ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
After September 11, 2001, many writers and intellectuals offered their prescriptions for how the U.S. should respond. Prominent among them was the British writer Christopher Hitchens, who has lived and worked in the US for a better part of two decades. As a one time columnist for the Nation, Hitchens byline used to be synonymous with the political left. But, since September 11, he has surprised many with his support for the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
As Guy Raz found out, it is a journey that has cost Hitchens friends and allies.
GUY RAZ reporting:
Christopher Hitchens is already waiting at the bar when I arrive. A packet of Rothman cigarettes bulges from his shirt pocket, an auburn glass of Scotch nearly empty when he orders another.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (British Writer): That's the Johnnie Walker black. He knows.
RAZ: During this four hour lunch, Hitchens will easily consume four double Scotches, three glasses of Merlot and sixteen cigarettes.
Mr. HITCHENS: I find that it helps me to concentrate. I sometimes use it, because it has a paradoxical effect with me of keeping me awake.
RAZ: His taste for cigarettes and alcohol has very little effect on his general disposition. It's as if they fertilize his brain, which then produces a prodigious literary harvest. Among his many books and pamphlets, he's written on George Orwell, Marcel Proust, Thomas Jefferson and others. But he's best known for focusing his unforgiving pen on the likes of Henry Kissinger.
Mr. HITCHENS: War criminal, liar without conscience, pseudo-academic, pseudo-scholar, pitiless sponsor or dictators abroad.
RAZ: Mother Theresa.
Mr. HITCHENS: Friend of poverty, enemy of the poor, fundamentalist, fanatic.
RAZ: And, Bill Clinton.
Mr. HITCHENS: A man in politics for therapy who wasted eight years of America's time.
RAZ: There are few subjects on which Hitchens has not written, from Cyprus to Jorge Luis Borges to teen pop idols like Hillary Duff.
Mr. HITCHENS: She seems to have gone into a slight eclipse lately, Ms. Duff.
RAZ: And despite the mountain of copy he's produced, his prose usually sparkles or infuriates or both. And though he objects to the description, he is often called a contrarian.
Mr. HITCHENS: I can see that I've come by this reputation. I deserve it.
RAZ: Now, for most of his adult life, Hitchens was the designated hitter of the far left. He waved the red flag of international socialism. He railed against Reagan era policy in Central America. And in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War, he delivered this commentary on NPR.
Mr. HITCHENS: The evident misery and confusion that prevail in Iraq today may possibly result in second thoughts about the policy of addressing a whole society through the medium of an air war.
RAZ: But if you've listened to or read Hitchens since September 11, 2001, you'd probably hear him saying something like this.
Mr. HITCHENS: We now know we're at war, too. And so do they. And they will pay and pay and pay for it. They will rue the day that they decided to challenge civilization and democracy and attempt to replace it with theocracy and barbarism.
RAZ: It's a view that's made Hitchens a much reviled figure among left winged opponents of the war and the group he frequently encounters in public.
(Soundbite of recorded debate)
Mr. HITCHENS: That's not coming out of my time. If you knew how you looked and sounded comrades when you do that.
RAZ: Last fall, Hitchens debated British member of Parliament and anti-war agitator George Galloway. After a few minutes of praise for the Hitchens of the old days, Galloway turned to the audience and said -
Mr. GEORGE GALLOWAY (British Parliament): What you have witnessed since is something unique in natural history, the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug.
(Soundbite of cheers)
RAZ: This is the way many of Hitchens old comrades on the left would define his political journey and today he is no longer on speaking terms with many of them. The pantheon of the living and dead left intellectuals in America, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Edward Said and others, all found themselves in strident disagreement with their former ally.
Mr. HITCHENS: It came to a point where it wasn't a difference of emphasis. I mean it was real difference of principle. I thought the United States should be defended from nihilistic Islamism and they thought it should be criticized for it and that it had brought it on itself and that's not a difference you can split. I don't want split differences anyway.
RAZ: The difference though, is personal, perhaps even painful, and it could explain why none of Hitchens former fellow travelers contacted for this story were interested in revisiting the break.
Mr. HITCHENS: I stopped writing as if to persuade the left that it was wrong. A little while ago now. And in more recent years, where the left appears to have taken very decidedly the other view about the war against theocratic terrorism. In other words, theocratic terrorism is in some way justified or understandable, that it has a progressive pulse. All right, if that's the left, then I have to say that I am not part of it anymore. I have to repudiate it.
RAZ: What is your defense of the invasion of Iraq? And why do you still stick to that position?
Mr. HITCHENS: The Saddam Hussein regime was incompatible by definition with International law. It should have been taken out in 1991. We are paying the consequences of that failure, not of the belated decision to remove it.
RAZ: Isn't it fair to say that we opened a can of worms in that part of the world that may have best been left alone?
Mr. HITCHENS: It's certainly safe to say that a can of worms existed.
RAZ: It may take us 20 or 30 or 40 years to see the results of this. Is it worth it?
Mr. HITCHENS: If I represent anything in everyday political argument or ordinary quotidian debate, on the campus or in the press, it is the view that one must have a sense of history. Yes, this is an appointment with history for us. And is not one that we can evade.
RAZ: Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue, live in an airy apartment in a fashionable part of Washington. This city has been home since 1982 for him. It's a balmy summer day and Hitchens's 12 year old daughter, Antonia, is enjoying her break from school.
Mr. HITCHENS: Were you introduced to Antonia Hitchens?
RAZ: The house is a bit crowded with the three of them at home. Hitchens is under some pressure to finish revisions on his forthcoming book.
Mr. HITCHENS: Antonia, I know you're busy, but your clock radio is making the most amazing noise. It's as if it's trying to break itself apart.
Ms. ANTONIA HITCHENS (Christopher's daughter): I'll fix it later.
Mr. HITCHENS: Well, it's very near my study.
Ms. CAROL BLUE (Hitchens's Wife): Christopher has an opinion about everything.
RAZ: Hitchens's wife, Carol Blue.
Ms. BLUE: It doesn't stop with the lofty issues of the day.
RAZ: Hitchens pours himself a drink and lights a cigarette and sets fingers to the keyboard at his desk. He's taking on religion right now, a book tentatively titled God is Not Great.
Just before I leave one afternoon, Hitchens's daughter Antonia tells me she'd like to take part in cheerleading camp this summer. I ask Hitchens if, as a young Englishmen in the 1970s, he might had envisioned the day when his child would take part in that all American activity.
Hitchens takes a drag on his cigarette. He thinks for a moment. He smiles and he says nothing. Just this once, Christopher Hitchens has no reply.
Guy Raz, NPR News, in Washington.
SIEGEL: Guy Raz has also written an essay about Christopher Hitchens, his evolution and his place in history, and you can find that essay at NPR.org.
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