Alexander Cockburn, a famous leftist writer and journalist, died Friday evening in Germany after going through a two year battle with cancer that was largely kept a secret.
Only a few people close to Cockburn knew about his condition according to Jeffrey St. Clair, a "friend and comrade" of Cockburn's. St. Clair broke the news of Cockburn's passing on CounterPunch, the newsletter and website the two co-edited since 1994. "Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done," St. Clair writes of his friend.
Cockburn wrote columns for CounterPunch, The Nation, and First Post right up until his death. "In one of Alex’s last emails to me, he patted himself on the back (and deservedly so) for having only missed one column through his incredibly debilitating and painful last few months," says St. Clair. Cockburn also wrote for The New York Review of Books, Esquire, the Village Voice, among other places over the course of his career. Cockburn founded the Voice's on-again-off-again media reporting column "Press Clips" during his tenure with the paper, before leaving under murky circumstances in 1983. Cockburn finished writing his memoirs and a short book on his death bed, both of which CounterPunch plans to publish within the next year.
John Nichols tells of how Cockburn inspired and motivated him to be a better writer, sometimes literally poking him, in his eulogy for the Nation:
His commitment to the craft—to the radical power of the word—extended far beyond his own contribution. He poked, prodded and inspired the rest of us. When I was working on an article at my home computer, he would lean over me and make suggestions. Invariably, Alex wanted to see a paragraph added on some new evil done by a corporation, some third-party candidate who had not gotten enough attention or some third-world cause that had gotten even less attention. Alex’s suggestions did not always fit where he proposed that I add them, and I asked them about this once.
Cockburn was known for having radical views on things coming from both sides of the political spectrum. He was very critical of American foreign policy and of Isreal's treatment of the Palestinians. His thoughts on global warming aligned with that of the far right.
But, most of all, he will likely be remembered as Christopher Hitchens' foil. The two were friends for a while, but they drifted apart after publicly sparring in the media and moving to different places. "Because of the similarities between him and Christopher Hitchens—both Anglos (he of Ireland, Hitchens of England) in America; both friends, for a time; both left (though, in Hitchens’s case, for a time); and both dying relatively young from cancer—people, inevitably, will want to make comparisons," writes political scientist Corey Robin. Robin argues Cockburn was the superior writer because he "was a much better observer of people and of politics;" "was extraordinarily well read, but he didn’t make a parade;" and he "managed to achieve, again at least on the page, a better equanimity between his savagery and his sweetness."
If you'd like to read a piece of Cockburn's writing in his honor, might we suggest this 1982 satire of PBS's News Hour that originally appeared in Harper's. Cockburn was 71-years-old.