Press Man: Why They Wept for Hitchens
One night, nearly 25 years ago, I was talking with Christopher Hitchens at a cocktail party—that this statement could be construed as name-dropping is actually the subject of this column, so please read on—when we were interrupted by the actor Richard Dreyfuss. Hitchens, then serving the Nation magazine as its Washington columnist, stood expressionless as Dreyfuss uncorked the most lavish praise for something he had recently written, and then for his entire body of work, and, indeed, for his very existence, considering the example he set for every person of conscience on the planet…When the effusion died down, Hitchens thanked Dreyfuss for it, and the movie star turned and walked away as lightly as a school girl after a backstage brush with Justin Bieber. Before I could express my amazement at this impressive display, Hitchens cut me off with a wave of his Rothman.
“Happens all the time,” he said.
He didn’t mean it to be funny, but it was. At the time Hitchens truly was semi-anonymous, which is much lower on the fame ladder than semi-famous. What renown he possessed in the United States in those days rested on a few C-SPAN appearances and a vague (and mistaken) reputation as the model for the character Peter Fallow in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Not much renown, in other words; and any pretense on the part of the Washington columnist for the Nation magazine (circulation at the time: 40,000, if you counted the office pussy cat) that he possessed the kind of eminence and recognition that inspire constant eruptions of praise from strangers was not only comical but also, in a word he would never use, cheeky. Anyway, I laughed and he didn’t.
As the years wore on, of course, the joke was increasingly on me, for by the time of his death last December, Hitchens had achieved a measure of wealth and fame that no other Washington columnist for the Nation could ever have hoped for. How famous was he? He died on a Thursday, and by the weekend admirers had begun a little shrine outside his apartment in Washington. It was set up Princess Diana–style, with flowers, cards, bottles of liquor, handwritten poems and messages of thanks, the words bleeding melodramatically off the paper in the December drizzle. Justin Bieber shouldn’t expect as much.
“He would have been appalled,” a friend said, but I’m not so sure. Hitchens pioneered the hit-obit, a particularly vicious piece of writing that kicks at a dead man before his poor carcass has even fallen to room temperature. None of this de mortuis nil nisi bonum baloney for Hitchens. Ronald Reagan, dead 24 hours, was “dumb as a stump…an obvious phony and loon.” Bob Hope, two days after his exit: “a fool…paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny.” The original Shrine Girl, Princess Diana, still at the morgue: “a simpering Bambi narcissist.” Mother Theresa: “a thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf.” For Hitchens, the hit-obit became a trademark, and in another of the weird inversions that attended his career, its crassness somehow became an emblem of his own rectitude: No bourgeois courtesy, not even the Grim Reaper himself, could stay Hitchens’s hand when it came time to speak truth to power!
As I say, I’m not so sure that Hitchens would have welcomed a hit-obit directed at himself, though I think he would have been pleased if everyone else believed he was the sort of person who would welcome it, in an amused, all’s-fair spirit. In the event, no hit-obit of any consequence appeared. What he got instead from the world of mainstream journalism was an outpouring of love and praise that was staggering in its dimensions. The fabled jadedness of the wizened American journalist disappears at the oddest times. Certain details and themes recurred in the graveyard prose: the heroic drinking, for example, and the astounding productivity, and the unlikelihood that the drinking and productivity should be found in the same person. His bravery at his life’s end was noted, and his expansive, seemingly indiscriminate gift for friendship.
And then, as always in gushers like this, there were the failures of taste and tone. Andrew Sullivan, a well-known blogger, reprinted a New York magazine story about his arrival at a Hitchens party: Sullivan, the magazine reported, “greeted [the host] with a hug and a kiss. ‘I want tongue. Give me tongue,’ Hitchens implored, to no avail.” Sullivan offered his readers this story through “suddenly unstoppable tears.” It was left to other journalists to give Hitchens, at least in words, what Sullivan had so cruelly denied him in fact. “He was a wild and beautiful boy,” wrote the left-wing activist Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. “The thirty or so years that we were friends are studded…” etc.
Her 30 years beats my 25, which I hope you remember from this column’s opening line. Mayer’s piece and the other tributes demonstrated that mawkish self-flattery is unavoidable among journalists when they compete to advertise their intimacy with the famous. I wish I kept a list of everyone who modestly admitted they “didn’t know Hitch well” but nonetheless recalled an encounter with him in which he recognized, with mystical discernment, their soul-deep connection. (“I had passed the only test that mattered to him,” wrote one editor…)
Most unexpected of all, at least by me, was the overpraise for Hitchens’s habits of mind, and for his politics, which supposedly placed him courageously at odds with the establishment. “He offered a model of how to think,” wrote one grief-stricken acquaintance. The PBS historian Simon Schama mourned the “unfillable space where his prose rocked and rolled in face of the demure, the hypocritical, and the ignorantly self-important.”
Such excess obscures the most obvious conclusion we can draw from Hitchens’s politics, which is that he was a crank. In the early 1980s he was convinced that the Reagan administration had colluded in the Soviet Union’s downing of the airliner KAL 007. A few years later he was a vigorous promoter of the “Secret Team” theory that fit the Iran-contra scandal into a world-girding conspiracy of international bankers and private militias. A handful of memorialists dismissed his hatred of Bill Clinton as a lapse in judgment, but maybe you had to be there to see how unhinged it was: He really did believe that Clinton had been an accessory to the murder of a pair of hillbillies back in Arkansas. And the Queen, that “whore,” was almost as evil as the Albanian dwarf.
There were lots more opinions where these came from, and any combination of two or three of them, expressed with Hitchens’s ardor and bloody-minded indifference to fact, would have got any one else run out of polite society. In media circles—not to be confused with polite society, I know—even the whole package couldn’t disqualify Hitchens. Where his polemics failed as models of logic or casemaking, they excelled as attention-getters. Only his later embrace of Republican foreign policy threatened his hallowed place among media people, but the threat was temporary and finally inconsequential.
After his death, I puzzled over the universal praise and its intensity. I thought of his charm, his learning, the preternatural fluency of his writing. But surely mere talent and amiability weren’t enough to indemnify him so thoroughly among the journalistic class that memorialized him so excessively. No, that required fame, the ultimate inoculation.
And then I remembered the Dreyfuss story. Hitchens might not have been famous back then, but he wanted to be, and he worked hard at it, and in the end, as he knew, he could reap fame’s rewards from a class of people for whom mere fame is the ultimate intoxication—far more impressive than learning or talent or rigorous argument. The scurrilous opinions might bring him fame, but the fame would guarantee that the opinions wouldn’t matter.
It’s maybe not the best fate for a man who once might have hoped that his ideas would be taken seriously, but it’s the fate Hitchens chose. At least that’s my theory. And I knew the man for more than a quarter of a century. Did I mention that?