Although we obviously had our differences, I was pleased to see that the vast majority of the well-deserved establishment kudos that our friend Christopher Hitchens received after he died were not inconsistent with Christopher Buckley’s assessment that Hitchens was “the greatest living essayist in the English language.”
That being the case, and discounting the fact that some of the appreciations were reflexive obituary superlatives, I couldn’t help remembering that during the two decades Christopher was writing his “Minority Report” column for The Nation, his literary gifts went remarkably unremarked by the mainstream (I do not include in this indictment Buckley, a longtime admirer of Hitchens’s prose). Despite Christopher’s graduation (or dropout, depending on how you see it) from The Nation, I suspect he would have appreciated the irony and seen it as a comment on the establishment press as much as on himself.
In the shadow of the above, and lest I be accused of obituary sentimentality, forgive me for quoting what I wrote about Christopher and The Nation some years ago in my book A Matter of Opinion:
I came to The Nation in 1978, and in those years we couldn’t afford to import overseas talent, but we could try something else. So on July 23, 1980, I wrote to Bruce Page, then editor of Britain’s New Statesman, with a modest proposal: the first international editors’ exchange in history. But the background to this began soon after I got to The Nation.
I had first met Christopher Hitchens through his elegant New Statesman pieces on the Middle East, but also, it seemed, everywhere else. If he was traveling the world anyway, why not write an occasional article for us, I asked via old-fashioned snail mail. And he did, to everyone’s satisfaction. And then one day around 5 pm a dimpled, five-o’clock-shadowed face peered through my half-open door surrounded by a haze of smoke. “Drink?” asked the deep, richly accented baritone voice that accompanied all of the above. If it is possible in one word to convey an upper-class sensibility attached to a heart ostentatiously identified with the toiling masses, Christopher Hitchens, whom I had been looking forward to meeting, succeeded.
We repaired with some comrades, as he liked to call all who partook of his charismatic company, to the Lion’s Head, our local pub, where we indeed had a drink or three, and this was the beginning of a twenty-five-year adventure that I hope was as rewarding for him as it was for the magazine, despite (and sometimes because of) the occasional political collision.
By the time I wrote to Page, Christopher had contributed four timely articles in which only his English spelling had to be changed, and Kai Bird, his editor, who had been working eighteen-hour days while commuting from Princeton, where his wife was studying international economics, was ripe for a new assignment. So my idea was that we exchange one Nation editor (Kai) for one New Statesman editor (Christopher) for a period of three to six months, commencing January 1981; that Hitchens stay on the New Statesman payroll and Bird stay on our payroll for the duration of the exchange, thus obviating the need to deal with guilds, unions, border patrols, green cards, immigration authorities and bureaucracies; and that during this period Hitchens and Bird take on, to the best of their abilities, each other’s obligations, rights and duties for their respective journals.
In my letter to Page, I took the precaution of listing the potential perils of such an undertaking: “What happens if one or the other of the exchangees defaults, defects, alienates or otherwise finds the new environment unorganized, the new responsibilities overwhelming, boring or whatever. What happens if in your/my judgment X can’t do Y’s job? “My feelings about that,” I wrote, “are that if they are willing to take the risk, we ought to be.”
I proposed that we envision the exchange as a three-month experiment, with the mutual option to renew for a second three months, contingent on the agreement of all four parties. I was sure there were 1,001 obstacles (insurance, carfare, living space, the fact that Kai was then primarily an editor whereas Christopher seemed primarily a writer, not to mention unfamiliarity with the other country’s writers, culture, etc.), but it seemed to me that the accident of two relatively footloose transatlantic peers with their extraordinary talent and apparent adaptability made it possible. What did Page think? If it is a wild, crazy or otherwise impractical idea, “have no hesitation in telling me to go away,” I wrote. Finally, because I had the advantage of having met, liked and published Hitchens, whereas to Page, Kai was an unknown quantity, I added by way of assurance that “Kai is well-read, well-informed, something of an expert on the Middle East, a gifted editor, and a pleasure to work with (come to think of it, probably much more of a pleasure than Hitchens, who strikes me as a trouble-maker). He also is frugal, cheerful, thrifty, brave and loyal.” Bruce said yes.
Christopher demonstrated that it was possible to down his share of lunchtime martinis, supplemented by however many glasses of red wine, return to the office and, in fifteen to twenty minutes, write an elegant 250-word unsigned editorial to space, not one word of which had to be altered.
In March 1981 we renewed the three-month experiment for a second three months, by the end of which it was apparent that Christopher was ready to defect to The Nation. Our first idea was to have him do a “Marxist covers Wall Street” series of articles. Christopher was not averse (in fact, he liked the idea, especially if the apprenticeship came with a Wall Street salary); but he kept telling us that economics was not his forte, and so eventually he ended up writing a biweekly “Minority Report” column from Washington.
Although he wrote some of his best (i.e., my favorite) pieces for other publications (I include among these his essay on discovering that his mother, and therefore he, was Jewish, for Grand Street, where he memorably wrote, “On hearing the tidings, I was pleased to find I was pleased”; and his essay in defense of smoking and drinking for the London Review of Books, called “On Fags and Booze”), and although we had our later differences over what I regarded as his obsession with President Bill Clinton’s alleged public and private derelictions and the nexus between them; over his willingness to testify before the House Judiciary Committee as to private conversations with his friend the then–White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, concerning what Sidney had or hadn’t said about Monica Lewinsky being a stalker (I wrote an editorial about that); and over President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and invasion of Iraq, which Christopher supported before, during and after, I much regretted his resignation in the fall of 2002 over The Nation’s position on what he regarded as one of the great moral issues of the day, the Iraq War.
His “Minority Report” had been well named, and The Nation benefited from having literate, informed and original second-, third- and fourth-guessings of Christopher’s sort in its pages. In the early days, it seemed to me, Christopher would have welcomed the argument. In the end, he chose to walk out on it.