Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America is Mark Jacobson's enthralling, claustrophobic biography of William Cooper, an influential conspiracist. Cooper, who popularized the term sheeple, had a radio show The Hour of the Time and a bestselling book, Behold a Pale Horse, and found fans as diverse as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and rappers the Wu-Tang Clan. Jacobson discusses who William Cooper was, and his impact on American conspiracy culture.
A recent Rolling Stone headline called Milton William (Bill) Cooper, author of the infamous bestseller Behold a Pale Horse and host of the 1990s short-wave radio show The Hour of the Time, “the Granddaddy of American Conspiracy Theorists.” He has also been called, somewhat less charitably, the “Titan of the Tinfoil Hats.” All that is true, especially from the neo-rationalist, liberal-leaning point of view, those who automatically associate “conspiracy” with neo-Neanderthal forces seeking to undermine the science and good grammar acquired over the 400 year stretch of the Enlightenment.
This isn’t to say that Cooper was not a hard-boiled Barnum of parapolitics, which is what many conspiracists call their no longer fringe discipline. It takes balls to stand before a crowd night after night hawking fifth generation dupes of the Zapruder film, claiming the washed out images proved JFK was killed by the Secret Service agent driving the Presidential limousine, but Cooper did it for years. He also said that on February 21, 1954, President Eisenhower met with ambassador O.H. Krill, emissary from the Pleiadian star system, to cut a deal that allowed aliens to abduct Americans in exchange for interplanetary weaponry that would keep the U.S. ahead of the Soviet Union.
But to regard Bill Cooper, subject of my book, Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy and Fall of Trust in America, as merely a willful, if talented, fabulist does him a disservice. The fact is, rather than some fear-mongering right-wing talk show of the Alex Jones stripe (Jones used to listen Cooper broadcasts as a boy in Austin, Texas), Bill Cooper was, and remains, a special breed of folk hero, part huckster, part prophet, all legitimate American seeker.
In contrast to the orthodoxies of so-called “Truth” movements, as well the divide-and-conquer techniques of the mass media propaganda cults like MSNBC and Fox News, Bill Cooper offered an individualized, auto-didactic path to knowledge. It was in the “standard admonition,” his challenge (which all fans know by heart) “to read everything, listen to everyone, but believe nothing until you can prove it with your own research.” According to Cooper, truth is not fixed, everyone is entitled to their own versions of it, as long as that truth conforms with the Creator-endowed rights as delineated in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
The problem, Cooper said, was that these personal truths were being subjugated by an overweening structure of hidden forces undermining the right of Americans to think for themselves. He saw demons under every pillow, stitched into the saga of humankind dating back to the dawn of consciousness. Every day was another episode in the endless battle between Good and Evil.
Bill Cooper did not plan to make his life into a harrowing saga of American despair, but that’s how it turned out. Born in 1943 into a military family, Cooper never became an officer like his father and uncles. Instead, he wound up on a river boat patrolling the Cua Viet River only a few klicks from the DMZ. As the North Vietnamese filled the skies with 122 missiles, it began to dawn on the hitherto gung-ho Cooper that he was fighting on the wrong side, that everything he’d been told about the nation he was willing to die for might be a lie.
Cooper landed in the VA PTSD ward for months at a time. It was a malady that he never shook. For all his Norman Rockwellesque celebration of home and hearth, he was married at least five times, abused the women who loved him and abandoned his children before finally finding a degree of domestic harmony in his final years with his last wife and young daughters.
But the die was cast. As he offered his prediction of the 9/11 disaster (in June of 2001, he told listeners to expect a “major attack” that would be “blamed on Osama bin Laden”), Cooper also prophesized his own death. The cops were going to come up to his home on a rural Arizona hilltop “in the middle of the night and shoot me dead on my doorstep,” Cooper said, which is exactly what happened around midnight on November 6, 2001.
Though the Pale Horse Rider story of rising conspiracy and declining trust in the American project is timely, Cooper’s tale does not quite fit into the tight drumbeat of the news cycle in these Trumpian times. It is simply too much off-the-beaten path, too full of contradictions.
One of the questions the story raises is how, and why, Cooper’s slapdash book Behold a Pale Horse (current sales now approaching 300,000), a text pulled together by a white, allegedly right-wing guy became one of most read texts in the country’s prison systems, primarily among African-American inmates. It was a trend that crossed over into the tunes of many early hip-hop stars like Tupac Shakur, Busta Rhymes and the Wu-Tang Clan. The reason might be summed up in what the famous Wu-Tang member Ol' Dirty Bastard once told me. “Everyone gets fucked,” the oft-arrested ODB said before his death at age 35. “William Cooper tells you who fucking you. When you’re someone like me that is valuable information.”
One last thing about Bill Cooper. People belittle his analysis of the Cold War, which he said was one big distraction aimed at brain-washing the American public. Yet if we examine the resume of John McCloy, the former head of CIA and one of the so-called “Wisemen” in charge of American foreign policy during the Iron Curtain years, another question arises.
Among other things, McCloy, the architect of the WWII Japanese internment camps, opposed the bombing of the Nazi train line to Auschwitz. He was the President of the World Bank and the Chase Manhattan Bank. He was the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a highly influential member of Warren Commission, which said Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy and acted alone. McCloy was a prime arbiter of so-called “reality” for nearly half a century. Yet the question remains, who would you rather buy a used car from, him or Bill Cooper?