Obit For A Former Contrarian

A friend and protégé tries to make sense of what's happened to Christopher Hitchens

Bright spring afternoon. Hitch and I spend it in his fave D.C. pub just down the street from his spacious apartment. At the long polished bar, he sips a martini, I swig Tanqueray on ice offset by pints of ale. The pub's TV is flashing golf highlights while the jukebox blasts classic rock. We're chatting about nothing in particular when the juke begins playing "Moonshadow" by Cat Stevens. Hitch stops talking. His face tightens. Eyes

narrow. I know this look--I saw it on Crossfire when he nearly slugged a Muslim supporter of the Ayatollah's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I saw it during a Gulf War panel discussion at Georgetown when he responded to some pro-war hack with a precision barrage of invective, followed by the slamming down of the mike, causing a brief reverb in the speakers.

And here it was again.

"No," he said, shaking his head, exhaling Rothman smoke. "No--get rid of that!"

Bartender asks, "Excuse me?"

"Get rid"--gesturing to the music in the air--"of that."

"Can't. Someone played that song."

"Well, fuck it then."

Don't know if Hitch is serious. Yes, his anger about the fatwa is real and understandable. And the fact that the former Cat Stevens, Yusef Islam, endorsed the mullahs' death sentence clearly enraged him. But getting shitty over "Moonshadow"?

"You know," I say, "Yusef Islam renounced everything about his past. He hates Cat Stevens more than you do. He gave away or destroyed all his gold records. If you really want to show your disgust for him, embrace Cat Stevens. Play his stuff loud and often. Whistle 'Peace Train' or 'Oh Very Young' when you pass the local mosque."

Hitch listens, head down, fresh Rothman lit.

"No. Never. Fuck them both."

"Moonshadow" ends. Pat Benatar--or was it Whitesnake?--takes over, and we resume drinking.

That was about 12 years ago. Another lifetime. Back then Christopher Hitchens was It to me--my mentor, more or less. Just a few years before, I'd left the misery-filled comedy improv scene to work as a media activist and critic. Learned to write political essays on the job for a ratty New York East Village weekly. Raw execution. Tortured metaphors. Sentences so rank they needed quicklime. Yet I muddled on, read Alexander Cockburn's "Beat the Devil" and Hitch's "Minority Report" in The Nation for inspiration. Got the nerve to send a few columns to each. Cockburn was pleasant and encouraging in his reply, but Hitch went further. He typed up a letter praising some of my takes, criticizing others, showing me where he thought I misstepped, and so on, then closed by inviting me out for a drink whenever he was in New York or I in D.C.

That's when it started.

These days Christopher is vilified by many who once agreed with him, or at least respected his talent. We all know the story of The 9/11 Transformation: the former socialist and Beltway snitch who finally showed his true colors as a shill for W's gang. Some of his former friends, like Cockburn, have gone beyond political disagreement into personal insults, mostly aimed at Hitch's weight and drinking habits. (Dr. Alex also attempted some psychotherapy.) Some, like Sidney Blumenthal, affect an arch, dismissive posture, as if Hitch were little more than a distraction in the Grand Scheme. I've done my share of slagging too, mostly on a discussion list I belong to, but also to him, and I try to keep my criticisms politically and aesthetically based. Yet it's hard for me to erase the fond memories I have of Hitch.

 

See, Hitch engaged me. Whenever I was in D.C. for a talk or conference or simply visiting friends, I spent at least one night at Christopher's, and there, in the early hours at his large dining room table, Hitch held court. He talked about his early activist days in England, analyzed the current scene, riffed on political figures while steadily pounding red wine and chain-smoking his Rothmans. I tried to keep up on all fronts, but he was in another league. So I sat back, took in the spectacle. Far from blurring or dulling his mind, booze seemed to sharpen him. I was awed by his eloquence. I learned.

(When his book Letters to a Young Contrarian was released, a friend asked if I'd read it. "Why?" I replied. "I lived it.")

Above all, Christopher was kind and generous. He listened. He could be self-deprecating and intensely funny. He also had (and still seems to have) a weakness for gossip. This was often entertaining, though once when Andrew Sullivan joined us for drinks, the gossip took a swift dive into the bowels of The New Republic, a loathsome mag personified by Sullivan, who remains one of the most arrogant, pretentious jerks I've ever met. I wondered then how Hitch could stomach his type, but overlooked it in favor of the access I enjoyed.

My most intense period with him came during the first Gulf War. It was Christopher's prime. His pieces in The Nation and Harper's then were tonic. Read pages 75-98 from his collection For The Sake of Argument and see for yourself, especially now. Here's the close of his January 1991 Harper's cover story, "Realpolitik in the Gulf: A Game Gone Tilt":

"The call [to war] was an exercise in peace through strength. But the cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold. An earlier regional player, Benjamin Disraeli, once sarcastically remarked that you could tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. The Bush administration uses strong measures to ensure weak government abroad, and has enfeebled democratic government at home. The reasoned objection must be that this is a dangerous and dishonorable pursuit, in which the wealthy gamblers have become much too accustomed to paying their bad debts with the blood of others."
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