Hitchens: Journalism's British Bad Boy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999; Page C1
The cabdriver wants to clarify the destination. "Reagan Airport?" he asks.
"No," Christopher Hitchens says. "National."
Perfect! Only Hitchens would think to make a political point while giving directions to a cabbie. He can't help it: He dislikes Ronald Reagan almost as much as he detests Bill Clinton and besides, he's a professional iconoclast. At 49, he has spent the last three decades slicing up sacred cows, first in his native England and, since 1982, in Washington. In a half-dozen books and countless magazine articles and TV appearances, Hitchens has taken on targets nobody else would touch. When Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died in the same week in 1997, TV producers looking for balance scrambled for somebody who'd attack the dearly departed on the air. Hitchens obliged, with brio.
"Is this a no-smoking cab?" he asks the driver.
"Yes," the cabbie says.
Hitchens sighs. He is a man who prefers to go through life with a cigarette in one hand and a good stiff drink in the other. And now he's stuck in a cab with only a bottle of water to sustain him. Sipping from the bottle, he looks beat -- although not quite as beat as he did on "Meet the Press" two days earlier. On TV, he looked like a man who'd arrived at the studio after a Saturday night of serious drinking -- which was exactly what happened.
Hitchens went on the show to explain why he'd given House impeachment managers an affidavit that contradicted the sworn testimony of his old friend, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. The affidavit sparked a huge media flapdoodle about friendship and loyalty and betrayal, but Hitchens says that, as far as he's concerned, he and Blumenthal are still friends.
"He's a real charming, real funny guy," he says, "except when he's talking about Clinton."
Which is precisely what people say about Hitchens. They say he's brilliant, learned, witty, charming -- just the guy you'd want to enliven a dinner party. But when he gets going about Clinton, he gets strident, nasty and, ultimately, boring -- ranting about how Clinton's a liar who's willing to bomb people in small countries to deflect attention from his pathetic sex scandals.
Now the cab pulls up at the airport and Hitchens hustles toward USAirways' New York shuttle. He's desperate to catch the next one so he can get to Elaine's, the famous Manhattan literary watering hole, where he's supposed to have dinner with Graydon Carter, his editor at Vanity Fair magazine. And he'd like to call ahead so Vanity Fair can send a limo to pick him up at the airport. But the clerk at the ticket counter is new and she's fumbling around.
"I'm imploring you, ma'am," he says in his mellifluous British accent, "I have to get on the plane and I have to make a phone call."
She gives him his ticket and he scurries toward the plane, wheezing under the weight of two pieces of luggage. "In addition to being a socialist and an atheist, I'm a libertarian," he says. It was these absurd airline security procedures that made him a libertarian, he explains: Why should you have to show a photo ID to get on a plane? A terrorist can get a photo ID. It's a topic he aired at some comic length in his column in Vanity Fair. "The penalty for getting mugged in an American city and losing your ID," he grumbles, "is that you can't fly home."
He finds a phone, calls Vanity Fair to arrange for his limo, then climbs on the plane. As he sits down, a flight attendant offers him a copy of the airline's daily news summary. He doesn't want it, but he asks her what's the latest news.
"Clinton is still in trouble," she says.
"That's not what I heard," he replies, "but I did my level best."
The Vicious Circle
While Hitchens flies toward Manhattan, e-mail messages of gossip about him are being furiously forwarded and re-forwarded across at least two continents.
This Hitchens-Blumenthal brouhaha is a very big story among a very small group of people. But they are the important -- not to mention self -important -- people who inhabit a rarefied world where the top pols and bureaucrats sup with the media and literary elite at exclusive dinner parties. It's a cozy little club of confidential sources and off-the-record confidences, and both Hitchens and Blumenthal are members. They were both left-wing intellectual journalists until Blumenthal became a Clinton courtier and Hitchens a Clinton basher.
After that, according to the unwritten rules of this club, it was perfectly all right for Hitchens to bash Blumenthal in print. These people attack one another all the time, and then sit down and laugh about it over a drink or three. But to file an affidavit that could at least theoretically be used to prosecute Blumenthal for perjury -- that was shocking! It is as if a professional wrestler who'd been pretending to pummel his fake enemy with a fake chair actually grabbed a real chair and started really whacking the guy. It's just not done.
"I think it was despicable," says John Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic.
"I think what he did was despicable," says author Edward Epstein.
"I think Christopher has done something despicable," Alexander Cockburn wrote in the New York Press. Cockburn, who is an old friend of Hitchens from Merry Olde England, also called him "a Judas and a snitch" and a "compulsive tattler and gossip."
And those are just the on-the-record comments. The off-the-record comments are even nastier. And the e-mails are filled with gossip about Hitchens's divorce and his drinking habits and outrageous things he supposedly said over drinks years ago. This crowd plays rough.
Hitchens orders a Bloody Mary mix -- no booze -- and defends his actions. He didn't go to the House impeachment managers, he stresses, they came to him. They asked him to confirm a story that he'd already written -- that Blumenthal had told him over lunch last March that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker.
"I was asked to stick to a story I knew to be true or dump it," he says. "I could call myself a liar or stick to the story."
