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Pressler on Cockburn: 'He was really a bad one'

Alexander Cockburn

Larry Pressler said the death of a journalist who leveled harsh charges against him in the middle of his 1996 Senate campaign didn't bring him any pleasure or relief.

Alexander Cockburn, an acid-penned British writer, died Saturday at 71.

Cockburn (pronounced "coe-burn") was the co-author with Ken Silverstein of "Washington Babylon," a 1996 book that ended up playing a role in the Senate race between Pressler and then-Congressman Tim Johnson.

"It was really an ugly smear campaign that went on for about three years," Pressler told The Daily Republic on Tuesday.

In the book, the authors wrote that Pressler married in 1982 "amid speculation that he was gay."

It also speculated that Pressler had mental issues and was perhaps suffering from an early onset of Alzheimer's, an affliction that his father had suffered. The book even targeted Pressler for the Abscam incident, which had previously been a high point in his political career.

FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks had offered bribes to numerous people, including politicians. In the end, 10 people, including seven members of Congress, were convicted in the sting.

Pressler was the lone figure to tell the undercover agents what they were offering him was possibly illegal and declined any money.

The book suggested Pressler was willing to accept a donation from the "sheiks" but failed to handle it properly.

Having the book make those charges was one thing, but then, in the middle of the 1996 election, Cockburn was invited to South Dakota by former Sen. Jim Abourezk, a Democrat who supported Johnson.

Reports on the book, and the damaging claims about Pressler, were soon published across South Dakota. Pressler lost to Johnson by 166,533 to 157,954, a 51.3 to 48.7 percent margin.

Pressler, who represented South Dakota in the U.S. House from 1975 to 1979 and in the Senate from 1979 to 1997, said he's sure the book, and the personal attacks on him, were a factor in the race.

"It did a lot of damage because it distracted me from the issue I was trying to sell," he said. "The worst thing about something like that is that it stalls you."

In 1998, Pressler filed a lawsuit in England against Verso, the book's publisher, for libel.

He sought advice from famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whom he knew from Harvard, where Pressler earned a law degree. Dershowitz advised him to sue in England.

In America, public figures have to prove what is known as "actual malice" and intentional disregard for the truth in order to sue for libel. That's why it was so crucial that he was allowed to sue in England, Pressler said, where politicians and other public figures have more legal rights.

He was a Rhodes scholar and had maintained a standing in England as a graduate of the University of Oxford. Pressler said he had lectured at Oxford and had an informal agreement to teach there after he left the Senate. That convinced the English courts to allow him to sue there.

"So that was a big break," Pressler said. "It was a huge victory. It's very hard for an American politician to sue."

He said he was prepared to testify when the publishers' lawyers offered a settlement on the courthouse steps.

They agreed to pay his "huge legal bill, a minimum of $100,000," Pressler said. They also offered him an apology, withdrew the book from publication and paid him a settlement which he said he still cannot disclose.

"Let me say it was a substantial amount of money," he said.

Here is the apology:

"We very much regret that statements to be found in this passage concerning the marriage of Senator and Mrs. Pressler were inaccurate and hurtful. We have accordingly withdrawn 'Washington Babylon' from publication and have undertaken not to reissue or repeat any of the material relating to Senator Pressler.

"We would further like to make it clear that we are fully satisfied that Senator Pressler at no time broke the law or attempted to break the law and at no point did we or our authors intend to suggest otherwise."

Although the book was withdrawn from circulation, some copies of it are still for sale online. And Pressler himself has a copy, he said.

The former senator said there was more to his 1996 loss than the book and Cockburn's allegations.

Sen. Tom Daschle and his supporters also played a role, he said, in helping Johnson win.

Pressler said Daschle was favored by liberal groups, and wanted an additional vote in the Senate Democratic caucus to hold onto the Democratic Senate leadership.

"I was actually running against all the Daschle forces nationally," he said. "I had a lot of things against me."

Abourezk took Cockburn across the state, Pressler said, and admitted to spreading negative statements about the Republican senator.

Abourezk chose not to seek a second term in 1978. Pressler said while Abourezk has said he was fed up with Washington politics and chose to retire, the real reason was that Pressler, a popular two-term congressman at the time, led him in all polls for the 1978 Senate race.

