1. Alexander Cockburn
I first started reading Alexander Cockburn in 1980. Until then, I didn’t know that it was kosher to write with such verve and venom. For a young, aspiring political writer, it was a real rabbit trick. And I wanted to learn how.
Throughout the 1980s, Cockburn, more than any other writer in America, flashed a light on Reagan’s shameful support for the death squads in El Salvador and his illegal war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
Cockburn had no use for Democratic Presidents, either. He criticized Jimmy Carter for his East Timor policy. And he excoriated Bill Clinton for destroying welfare and for pushing through his punitive crime bill.
“If ever there was a false populist, it was Clinton,” he said.
Cockburn also saw through Obama before almost anyone else.
“I’ve never heard a politician so desperate not to offend conventional elite opinion while pretending to be fearless and forthright,” he wrote in December 2006 in CounterPunch, the publication he co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair.
I didn’t always agree with Cockburn—he was daffy on global warming—but he was right and courageous and deft about almost everything else. We were fortunate to publish him occasionally in The Progressive.
I met him a couple times, and he didn’t take himself too seriously. But he took his job seriously: to strip the clothes off of emperors everywhere.
2. Gore Vidal
I never met Gore Vidal. But I admired his fearlessness, and the joy he took in throwing spitballs at the powerful from his aristocratic rocking chair.
He was a man decidedly of the left.
Early on, he was open about being gay.
Early on, he opposed the Vietnam War.
And he consistently denounced the United States for being an empire.
“I’m a lover of the old republic, and I deeply resent the empire our Presidents put in its place,” he told David Barsamian in an interview with The Progressive back in 2006.
Vidal was a romantic believer in democracy, but America kept breaking his heart.
He also excoriated the press. “Our media has collapsed,” he told Barsamian. “When you’ve got a press like we have, you no longer have an informed citizenry.”
Vidal, an atheist, was a citizen grown weary. Toward the end of his life, according to the AP, he said: “There is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
3. George McGovern
The news that George McGovern died hit me hard. He was one of my first political heroes. When I was a fourteen-year-old kid, I passed out McGovern bumper stickers on the main street of my hometown. I greatly admired his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his programs for economic and social justice.
Then, when I came to The Progressive, I saw the powerful writing he did for this magazine over many years. Here’s a snippet from a piece of his in September 1969 called “Vietnam: The Time Is Now”: “I plead for us to declare our independence of this monstrous folly. Let us in the name of God and our own history end the slaughter and devastation that at once drain the blood of both Vietnam and America.”
McGovern also was outspoken in assailing poverty in this country and hunger worldwide. He had a vision of a more just world, and he did all he could to try to bring it about.
He also dealt with tragedy, haunted as he was by the death of his adult daughter, Terry McGovern. She died in Madison, Wisconsin, near my first apartment.
So when he grappled with this in his book, Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism, I gained even more respect for him. It’s the saddest book I’ve ever read.
George McGovern was a great progressive, and a very decent man.
4. Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich was America’s post-war poet laureate. Not single-handedly (and oh, how she would recoil from such a description, since she took pains to acknowledge the contributions of so many other pathbreaking writers) but with bravery and constancy, she pried open the doors of poetry to usher in the voices of women, lesbians, and people of color. She demanded admittance for the social and the political.
She despised oppressions of every kind, and hurled herself against them. In her early 1980s poem “Sources,” she describes herself as a “woman with a mission, not to win prizes/but to change the laws of history.”
In her last couple of decades, she wrestled with America itself in a time “when the name of compassion/was changed to the name of guilt/when to feel with a human stranger/was declared obsolete.” (From “And Now” in Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995.)
She referred to our “moribund democracy” in The School Among the Ruins, and she wrote about the grotesqueness of U.S. support for Central American killers, she decried the immorality of the Iraq Wars, and she did not shy away from discussing the suffering of the Palestinians.
I had the pleasure of meeting Adrienne Rich twice. Once, when I went out to talk with her in Santa Cruz in September 1993 for the interview The Progressive published in January 1994.
A couple of years later we met for lunch in Madison (improbably, she had a cheeseburger). Both times she was welcoming and wise, courteous and inquisitive.
I’ll miss her personal kindness, and I’ll miss the opportunity to read whatever insights, and sample whatever art, she left unpublished. Feminism, the gay rights movement, and the entire progressive movement will miss her leadership. America will miss her stalwart conscience.
Poetry still has her, though. “I happen to think poetry makes a huge difference,” she told me.
And as she writes in the last poem in Dark Fields of the Republic, “Poetry means refusing/the choice to kill or die.”
Her last book just came out. It’s called “Later Poems: 1971-2012.” Here is the last verse from her last poem. Let it be the last word.
The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witness
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame.