The brief, sneering post below this one contains all I had hoped to say about Christopher Hitchens. But I woke up this morning to find that numerous websites had published yet more accolades -- including one from Stephen Fry, whom I used to admire.Understand one thing: If Hitchens had not supported Bush's wretched war, and if he had not aided the right's anti-Clinton jihad, the tributes to his wit and wisdom would have appeared in but a handful of ill-frequented online journals. So let's not pretend that this damburst of sentimental glop has anything to do with the man's wordsmithing abilities.
(Numerous eulogies have included a Hitchens quote in which he confesses that battling cancer can lead to solipsism. Since we're talking about a man who dated Anna Wintour, I must concede his expertise on the subject of solipsism.)
As a counterweight, I would like to present a Counter Punch article from June 15, 1999. The text made quite an impression on me at the time, even though the author is Alexander Cockburn, another famed lefty whom I find annoying. (Many thanks to Edgeofforever, a friend to this blog, for bringing this forgotten article to our attention.) This must not have been an easy piece for Cockburn to co-write, since his own Clinton Derangement Syndrome had reached a degree of pathology normally associated with Marvel supervillains. I publish it here, sans permission, because the original
has formatting problems which injure readability.
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Hitch the Snitch
by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair
“‘Okay,’ I said, giving him a chance to rationalize his snitching, which all informants have to do when they start out.”
-- J. Wambaugh, Blue Night
Many people go through life rehearsing a role they feel that the fates have in store for them, and we’ve long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss. Indeed an attempted physical embrace has often been part of the rehearsal. Many’s the time male friends have had to push Hitchens’ mouth, fragrant with martinis away, as, amid the welcomes and good-byes, he seeks their cheek or lips.
And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Hitchens has made the big time. On February 5, amid the embers of the impeachment trial, he trotted along to Congress and swore out an affidavit that he and his wife, Carol Blue, had lunch with White House aide Sidney Blumenthal last March 19 and that Blumenthal had described Monica Lewinsky as a stalker. Since Blumenthal had just claimed in his deposition to the House impeachment managers that he had no idea how this linking of the White House stalker stories had started, Hitchens’ affidavit was about as flat a statement as anyone could want that Blumenthal has perjured himself, thus exposing himself to a sentence of up to five years in prison. At the very least, Hitchens has probably cost Blumenthal about $100,000 in fresh legal expenses on top of the $200,000 tab he’s already facing. Some friend.
And we are indeed talking about friendship here. They’ve been pals for years and Hitchens has not been shy about trumpeting the fact. Last spring, when it looked as though Blumenthal was going to be subpoenaed by prosecutor Starr for his journalistic contacts, Hitchens blared his readiness to stand shoulder to shoulder with his comrade: “...together we have soldiered against the neoconservative ratbags,” Hitchens wrote in The Nation last spring. “Our life a deux has been, and remains an open book. Do your worst. Nothing will prevent me from gnawing a future bone at his table or, I trust, him from gnawing in return.” This was in an edition of The Nation dated March 30, 1998, a fact which means — given The Nation’s scheduling practices– that Hitchens just writing these loyal lines immediately before the lunch — Hitchens now says he thinks it was on March 17, at the Occidental Restaurant near the White House — whose conversational menu Hitchens would be sharing with these same neo-conservative, right-wing ratbags ten months later.
The surest way to get a secret into mass circulation is to tell it to Hitchens, swearing him to silence as one does so. His friends have known this for years. As a compulsive tattler and gossip Hitchens gets a frisson we’d guess to be quasi-sexual in psychological orientation out of the act of tattling or betrayal.
This brings us to Hitchens’ snitch psychology, and the years of psychic preparation that launched him into the affidavit against his friend Blumenthal. Like those who question themselves about the imagined future role — “would I really leap through fire to save my friend”, “would I stay silent if threatened with torture” — Hitchens has, we feel certain, brooded constantly about the conditions under which he might snitch, or inform. A good many years ago we were discussing the German Baader-Meinhof gang, some of whose members were on the run at the time. Hitchens, as is his wont, stirred himself into a grand little typhoon of moral outrage against the gang, whose reckless ultra-leftism was, he said, only doing good to the right. “If one of them came to my front door seeking shelter,” Hitchens cried, “I would call the police in an instant and turn him in!” Would you just, we remember thinking at the time. We’ve often thought about that outburst since, and whether in fact Christopher was at some level already in the snitch business.
Over the past couple of years the matter of George Orwell’s snitching has been a public issue. Orwell, in the dawn days of the cold war and not long before his own death, compiled a snitch list of Commies and fellow travelers and turned them over to Cynthia Kirwan, a woman for whom he’d had the hots and who worked for the British secret police. Now, Orwell is Hitchens’ idol, and he lost no time in defending Orwell’s snitch list in Vanity Fair and The Nation. Finally, Counter Punch co-editor Alexander Cockburn wrote a Nation column giving the anti-Orwell point of view, taking the line that the list was mostly idle gossip, patently racist and anti-Semitic,part and parcel of McCarthyism. Bottom line snitching to the secret police wouldn’t do. Hitchens seemed genuinely surprised by our basic position that snitching is a dirty business, to be shunned by all decent people.