"He's always been bitter toward me," Pressler said. "He was very much a part of the Johnson campaign."

Jim Jordan, who was working as Johnson's communications director and has continued to serve as a Democratic campaign strategist, reportedly told journalists that Pressler was gay and maintained a secret life.

But Pressler said he didn't blame Johnson then or now. He considers Johnson a friend and even voted for him in the 2008 election.

"I don't hold any of this against Tim Johnson," he said. "He was just riding in the car. I have reached a peace with Tim Johnson."

Johnson said Cockburn was not an important factor in the 1996 race.

"He had no impact as far as I know," he said in an e-mail to The Daily Republic.

Pressler said he visited Johnson in the hospital after Johnson suffered a cerebral arteriovenous malformation in 2006 and has since visited him in his office.

Pressler said he suffered a severe stammering and stuttering problem as a boy, and still struggles with it at times. He has discussed that with Johnson, whose speech was impacted by the brain condition he suffered.

Pressler's feelings were, not surprisingly, more heated during the course of the 1996 campaign.

In a Sept. 28, 1996, article in The Daily Republic, he said Johnson's aide, Jordan, was using the gay allegation in the campaign and had openly bragged about it

Pressler said Jordan told people the Democrats "were going to cut my liver out with this smear."

Jordan referred to such a charge as "silly" in a faxed reply to The Daily Republic.

Tim Johnson said at the time that he deplored such tactics and was "genuinely saddened by Jim Abourezk's personal attack upon Larry Pressler."

Pressler said then that Johnson could have acted earlier, and was trying to use it in the race.

Now, Pressler said he gets along with Daschle and still sees him from time to time. He has not been in contact with Abourezk very often, but said they saw each other at the funeral of another former South Dakota senator, Jim Abdnor, this spring, and shook hands.

But on Tuesday, Pressler said he felt he was fighting a second battle in 1996.

"Most of the big media companies opposed me," Pressler said. "I really had the media against me, the big media and some of the small media."

In Time magazine's June 12, 1995, issue, in an article titled "The Man on the Line," Johnson was quoted as saying disparaging things about Pressler that were blatantly untrue.

In fact, Pressler said the media opposed him because of his work in the Senate.

"I was really a strong leader of the Commerce, Science and Transformation Committee and I was well-spoken," he said.

Pressler said Gannett newspapers official and USA Today founder Al Neuharth, a South Dakota native, "took a strong dislike to him" over Pressler's stance on broadcast issues for major media companies.

Pressler said he felt the Argus Leader, a Gannett newspaper, was against him during the race, and noted that The New York Times referred to the Argus' coverage of him as "vituperative."

That's why he was amazed the Argus endorsed him in the race, he said, when he was pondering a lawsuit against it. Those two facts may be related, Pressler said.

But he claims the 1996 race is behind him, as are all the political wounds he suffered.

"I let go of everything," Pressler said. "I released all my feelings."

Pressler, 70, and his wife Harriet celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary Monday. He delayed an interview for this story so he could go out and buy her roses.

He's headed to Europe, where he will teach American politics at Institut d'études politiques de Paris, commonly referred to as Sciences Po. It is considered one of the world's greatest institutions for teaching social sciences. Pressler speaks French fluently, having studied it at the University of South Dakota for four years, as well as when he was in the Army and worked for the U.S. Foreign Service before he sought public office.

Pressler tried a political comeback in 2002, running in the Republican primary for the state's House seat. Gov. Bill Janklow, a longtime GOP rival of Pressler's whom he met when they were both at USD in the early 1960s, won the election.

Pressler said he will never run for office again. In 2008, he announced his support for Democrat Barack Obama for president.

He's not sure who he will back this time, and said since he is teaching politics this fall, he will keep it private for now.

"I just haven't decided," Pressler said. "I've been disappointed in not keeping the lobbyists out of the White House."

"I've let go. I'm a believer in a higher power. I've let go of all this," he said. "I don't resent anybody. I don't resent Alexander Cockburn, I don't resent Tim Johnson and I don't resent Tom Daschle."

But he said Cockburn, who was called a "skunk" in quotes by colleagues in obituaries in The Washington Post and an English newspaper, was an angry, bitter man right until the end. The two men never met, but Pressler said he noted the news when Cockburn died.

"He was really a bad one," Pressler said.