After we parted I found myself experiencing a twinge almost of affection—though today, when I recall the encounter, the twinge seems to me merely a reaction to the subway chill, under the cold light in front of the turnstiles, as if each of us were additionally saying, without the slightest affection: “Well, no chauffeured town car for you, I see, nor even a yellow cab—still struggling, are you? It’s the journalist’s life, isn’t it, which both of us chose, didn’t we?”
Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic.