On the Death of Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011. R.I.P.
My friend Christopher Hitchens passed away yesterday of pneumonia, a complication of the esophageal cancer he had been valiantly fighting for the past few years. The thorough obituary in today’s New York Times gives one a good overview of his life and his passions.
Of course Christopher did this himself in his own memoir, Hitch-22, a dazzling combination of remembrance, literary excursions, and reportage, all written in his own incomparable style. My own review of it can be found here.
I first met Christopher soon after he came to the United States, in the offices of The Nation magazine, for which he had a regular column. A firm man of the political Left at the time, he had been hired by Victor Navasky soon after coming to the U.S. from London. Soon after, I had lunch with him in Washington, D.C., where I was writing something for The New Republic, to which he had paid a visit while I was at their office. We walked into a nearby small French bistro, where the other solitary diner, an attractive woman in her 20s, was reading The Nation. “Did you set this up?” I asked Hitch. He looked over, thoroughly amused, and rushed over to the woman: “Hello, I’m Christopher Hitchens,” he told her. “I write a regular column for this magazine.” It could have been a scene from a movie.
When David Horowitz and Peter Collier first turned away from the Left, they held a major conference in Washington, D.C., “the Second Thoughts Conference,” which attracted a huge audience. Hitchens was there for The Nation, where he sat alongside his then friend Sidney Blumenthal, sneering and ridiculing the various speakers who accounted for what led them to change their old views of the 1960s. Approaching me later after my own talk, he accused me of “crossing the line” and of being guilty of McCarthyism. As readers familiar with Hitchens’ own trajectory know, during the Clinton years, Blumenthal would become his own most bitter enemy, and the two never reconciled.
As I moved away from the Left, Christopher remained firmly planted in its milieu. I had not seen him for years since Second Thoughts, only to become embroiled in a major fight with him after I wrote an article for the conservative New Criterion on the intellectuals and the Spanish Civil War. The article created a storm on the Left. The literary critic Alfred Kazin was furious, phoning me in order to castigate me personally. In the pages of his column, Hitch wrote (this is from memory, because I cannot find the column easily in their archives) that I was a “neo-fascist bucket carrier for Pat Buchanan,” and he attacked me at greater length in the journal Granta.
A week after Hitch’s scathing comment about me, I received a call from Peter Robinson, whose television program (now digitally on National Review Online) was then broadcast nationally on PBS. Peter asked whether I would appear with Hitchens to discuss the Spanish Civil War. I flew out to Palo Alto, where the taping was scheduled for early morning. I spent a sleepless night, nervous about seeing him in person after he had written such a nasty and vituperative comment about me.
The reception I received from Christopher revealed something about his personality. He greeted me warmly, totally oblivious about what he had just said about me in print a short week or so earlier. We had a civil and wonderful discussion, finding that in fact -- although he had implied I was an apologist for Franco in his large article -- we essentially agreed on all points.
When the taping was over, he came over and invited me for dinner that very evening at his in-law’s home where he and his wife Carol Blue were staying. The other guests -- a typical dinner party as I came to learn -- included the great scholar of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest, and the British political writer then at the Hoover Institute, Timothy Garton-Ash, who later would become one of Hitchens’ severe critics when Hitch became a supporter of the Iraq War. It was a scintillating evening of good food, wine, and wonderful conversation -- at which, of course, Christopher commanded the evening.
Political disagreement was one thing -- friendship was another. As long as it was not a rupture of a deep personal nature -- such as his own with Blumenthal -- Hitchens did not hold serious political disagreement with him as a cause for breaking with someone he considered a friend. Indeed, whenever we met, he would embrace me warmly and greet me with the fraternal salute of the old Left to which we once both belonged. With a twinkle in his eye, he would rush over, hug me and say: “Comrade. So good to see you.”
After years on the Left, Hitchens himself became fed up with the self-righteousness, myopia, and blindness to reality of his own side. He left the Left and abandoned his long-standing weekly column in The Nation. One of the last straws, he told me, was the magazine’s yearly cruise to which he had agreed to go on and speak at. He was so fed up, he told me, that at the first port of call, he left the ship and the cruise, and flew home abandoning the magazine’s guests as quickly as he could.
Always considering himself an anti-fascist, he simply could not understand how the Left saw nothing wrong with what he saw as the fascist quality of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Ba'ath party he led, a combination of both Stalinism and Nazism in which Saddam clearly had admiration for both the qualities of Hitler and Stalin which he emulated. In his eyes, the anti-fascist intervention was carried out admirably by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush, and not caring what his old comrades thought, he supported the war and the cause strongly, using his pen to tear apart the apologists of the Left and the lies they told about the Bush administration and its policies.
As David Frum has written in his own beautifully crafted tribute, Hitch’s move from the Left did not cause him to adopt the politics of the Right. One of his last columns for Slate was an attack on the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney. Accusing the religion of being more of a cult than a faith, Christopher did not seem to realize that if, as he believes, all religions were a cult and obscurantist, Mormonism is not any more dangerous than traditional Christianity or Judaism. Indeed, among his lifelong enemies were the likes of Princess Di, Mother Teresa, and of course, both Bill Clinton, whom he called a serial rapist, and Henry Kissinger, whom he thought of as a war criminal. Conservatives rallied to his blasts at Clinton during the impeachment circus, and liberals rallied to his lifelong contempt for Kissinger. Christopher called them as he saw them, oblivious to who supported or criticized him.
One of the main differences I had with him was over Israel, and what I thought was his failure to appreciate the Jewish state and the fight of its people for survival. My own review of his memoir called him on the contradictions of his position, and was sharply critical of his writings about the topic. I expected him to be more than upset. Instead, he phoned me to say that “I expected nothing less from you,” and promised to think about the points I made. Later, he told my wife and I that he had read and learned a great deal about the topic from the book we had written on Harry S. Truman and Israel’s birth.
At a debate I attended at Georgetown University between Hitchens and his old Trotskyist comrade from Britain, Tariq Ali, the two came to blows of the fiercest nature. When audience members and Ali referred to Israel’s leaders as Nazis, Hitchens responded that the charge was a slander against a people whose leaders were defending themselves against aggression, and although one might oppose the policies of Likud, its representatives could not be condemned in such vicious terms. A critic of Zionism who obstinately refused to understand the principles of its proponents, Hitch was clearly softening a bit and departing from the kind of venom he once used against Israel himself.
Yes, he had a dark side, alluded to here by my friend David Horowitz, who over the years had been in regular dialogue with Hitch, and whose own organization Hitchens often appeared at and spoke for -- despite the fact that he did not consider himself a man of the political Right. But Hitchens privately tried to rethink some things. He continued to admire Victor Navasky, and seemed oblivious to Navasky’s denial about the sins of the Old Left, and his belief in the innocence of Alger Hiss. When Hitch seemed upset about the news that I.F. Stone at one point was working for the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB), I gave Hitchens the long article by Max Holland, a Nation editorial board member, that convincingly argued for Stone's guilt. Hitchens told the friend who gave him the piece that if Holland thought Stone was guilty, there must be something to it.
Hitchens befriended many of the young journalists who came to know and admire him. Speaking of one common friend in particular, he said: “Isn’t it terrific that there are people like him here to carry on our fight?”
A short while back, my own son told me that his work took him to a conference, where he heard a wonderful talk by Alex Hitchens on al-Qaeda. Michael, my son, did not realize that was Hitchens’ son, and that I had actually met Alex at Hitchens’ apartment where my wife and I went to bring him lunch, and where despite his suffering from chemotherapy, he acted as the wonderful host he was and tried to carry on as if nothing was wrong. Mike told me that Alex’s talk was brilliant, and that he and Alex exchanged business cards and talked afterwards for some time. I told this to Hitchens, who was thrilled to learn of how circumstance had brought our two sons together, and that the new generation was concerned with the same issues and bonding over the new fights that had to be won in the future.
Christopher was a bundle of contradictions, a “contrarian” for life as he put it himself, a man who was charming, witty, a wonderful guest and raconteur, and a man who simply could not put up with hypocrisy and tyranny. I miss him greatly, and like so many others who knew him only from his writing, mourn his loss. R.I.P. And if you meet St. Peter and he asks you why you were not a believer, like the late Sidney Hook, you can tell him: “You didn’t give me enough evidence.”