The Tale of an Asp

"I decline the invitation," says Cockburn, a veteran defiler of the Catholic Church. As I pose the Scientologist question a couple more times, he repeats, "I decline the invitation," with a massive smile on his face. "What is their big crime? That they have Tom Cruise? I should say, 'Release Tom Cruise and maybe he'd become Olivier'!?"

Cockburn comforts himself with the knowledge that the Scientologists' "enemies" (his word, by the way) -- the CIA, the pharmaceutical industry, the IRS -- map almost one-to-one onto his. But later, when asked to produce his own enemies list (and a man who has written so wickedly about so many surely has a long one), he lies most unconvincingly: "I don't have an enemies list."

Yet reading The Golden Age you almost believe the fib. The book largely abandons his Mighty Achievements in Vituperation to explore the surface of a vivid and vigorous inner life. A huge garage sale of rewritten Nation columns, diary entries, letters to and from the author, and other literary leftovers from stopovers in Istanbul, Key West, Ardmore, Topanga, London, Rio, and other points, The Golden Age chronicles in journal form the years bookending the last of Reagan (1987) and the beginning of Clinton (1992) -- "a seismic period in my life," Cockburn allows.

"Here is a sort of me, as 'me' as I can fix it," he says. "How I travel, who I talk to ... the evidence of my emotional life."

Emotional life, yes, but at a distance. Don't read The Golden Age for romantic disclosures. "I'm a public fellow -- not a confessional writer," he says in mammoth understatement. But Cockburn sloughs off enough 54-year-old skin to expose some pink, scaly flesh. He shares his thoughts about and correspondence with other members of the immediate Cockburn clan -- daughter Daisy, scrivener siblings Andrew and Patrick, his ailing mother, and flashbacks to his journalist Commie dad, the notorious Claud Cockburn. Also showcased in Cockburn's passing display are friends like Ben Sonnenberg and the late Andrew Kopkind, as well as the kitchen cabinet that advises him on political and economic matters -- Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin, Frank Baracke, and Joe Paff, a neighbor of Cockburn's in Petrolia along Humboldt County's Lost Coast, where the writer moved in 1990.

Several million words into his caustic career, Cockburn pauses briefly when asked if he'd like to take back any of it.

"No, not really," he says, which is logical considering that snakes have no regrets. But then boiling out of his brainpan comes the sorrow of having hurt a few feelings with a bad review of the cookbook of the Lady's Club of Charleston in the pages of House and Garden.

"I was snotty about it," he says, with genuine remorse. "And they wrote to me saying, 'We were so happy to see you review the book, and so disappointed with what you wrote.'"

And what about the "rape of Afghanistan" wisecrack, for which he's been hounded for the last 15 years.

"P.J. O'Rourke says things like that all the time," he says, and then relents. "I shouldn't have written it," he says. "It was a joke."

Worried that the lunch might degenerate into a hugfest, we conclude the interview and Cockburn repairs to the parking lot to rearrange the piles of boxes and loose papers littering his trusty Valiant. His mind already on his next stop on the book hustings, Cockburn offers one last thought apropos of nothing.

"The Pulitzers!" he says. "A prize that hasn't been won by Herb Caen isn't worth winning!

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