He gave the affidavit only for use against Clinton -- not against Blumenthal, he says. And he will refuse to testify if Blumenthal is charged with perjury -- even if he has to go to jail for contempt of court. His wife, Carol Blue, who also filed an affidavit, will also refuse to testify.
"If they don't convict Clinton and they go after Sidney and me, I'll have to change my views about the United States," he says. Then, realizing that he's sounding a little grandiloquent, he smiles. "There's a salvo from the empty-threats department."
Pouring It On
In "Face Time" -- the hot new Washington novel written by former Clinton speechwriter Erik Tarloff -- there's a seedy, cynical British journalist who uncovers a White House sex scandal. His name is Christopher Partridge and in one scene somebody accidentally spills a drink on his jacket. He doesn't mind.
"I'll just give the dinner jacket a good suck when I get home," he says.
For some reason, several reviewers thought that Christopher Partridge might be modeled after Christopher Hitchens. Perish the thought.
"He's sort of a composite," says Tarloff, who is a friend of Hitchens. "Hitch is in there but so is Martin Walker and Andrew Cockburn. There's a type -- the British journalist in Washington. They're usually well educated, usually Oxbridge, from the upper middle class or better but affecting a seedy or raffish quality and fairly cynical about American politics."
That's a pretty good description of Hitchens, except for the part about class. He doesn't come from money. His father was a career naval officer and the family scrimped and saved to send him to a private boarding school. In his book "Prepared for the Worst," he recalls hearing his mother explaining why money had to be found to send him there: "If there's going to be an upper class in this country," she told his father, "then Christopher is going to be in it."
Years later, long after his mother died, Hitchens learned that she had come from a Jewish family that had hidden its religion for generations. In England, her family name was Dale. Back in Poland, it had been . . . Blumenthal.
Hitchens went to Oxford in the late '60s -- the same time Clinton was there, although the two never met. A radical socialist, he was active in the anti-war movement. After graduating, he got a scholarship to travel in the United States. He loved it.
"I thought then that if I could find a legal way to stay, I would," he says. "The fact is: It's true what they say about the United States. It is a land of opportunity. It is too various to get bored with it. And if you have a journalistic mentality, there are so many places to work for."
In the early '80s, he moved to New York to work for the Nation and later he became that left-liberal magazine's Washington correspondent. Over the years he's written for almost every magazine in America and England. He married -- first a Cypriot named Eleni Meleagrou, then Blue, an American -- and fathered three children.
Along the way he became legendary for the witty, biting prose he could bang out effortlessly, even after consuming enough hooch to put American reporters into a coma.
"You can go out to lunch with him and have a few drinks, and then you're leaving and he'll say he's going to the men's room, which I guess is code for having another drink," says Victor Navasky, publisher of the Nation, "and then he'll come back to the office and in 10 minutes write a first draft of exquisitely elegant prose."
Over the years, Hitchens has used his pen like a scalpel to eviscerate targets ranging from Reagan and George Bush to Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Lately, though, he has fired most of his polemical volleys at Clinton.
"Clinton's State of the Union was more than ever like one of those orations to the twenty-ninth All-Union Congress in some sweltering People's Democracy," he wrote recently. ". . . the stage-managed address from the podium; the toadies waiting to count the number of standing ovations; the presentation of heroes and martyrs; the tribute to the Heroic Spouse; the 'prolonged and stormy applause' carried on all networks . . . "
Too Much Hate?
He climbs out of the limo and drags his bags into Elaine's. He plops down on a bar stool and orders a Johnnie Walker Black.
"Well, you're the talk of the tabloids," the bartender says. "Good for you!"
"Say that again," Hitchens says. "I like hearing that."
"Good for you," the bartender says.
At least the bartenders are still in Hitchens's corner.
He takes a sip and jokes about his drinking. "It's a master-servant relationship," he says, smiling. "I'll leave it to you which is which."
In walks Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, and another Hitchens buddy, Brian McNally, a Brit who runs a restaurant in Manhattan. They take a table and Carter starts needling Hitchens about how bad he looked on "Meet the Press."
Carter tells a story. One day, he was in 21 with Hitchens, who as usual wasn't wearing a tie. The maitre d' gave him a big thick ugly red tie to wear. "I'm looking at 'Crossfire' four days later," Carter says, "and he's wearing the same tie."
"I'm not a clotheshorse," Hitchens admits dryly.
Carter says he supports his columnist's stance in the Blumenthal affair. "It's Christopher being Christopher," he says. "In a city of yes men and people who follow the party line, you need people like Christopher."
They have a few drinks, then order dinner and wine. The joint is packed with people celebrating Elaine's 70th birthday and it's so noisy you can barely talk. Hitchens orders a double espresso and then at 10:30, he excuses himself to go to his hotel room to work.
"That's the first time I've ever seen him leave this early," McNally says.
McNally has known Hitchens since the '70s and he's feeling a little protective of him these days. He worries that his buddy might be in big trouble. And that people might believe him to be disloyal to friends.
"He's a very good friend," he says. "He's very caring. He has a good heart."
Hitchens's current troubles stem from his hatred of Clinton, McNally says the next day. "I think it's clouded his judgment, I really do. I've never seen him hate anybody like he hates Clinton."
McNally sounds sad. "The moral of this is you can hate too much," he says. "Beware of too much hatred."
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