I have several recollections of Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday at the age of 62.
The first is when I served in the George W. Bush White House and, in the first term, invited Christopher to speak to the White House staff. He spoke very well, of course, but what I most recall are a couple of things that occurred before the speech. The first is standing with him outside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He had gone out to smoke, which wasn’t unusual — and he confided to me that he was nervous, which was. The words “Christopher Hitchens” and “nervous” don’t usually belong in the same sentence. He also wore a tie, which he indicated to me he hadn’t done in years — and, he told me, he had gotten his shoes shined before the speech, which he didn’t recall ever having had done.
It wasn’t hard for me to fit the pieces together. Christopher felt it was an honor for him, a British citizen, to speak at the White House. For all his reputation for being a bon vivant, an iconoclast, and a man not known for his devotion to protocol, he was in fact quite moved to be a guest at one of the great symbols of American democracy. It was, I thought, something of a touching moment.
Memory number two is meeting Christopher for drinks at a hotel late one afternoon several years ago. We were joined by Michael Cromartie, now my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And among the topics (in this case a topic of my choice) was Malcolm Muggeridge, who had a formative influence on my Christian pilgrimage. We discussed C.S. Lewis and related topics — and the conversation was fascinating, wide-ranging, and completely free of animus. What struck me was how Hitchens, for all his ferocious contempt for Christianity, was actually respectful in dealing with me and others of my faith.
My third memory is the last time I saw Hitchens, which was at a dinner with him, his brother Peter (they had spoken together at a forum earlier in the day), his wife Carol Blue (who joined us later in the dinner), and a few others. At that point, Christopher had been diagnosed with cancer and knew his days were numbered. The dinner itself was sheer delight. We spoke about American politics, the Scottish author John Buchan, poetry and much else. Afterward I commented to a friend how impressive Hitchens was, in this sense: there was no sense of impending doom or self-pity. Life was good, he seemed to signal, and life went on. At the conclusion of the evening he did make a point to mention to me how much he appreciated a hand-written note President Bush had sent him after learning of Christopher’s illness. Then there was, at the end, a brief, and at least for me, a poignant farewell. I knew it was unlikely I would ever see him again. And I never did. (I did continue to communicate with him from time to time via e-mail.)
I disagreed with Christopher on many issues, from Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa to the state of Israel and Christianity, and I never really understood his hatred for the Lord whom I had come to love. Still, I grew to admire him a great deal, not for his wit and brilliant writing, which are gifts but not virtues; but for his courage. He showed it in his solidarity with Salman Rushdie, in breaking ranks with those on the Left over the Iraq war, and in how he dealt with his death sentence. In the end, pain which would have broken most of us didn’t break him. And he wrote — oh how he wrote — almost to his final hour.
Death, he said, was our common fate. True enough. But I wish it was a fate he could have avoided for much longer than he did.
Requiescat in pace.