My Dinner with Hitch

The first time I noticed Christopher Hitchens was in December, 1984.  I was watching William F. Buckley’s Firing Line program, ironically aired on PBS. The program (taped December 11) was titled “Is There a Liberal Crack-Up?” and featured two guests. The first was R. Emmett Tyrell, a now mercifully forgotten conservative figure but then the editor of The American Spectator, and voluminous right-wing blowhard who exhibited his appropriation —or bastardization— of H.L. Mencken’s prose style in a prolix column featured without fail in every issue of his magazine. The event of the show, apparently, was the publication of his book, cobbled together from the single-minded theme of his columns —a  single-minded excoriation of liberals— a book titled The Liberal Crack-Up. His liberal opponent was someone I had never heard of before, a young British writer named Christopher Hitchens. Although it was two against one —positively fair and balanced compared to today’s media environment— Hitchens held his own and gave a spirited and honorable defense of liberalism throughout a freewheeling, contentious 30-minute debate that covered Watergate, Vietnam, the Feminist movement, Iran, and more — in retrospect, a mere prelude to the performer he would become as a public intellectual. Here is a good example of a typical (and amusing) exchange, full of the forensic rhythms he would perfect over the next 28 years, and familiar to anyone who’s watched Hitchens in a debate:

TYRELL: See, I’m a much more peaceful man than you are, Christopher. I’m not attacking anyone. I’m merely describing what happened in the 1970s. What happened in the 1970s was the breakdown of American liberalism in a riot of enthusiasms, and if you would like to read, perhaps we can have some organ music. Bill, did you bring your harpsichord? Christopher is about to read.

HITCHENS: Peaceful isn’t the word I’m in search of. But if you say you don’t attack anyone, how come you say, “The vast majority of feminists are disagreeable misanthropes, horrible to behold, uncouth and unlovely. They were inferior women, contemptuous of the superior women, who, through their charm and intellect have so often been able to establish such enviable lives for themselves.” I could go on. I mean, I will if you like.

TYRELL Go on. It’s beautiful. [laughter]

HITCHENS: Why don’t you plug your own book? I would say this was a critical use of language.

TYRELL: I would say that was my opinion. It’s a clinical description.

BUCKLEY: You were just being facetious, though, weren’t you?

HITCHENS: Not elegant. Not elegant, but certainly not peaceful.

My first thought after watching it was, as Butch Cassidy would put it, who was that guy? I learned that he wrote a weekly column in The Nation, which I began to follow; I was happy to have discovered, finally, an intellectual who threw himself into the midst of contemporary issues who was not much older than me (he was 35 at the time of this appearance), a novelty insofar as most of the public literary figures I paid attention to were one and sometimes even two generations older than me.

My only slim professional intersection with Hitchens occurred when he was kind enough to write an introduction to one of our books — Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde. There is nothing much to be said about this except that he was a delight to work with, low-maintenance, and a real pro. We exchanged e-mails about his intro but about other more casual matters as well; he referred to me as “comrade,” without really knowing what my political affiliations were, and which I considered an endearing remnant of his Trotskyist days, and he insisted I call him Hitch and not Mr. Hitchens, which I did reluctantly because it was a level of informality I didn’t think I earned and which unfortunately tempted me to ask him questions about Rear Window. But, the most memorable byproduct of this brief association was the evening I spent with him, about which I will provide a few highlights.

Keep in mind that this was pre-9/11. It would have been a very different and, I fear, a far less palatable night if it had been post-9/11. Like many members-in-good-standing of the left (if there are in fact any left standing), I deplored his lamentable conversion to neo-conservative geopolitical dogma. But, Hitchens was always an unorthodox leftist, something I appreciated and about which I assume he took some pride, and this was merely the supreme example of his heterodoxy. I have to admit I read him with less relish and more trepidation in the last decade as a result; he was no longer one of us.

I can’t pinpoint the exact date or even the year, but it must’ve been ’99 or 2000. My ex-co-worker and pal Thom Powers had by then become a filmmaker and had spoken to him about a project in ’99 (that never reached fruition), so we both knew him casually. One of us made a date to visit him at his home when we both happened to be in Washington, DC at the same time. We had dinner and strolled over to his DuPont Circle apartment at 9 pm. I remember being struck by the fact that he had just gotten off an international flight that night. I know I wouldn’t be up for socializing with anybody after spending 10 or 15 hours on a plane (this requires qualification: I might be willing to see someone after getting off an international flight, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to see me), much less someone I’d never met and barely knew, so I was surprised that he’d be willing to see the two of us in what would have to be an exhausted state. In fact, he was not only hospitable, but effusive, voluble, and positively irrepressible. (His wife Carol was hospitable and gracious as well but less voluble.) He didn’t seem in the least bit tired, and kept up a world-class conversation for seven hours — until five in the morning. This seven hours has mostly become an impressionistic jumble in memory, but a few specific exchanges and moments stick out.

