It seems to be next to impossible these days to bridge the gulf between right and left and make friends with someone on the other side, but it can happen. Thanks to a newspaper columnist, this Reagan Republican met and became good friends with the self-professed “Old Leftist,” Alexander Cockburn, 25 or so years ago.
The late Herb Caen, who for years chronicled the daily doings in and around San Francisco, dropped me a note saying, “Say hello to your neighbor and my friend Cockburn.” I’d heard he had moved in down the road in our quiet, rural valley on the northern California coast. I thought of him as a fire-breathing, sharp-penciled excoriator of all things conservative. Nevertheless, I stopped by and introduced myself.
I found Alex to be friendly — actually cordial — and somewhat self-effacing. We agreed to get together for a talk over drinks soon, and did. Thus began a friendship that lasted until last weekend when he died unexpectedly of cancer. Almost none of his friends was aware that he was contending with the ailment.
He and his daughter, Daisy, came to dinner in the late spring and he looked as he always did, disheveled, but cheerful. No word about his health. In the early summer he went to Paris to join Daisy and some friends. In an e-mail he said he expected to return to California in August. Instead, he checked into a treatment center in Germany where he passed away at age 71.
Anglo-Irish by birth, Alexander Cockburn became an American citizen. He was amused by the irony that one of his ancestors had led British troops in burning Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. He enjoyed irony, for it often drew attention to human folly, of which he thought there was an endless supply. His sparkling sense of humor could turn a recitation about some humdrum event into a hilarious send-up.
A prolific writer he was featured at various times in the Village Voice, the Nation, the Los Angeles Times, even the Wall Street Journal. He authored or co-authored several books and lectured on many college campuses.
He was motivated by a deep sense of fairness. Sometimes it manifested itself in over-the-top comments, but it was always heartfelt. He also had a strong libertarian streak. On quite a few issues, our views coincided. For example, when it came to the 9/11 “Truthers,” who believed that George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld engineered the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, he thought their view was preposterous. When an apolitical civil engineer offered to write an article showing how planted explosives (part of the “Truthers” belief) could not possibly have brought down the buildings, Alex devoted an issue of his newsletter, Counterpunch, to it.
He thought Al Gore was a fraud and that global warming was, if not a hoax, at least the product of self-delusion.
He attacked the “recovered memory” phenomenon of about 20 years ago, in which some feminist sociologists set out to “prove” that most fathers had molested their daughters.
Similarly, he was highly critical of the rush-to-judgment atmosphere surrounding several alleged play school scandals in which young children supposedly claimed that the owners conducted Satanic rituals in school. In several of these cases, the resulting hysteria caused lives to be unjustly ruined by prison sentences.
He had an interesting hobby — a fondness for automobiles made by Chrysler. Over the years he had many — usually four or five at a time. There were Plymouths and Dodges, but his long-time favorite was a 1956 red Chrysler convertible which made its anti-royalist owner look regal driving down the road.
As friends do, we shared many meals, stories, ideas, and did occasional favors for one another. He was a good neighbor and a good friend. All of us who knew him will miss his effervescence, his warmth, and — even when we disagreed — his passion.