From the start Christopher Hitchens had it—the voice, the distinctive voice that is the hallmark of a real writer and a bottom line for a columnist, which he was for The Nation, under the title “Minority Report,” from 1985 to October 14, 2002. His style, of course, was the man. It was a dry like good champagne, sharp, ironic, sometimes disheveled (as he might be on a hungover morning), occasionally opaque, cliché-avoiding, easily colloquial yet lightly erudite. He would occasionally, almost absent-mindedly, drop in a mild Britishism—a “whilst” here, a “racialism” there—which I altered to conform to Nation style. But that was about all I, anyway, ever did to his prose.
His columns seemed to arrive fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Actually, like most good writing, I suspect they did not come easily. I do know that when he first started working out of The Nation’s New York office, circa 1978, before moving to Washington, someone witnessed him in the throes of columnizing and was awed at the way he would start typing, rip out the page, ball it up, throw it on the floor and insert a new sheet, rip that out—and so on. By the time he had finished, the floor of his office was littered with balls of wadded paper.
Yet let it be said: Christopher was the complete professional, never missing a deadline and nearly always spot-on for length, though he sporadically grumbled that this particular overlong column must not be cut because It Was Highly Important.
His was truly a transatlantic voice, serviceable for skewering an international rogue’s gallery of politicians. His shots were fiercely partisan, precisely angled like a billiard shot, but the anger was controlled, even detached. When his anger overflowed on people or ideas he loathed (he was a good hater), he distilled it until it came out as gelid disdain. He took pride in always having the facts to back up his opinions, which never gave the impression of being shallow or glibly arrived at. His rare quarrels with editors were usually over fact-checking issues: not because he was sloppy but because he was so sure his facts were right. Yes, some were substantive (i.e., political) clashes, as when in one of his contrarian or perverse modes he decided to come out against abortion (“Minority Report,” April 23, 1989), or his demands that Clinton be impeached. He could be flat out stubborn. And he could be wrong—that was his right as a columnist—to dare to be wrong, and he did so, sometimes I think with private chuckles at the rest of us.
I take it as res ipsa loqitur (look at him—channeling Hitchensesque erudition) that he was soundly educated. But he wore his erudition lightly and used it practically, a storehouse to draw upon. He seemed to have read everything and remembered most of it.
Sarcasm and invective were prominent weapons in his armamentarium, of course, kept well oiled, ready to fire off against fools on both left and right. He was not particularly humorous, though some found him funny; irony was his most congenial mode. In one of the three columns he wrote attacking President William Jefferson Clinton for unleashing Tomahawk missiles on the shambolic Somalis (hitting, as it turned out, a pharmaceutical plant that made life-saving drugs), he addressed those who might dare think it “ironic and cynical” to compare Clinton’s act to the movie Wag the Dog: “But irony and cynicism, as people have an interest in forgetting, are not mere mannerisms, or ‘coping skills’ for dealing with the postmodern. They originate in hard-won and dearly bought experience.” (“The Clinton–Douglas Debates,” November 16, 1998).