When Hitchens Came to Chicago

I was never a fan of Christopher Hitchens’s writing. He was too deliberately querulous -- he once said he remembered his “first hate” more fondly than his “first love” -- and I found his fundamentalist atheism intellectually and emotionally shallow.

But Hitchens was that rare writer whose personality was bigger than his writing. In that way, he was in a class with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Hunter S. Thompson. And let me tell you, the man could party. I know, because I partied with him one night, 12 years ago here in Chicago.

Hitchens was in town to promote No One Left To Lie To, his attack on the Clinton Administration. It was 1999, one of the more peaceful, prosperous years in recent American history, and there wasn’t much for the contrarian left to sink its teeth into. Hitchens was, at the time, suggesting that Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo to dislodge the Serbs might make him liable for war crimes.

After the reading, there was a party at the home of Hitchens’s host, an acquaintance of mine. Hitchens showed up around 11 p.m., and began holding court in the back yard, talking, as I remember, largely about Kosovo. I didn’t catch a lot of the conversation, because I was in the kitchen, so what I really remember was Hitchens popping up every half-hour or so, heading for the refrigerator to retrieve another “cleansing ale.” I also remember he spent most of the night with his hand on the fanny of a University of Chicago graduate student.

The party lasted until 6:30 in the morning. So did Hitchens, who was 50 years old at the time. He was due in Madison, Wis., later that day, so he jumped in a car with a filmmaker who was making a documentary on his book tour for British television, and drove straight through the sunrise.

“We’ll get a good slumber when we arrive,” he said.

Hitchens’s anti-Clintonism helped build left-wing support for Ralph Nader, who undermined the campaign of Al Gore -- which was, of course, managed by Chicago’s own William Daley. Once Clinton’s protégé was defeated, Hitchens embraced the right wing, becoming an avid supporter of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq -- an invasion I marched against, on Devon Avenue, before it even started.

Hitchens returned to Chicago in 2005. Brian Nemtusak, a writer for the Chicago Reader, published an amusing account of that appearance, entitled “My Liquid Dinner With Hitch.”

Hitchens held forth on a wide range of topics, from Al Jazeera to AIDS to suicide bombers to the future of Cuba to his worst wishes regarding the convalescent pope. The institutional cowardice of the American press corps and the venerable tradition of crafting and fielding softballs was one recurring motif, so I lobbed one: “Is journalism in crisis?” “You know, that’s a good question,” replied Hitchens, “and I’m glad you asked it. We’re looking into these things, and these matters are certainly of great concern to all of us. We’re continuing to work on it, and I assure you that we’ll continue to do so in the future . . .”

Hitchens looked exhausted; his chair seemed to have scootched another six inches to the right. But he dove in gamely, with more patience, warmth, and wit than you’d expect from the belligerent caricature his recent columns for Slate and Vanity Fair might suggest he's become. Every writer has to deal with a disconnect between a whole living breathing idea and what ends up on the page, and for all his skills as a prose stylist, Hitchens's cheery enthusiasm for argument comes off way better in person. So, by the same token, does the actorly way he plays his shtick to the hilt--down to the smoking, drinking, and occasional bawdy remark.

I disagreed with Christopher Hitchens on just about everything. But on the page or off, the man was never boring.

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