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.