On the Road to Damascus with Alex Cockburn
I am so saddened to hear of the death of Alexander Cockburn. I’ve been meaning to email him or call him, but now it’s too late.
When Alex would drive through Madison in his huge gas-guzzling car, we would hang out. But the best and last time we hung out was in Syria, of all places. We were on a trip organized by former South Dakota Senator Jim Abouresk.
On the first day of the trip, Alex, Jim, and I went to the great souk in Damascus as the rest of the people on the tour went off to the Golan Heights.
It was an accidental happening but it was a great one. We stopped at Abouresk’s favorite textile place. The shopkeepers treated us kindly. While one waited on Abouresk, another helped Alex and I. “Maybe your father will buy you something?” the shopkeeper asked, assuming that Alex and I were related. I found it hilarious; Alex not so much. “Yeah, Dad, are you going to get me something?” I asked Alex and we both just grinned.
I learned so much from Alex, as did so many other young journalists, I’m sure. Or maybe we aren’t so young anymore. It was really his reporting in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that was so compelling, especially his work on the covert wars in Latin America.
And of course his column, Beat the Devil, was the first thing to read in the Nation.
On the tour bus in Syria, he dictated his column over the phone to someone in the Nation office. The column was all in his head. Then he handed over his fancy international phone to me so I could call my boyfriend who was camping at the time in Wisconsin. “Liz, you don’t really look like the camping type,” he teased.
He could be a flirt, and cantankerous, but I found those traits amusing or at least not a drawback. Cockburn wasn’t for everybody. But that was OK. His wit could be caustic and he would say things no one else wanted to say. In 2000, on the eve of the Presidential election, I was the news director at WORT-FM, Madison’s community radio station. I played an hour-long talk by Cockburn based on his book critical of Al Gore. I received a call from someone who worked at the local Planned Parenthood. She was furious that we aired something that critical of Gore, the pro-choice Dem. Like I said, Cockburn wasn’t for everybody.
The last time we spoke by phone, he was telling me about what now seems very much like a golden age of journalism. He was an editor of the Village Voice in the 1970s, and said the bonhomie of that era isn’t easy to find in newsrooms anymore. Nowadays, he said, so many seem like insurance offices. He also spoke fondly of his big apartment off Central Park that cost $400 a month. “But, Alex,” I said, “tell me about the fashion.” He laughed and said, “Oh yes, Liz, the fashion was pretty great too.”
My favorite moment with Alex took place back in Damascus. We were inside the old city, at the place where St Paul, who was being hunted down, was lowered in a basket and escaped. The basement of this building has several maps outlining the spread of Christianity. Alex looked at one map and said to me “I blame Constantine for the whole damn thing.”
I will leave it to others to remember the details of his writing and to catalog his faults. For now, I remember a dear friend that I truly miss.
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