Then, in the middle of last week, he snitched on Sidney. Why did he do it? We didn’t see him with Tim Russert on Meet The Press, but apparently he looked ratty, his physical demeanor not enhanced by a new beard. We have read the transcript where, as we anticipated, Hitchens says he simply couldn’t let the Clinton White House get away with denials that they had been in the business of slandering women dangerous to them, like Monica, or Kathleen Willey.
There were couple of moments of echt Hitchens. Unlike Blumenthal, Hitchens said, “I don’t have a lawyer.” Only Hitchens could charge someone with perjury and then sneer that the object of his accusations was contemptible for having a legal representative. And only Hitchens could publicly declare Blumenthal to have lied to Congress and then with his next breath affirm in a voice quivering with all the gallantry of loyal friendship that “I would rather be held in contempt of court” than to testify in any separate court action brought against Blumenthal.
Did Hitchens really think things through when he told the House impeachment people towards the end of last week he was willing to swear out an affidavit on the matter of the famous March lunch? Does he think that with this affidavit he “reverse the whole impeachment tide, bring Clinton down? Or is he, as Joan Bingham told Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post, merely trying to promote a forthcoming book? A woman who knows Hitchens well and who is inclined to forgive, has suggested that the booze has finally got to him and that his behavior exhibits all the symptoms of chronic alcoholism: an impulsive act, dramatically embarked upon and, in the aftermath, only vaguely apprehended by the perp.
It’s true, Hitchens does drink a staggering amount with, as all acquaintances will agree, a truly amazing capacity to pull himself together and declaim in a coherent manner while pint of alcohol and gallons of wine are coursing through his bloodstream. But he does indeed seem only vaguely to understand what he has done to Sidney. On Sunday February 7, he was telling one journalist that he still thought his friendship with Sidney could be saved. By Tuesday,he was filing a Nation column, once again reiterating his friendship for Blumenthal, intimating he’d done him a big favor, blaming Clinton for everything he, Hitchens, was doing to Blumenthal and concluding with a truly revolting whine of self-pity that the whole affair would probably end with he, Hitchens,being cited for contempt of court.
Perhaps more zealously than most, Hitchens has always liked to have it both ways, identifying himself as a man of the left while, in fact being ,as was his hero Orwell particularly towards the end of his life, a man of the right. “I dare say I’ll be cut and shunned,” he told the Washington Post and we had the sense of a halo being tried for size, with Hitchens measuring himself for martyrdom as the only leftist who can truly think through the moral consequences of Clintonism and take appropriate action.
But the problem is that even though Chris Buckley, also quoted by Lloyd Grove in the Washington Post, tried to dress up the affair with the historical dignity of return of the duel between Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers, this is a footnote to history, costly though the footnote will be costly to Blumenthal at least in lawyers’ fees. The worst price Hitchens will have to pay will be in terms of Georgetown party invitations. In Georgetown, as Buckley also told Grove in The Washington Post, it is “a tectonic event for our crowd.”
There is the final question: is Hitchens making it all up, about the March 17 lunch? Blumenthal says he has no recollection, and adds, as all agree, that there had already been hundreds of references in the press to Monica being a stalker, and he may just have repeated to Hitchens and Blue what he’d read in the papers. It was a month, remember, when the White House was being very careful in what it was saying about Monica because they were uncertain which way she would jump and didn’t want to piss her off. Joe Conason of The New York Observer, certainly an eager recipient of White House slants at the time, says he spoke to Blumenthal in that period and Blumenthal refused to talk about Lewinsky at all. It’s true, Hitchens can be a terrific fibber, but, short of willful misrepresentation, maybe, amidst his insensate hatred for Clinton he’s remembered the conversation the way he deems it to have taken place rather than the way it actually happened.In his own affidavit Hitchens did not say that Blumenthal had directly cited Clinton as describing Lewinsky as a stalker and on CNN he tagged only Blumenthal as describing Monica thus. Yet, in her affidavit, filed after her husband’s from the west coast where she has been staying, Carol Blue said that Blumenthal had indeed cited Clinton has describing Lewinsky as a stalker and also as crazy. It seems extraordinary that Hitchens and Blue couldn’t get their affidavits straight, and it seems that Blue’s affidavit was filed purely with the intention of further damaging Blumenthal–which indeed it has.
We think Hitchens has done something utterly despicable. It wasn’t so long ago that he was confiding to a Nation colleague, in solemn tones, that for him the most disgusting aspect of the White House’s overall disgusting behavior was “what they have done to my friend Sidney”. He’s probably still saying it. Hitchens always could cobble up a moral posture out of the most unpromising material. CP