The funniest and most vivid recollection, possibly because the weirdest and almost farcical and therefore unexpected, was a conversation about guns that included an exasperated cameo by Carol. Did you know Hitchens was very pro-guns and anti-gun control laws? I didn’t. I’d been following his work pretty closely during this time and I hadn’t remembered him ever writing on the subject, but he felt, not surprisingly, quite fiercely about it. A high-profile mugging (and possibly rape) had taken place in Central Park not long before and Hitch used it as an example of someone who could’ve shot her attacker, and, extrapolating from that, wanted no restrictions on his right to carry a gun in Central Park. Thom provided gentle devil advocacy and even his wife took the opposing side, but Hitch remained adamant. At one point, Carol scoffed that he’d seen too many Clint Eastwood movies, which I remember at the time thinking was a funny thing to say to Christopher Hitchens and funnier yet if it were true. I eventually mentioned that I owned guns —I was waiting for the right moment to drop that in his lap— which Hitch immediately fastened on, and in the course of his interrogation —what kind are they, where did I keep them, could I mail him one (just joking about that last)?— I admitted that I kept a loaded gun in the house. When Carol learned I had a 6- or 7-year old son, she said that was utterly irresponsible, to which I hadn’t much of an argument. After she walked into the kitchen, I mumbled to Hitch that my son wasn’t strong enough to pull back the slide on an automatic, which sounded lame to me even as I said it, but he immediately called his wife back and excitedly insisted I repeat this, as if it were the decisive counter-punch in a formal debate. Reluctantly, I did. She just looked at me, looked at her husband, rolled her eyes, and walked back to the kitchen. Which, in the event, seems like a perfectly reasonable response.

The other exchange I remember in some detail is less funny and more discomforting. Hitchen’s nemesis Alex Cockburn was brought up; they had a big dust-up over Cuba and I may have asked him about this, but instead of talking about their political differences, he mostly expressed contempt for (he alleged) Cockburn’s impecuniousness. This was far more important to Hitch, taking up far more time, than any political or moral differences they may have had. In fact, Hitchens asserted, it was a moral difference! He was quite clear that he felt one had an obligation to make as much money as he could and Cockburn’s failure to do this was, in Hitchens’ eyes, good reason alone to hold him in contempt. It was quite clear that Hitch enjoyed his money and the privilege money buys one, but he went beyond that to shower contempt on those who made less (did he not know that I was much closer Cockburn’s economic bracket than his?). There was meanness on display that its target didn’t warrant. I was so taken aback by it, so surprised to hear an avowed socialist espousing values that I immediately and reflexively cringed at, that we sparred over this for 20 minutes or so (before ricocheting into another subject). It’s the only time that we actually argued over something.

It’s a shame that distasteful moments remain etched more deeply in memory than the merely enjoyable. I don’t want to do him a disservice. He was a gracious host and it was a memorable and enjoyable evening (and morning). He was a world-class conversationalist who couldn’t stop talking. I watched him drink two bottles of hard liquor (Jack Daniels, I think, but I’m no longer sure) over seven hours and remain utterly lucid. (In fact, it seemed to have no effect on him whatsoever. I saw none of the bellicosity —or any more than normal— or any signs of aphasiac impairment that Katha Pollitt claims to have seen.) He somehow cooked a rack of lamb without my even noticing (possibly because he kept talking as he wisked into and out of the kitchen). He gave us a tour of his apartment —my kind of apartment!— with books all over the place, in bookshelves, overflowing bookshelves, in four foot high stacks on the floor. He and Carol told us how Clint Eastwood refurbished their apartment when, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, Eastwood used it as a set in Absolute Power (a dreadful film notwithstanding the set’s pedigree). He took me aside at 3 in the morning and spent 20 minutes going through a what-if scenario: What if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? He took it ahead about 20 years, through Kennedy’s two terms, Nixon’s failure to get elected (or even run), etc. Had he written about this, was he planning on writing about it, was it merely a thought experiment? I don’t know, but you could see his mind racing at a million miles an hour in an almost scarily cathectic series of ideas and subjects. At 5 am, I thanked him once again for writing the intro to Joe’s book, and we left, exhausted. I had the impression he was going to call someone in a more palatable time zone and talk some more.

(The one subject we didn’t talk about was comics, in which he seemed to have no interest.)

The two burning questions posed after his death by those who offered more thoughtful responses than mere rote eulogy, were, first, what is his legacy? Will he be read five, ten, 20 years from now? And second, and more fretfully, did he betray his own principles over the last ten years of his public life?

