I’ve taken to aggreggating a list of all the tributes and obituaries for Hitchens, rather than post them all on Facebook to friends who were no doubt getting bludgeoned with it. Feel free to tweet at me (or post in the comments) links to ones I’ve missed.
Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.
I don’t have much of this myself, so I recognise it (and envy it) in others. I have a memory which I cannot place precisely in time, of the two of us scrambling on a high rooftop, the sort of crazy escapade that boys of our generation still went on, where we should not have been.
“I don’t usually start this early,” he said, his glass already gratefully extended, “but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism.” With our soldiers already rolling across the desert, the humanitarian channels to hitch rides were gummed up, stranding hundreds of reporters on the bench. But Hitchens would not be deterred. On assignment for Vanity Fair, he only had a few days to touch Iraqi soil, and watching him get there was a study in forward motion, as he charged just as hard, if not harder, than Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade.
But even W.F.B., who tolerated pretty much anything except attacks on his beloved Catholic Church and its professors, couldn’t help but forgive. “Did you see the piece on Chirac by your friend Hitchens in the Journal today?” he said one day, with a smile and an admiring sideways shake of the head. “Absolutely devastating!”
It’s easy to mistake his thoroughgoing iconoclasm – this is the guy, after all, who wrote jeremiads against Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa – for a reflexive, even juvenile cynicism, but there was far more than that going on. Whether the target of his scorn was much-beloved (he thought Gandhi a great villain for the way he lionized poverty and preindustrial living practices) or thoroughly hated by the wide world (Saddam Hussein, for one), Hitchens was never a cheap-shot artist.
(And this interview is good)
I repeat my side of our old argument, insisting that what Christopher experienced today was not, as he insisted it would be, extinction–and that, just as I told him he would–told him as he shook his head in amused disbelief–he has now had a happy if temporarily embarrassing surprise, finding himself in the presence of the only Being with the capacity to love him even more than did his friends. I repeat my side–but never–never–have I so regretted having the last word.
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.
The Hitchens of 1994 would have stopped there but his more mature self needed to go further. “However,” he wrote, “there came a day when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington” and the world changed forever. Hitchens had huddled at the Marriott Hotel “from dawn to dusk with friends, wondering if it could be real.”
Many eulogizers have prefaced their obits with “love him or hate him…,” but that’s not quite right. You both loved and hated Christopher Hitchens, as even when he wasn’t on your side-and even when he was on your side, yet still being a smug prick about it-you had to admire his tenacity and envy his eloquence.
I vetoed the idea [of meeting Hitchens, proposed by Danielle Frum]. I knew Christopher’s writing and had encountered him a few times in the 1980s. He was an impressive person, no question about that, but I objected to his ad hominem attacks on people I greatly admired. Then a few weeks later, I had my own face-to-face encounter with him. We were guests together on C-Span’s morning program, which convened at 7 AM. He rolled in looking absolutely like hell. Of the dead, nothing should be said but good, but … wow. Christopher’s eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were crumpled, his face was ghastly. And then he started to talk. And then he made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
The show ended at 8 AM. Even for Christopher, that was not drinking time. We adjourned to the nearby Phoenix Park hotel for a coffee, and two more hours of talk. When I did finally get home I had to admit to my wife, “OK, you were right.”
Sometimes Christopher is called a “contrarian,” but I never thought that label was right. It’s true that he delighted in argument and intellectual confrontation. But he did not just believe things because they were controversial or because no one else in his circle was making the arguments. On the Iraq war, he never stopped saying and writing that the war was just and that American arms were needed to end the regime of Saddam Hussein. But Christopher did not arrive at this position simply because his old colleagues at the Nation Magazine did not. He came to support the Iraq war after befriending many Iraqis, and particularly Kurds, who told him about the horrors of that dictatorship. For Christopher, supporting the war was an expression of his anti-totalitarianism. He would later say that the war pitted the anti-totalitarian left against the anti-imperialist left.
Pat Buchanan, a great verbal brawler in his own right, is the only person I ever saw who could anticipate the blows. Hitch had a big fight with Bob Novak once on Crossfire and Bob banned him from the show for a while. It was like losing a world champion. I think Bob finally let us bring him back because he knew Hitch had real fight in him, and we kept bringing up his name.
I could sense it coming. But I couldn’t write anything beforehand and I cannot write anything worthy of him now. So I just sat down an hour ago when I heard the news – Aaron told me as he clicked on Gawker – and sat a while and got up to write and then blubbered a bit and, staring at the screen, read through some emails from him.
Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud.
When I was a Nation intern, Christopher Hitchens was, by far, our group’s favorite writer for the magazine. Beyond being a spellbindingly brilliant orator and the most prolific and incisive writer any of us had ever seen, on a very basic level he treated us well and with respect.
Five years later he got me out of trouble in Cyprus after I’d crashed a rented car into a police Land Rover, telling the authorities I was “an influential American journalist”-a fib that not only gained my freedom but resulted in a free hotel room as well.
In one of the many jewels among his collection of essays, I was particularly moved by the stark image he painted of North Korea following a trip there in the nineties. Titled, “Visit to a Small Planet,” (an ironic homage to the Jerry Lewis film of the same name) he crafted a meticulous, insult laden assault on the late Kim Il Sung and his hapless, seemingly inbred progeny. He describes his visit to the U.S.S. Pueblo with a visceral, white hot anger, but then goes on to convey the shame he experienced for feeling hungry in a land filled with hopeless, starving peasants.
Afterward, I settled back into my seat and accidentally mistook his water for mine, immediately realizing he was actually drinking straight vodka. Mind you this was 10 AM. And if memory serves, after his cancer diagnosis.