Hitchens is one of those gigantic, outsized, self-mythologizing figures —Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, James Dickey come to mind— who rampages through the political and literary landscape causing mischief and making enemies and being an endless source of mirth and entertainment to those of us watching on the sidelines, less so to those on whom they inflict themselves. But, Hitchens did not have the sheer, flat-out sui generis crazy genius of Thompson and he was neither novelist nor poet, whose work tends to endure far longer than essayists and reviewers (despite, not because of their larger-than-life personas) and for good reason, that being the universality of art. As Katha Pollitt put it, “Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the incredible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.” Or at least the “we” reading him would probably be fewer by an order of magnitude.

Most of what he’s written has been journalism or reviews, most of which has been collected. He’s written original books on Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and God, none of which I’ve read. I can say with some certainty that his book on Bill Clinton, which I have read, won’t —or at least shouldn’t— be read two weeks from now. His best book may be Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, the title taken from quote by Shelley, and represents his least partisan and most sympathetic and observant writing while retaining his quicksilver elegance and turns of phrase, and since most of the unacknowledged legislators he writes about will surely endure, his commentary on them may have a better chance of enduring as well. Referring to his last book, Arguably, Michael Dirda in the December 30 TLS thinks that “Hitchens’s body of work is more likely to stand the test of time than that of almost any other contemporary journalist,” and I am inclined to agree.

As for those last ten years, there is disagreement among his critics as to whether his post 9-11 conversion was a 180 degree turn or part of an inevitable trajectory. The one criticism that is a persistent refrain among those who knew him is that he was a status monger and a social climber. His old sparing partner Alex Cockburn unsentimentally wrote, in “Farewell to C.H.," “I met him in New York in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as a radical. He craved to be an insider, a trait which achieved the ripest expression when he elected to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen by Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.” Chris Hedges has said much the same. Gore Vidal has said that he shifted post-9/11 because he wanted to insinuate himself among the powerful. In an essay written before Hitchens’ death, simultaneously sympathetic and devastating, Terry Eagleton wrote: “The two faces of Hitchens, however, are as much synchronous as sequential. In a sense, he has become what he always covertly was. Even at he age of 20 he felt tugged between dissidence and dining out. ‘Hypocritchens,’ as he was known at Balliol, was suave, bright, fearless, loquacious, self-admiring, and grotesquely ambitious. (I write as one who knew him as a comrade in the International Socialists.) He was a man who made Uriah Heep look like Little Nell. Having worked his way through everyone worth knowing in the United Kingdom, he spied a larger stage in the United States (a nation that was the stuff of his fantasies even as a student), hopped on a plane and proceeded to cultivate everyone worth knowing in Washington and New York as well. If he has not settled in Bingley or Sudan, it is because there is nobody worth knowing there.”

(Incidentally, I don’t think Hitchens would be offended by the idea of being criticized posthumously —Eagleton’s was written in May, nearly six months before his death— though he would surely have relished disputing them.)

Did he squander his gifts? Did he enhance or vulgarize the public discourse? Public discourse being what it is these days, it’s hard to believe that an appearance by him on Fox News wouldn’t single-handedly increase the channel’s IQ level, but improving Fox’s intellectual standards is a mighty low bar. I wonder if his times and his temperament did not conspire against him. (Worse, could his temperament have been too suited to his times?) If he had been born 30 years earlier, he may have been debating Bill Buckley and James Burnham and Russell Kirk (pygmies become giants in the new world order!). Did he debase himself by debating the likes of Sean Hannity and Al Sharpton and exchanging quips with Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin? When you’re the smartest guy in the room, which he often was, it’s hard to resist a temptation toward stridency, smugness, and showboating, postures which he increasingly succumbed to. Does celebrity culture turn intellectuals into performers and swallow them up? But if you’re unwilling to participate in the current media environment, what? Marginalization? Irrelevance? Clearly, Hitchens was not about to let himself become sidelined, but writing for Vanity Fair was one thing, debating coxcombish riff-raff something else entirely.

I envy the unambivalent judgment of Hitchens by writers and peers like Vidal, Cockburn, and Hedges; mine is messier. His post-9/11 neo-con conversion left a bad taste in my mouth, and although I could still appreciate his observational acuity and intellectual pirouettes, I read him with less personal enthusiasm and more dispassionate —and intermittent— admiration. He was always iconoclastic and often unpredictable. Criticism of Mother Theresa and even the beloved Jon Stewart is welcome and, more, healthy, but claiming that he would’ve voted for George Bush over Gore in 2000 and that he’d have voted for Bush in 2003 if the election had been held then was repellant given a lifetime of championing intellectual honesty and public responsibility. Was he serious? He apparently was — very. I thought I detected not just an ideological shift after 2001, but a careerist one as well, manifested in his ubiquitous public appearances where his seriousness and moral certainty about “Islamofascism” and his hysterical jeremiads against God threatened to become schtick.

I can’t reconcile those last ten years of public spectacle, but he was, over the previous decade and a half, an inspiration, and for that I’m grateful.