February 2, 2012


Press Man: Why They Wept for Hitchens (Andrew Ferguson -- February 2012, Commentary)

As I say, I'm not so sure that Hitchens would have welcomed a hit-obit directed at himself, though I think he would have been pleased if everyone else believed he was the sort of person who would welcome it, in an amused, all's-fair spirit. In the event, no hit-obit of any consequence appeared. What he got instead from the world of mainstream journalism was an outpouring of love and praise that was staggering in its dimensions. The fabled jadedness of the wizened American journalist disappears at the oddest times. Certain details and themes recurred in the graveyard prose: the heroic drinking, for example, and the astounding productivity, and the unlikelihood that the drinking and productivity should be found in the same person. His bravery at his life's end was noted, and his expansive, seemingly indiscriminate gift for friendship.

And then, as always in gushers like this, there were the failures of taste and tone. Andrew Sullivan, a well-known blogger, reprinted a New York magazine story about his arrival at a Hitchens party: Sullivan, the magazine reported, "greeted [the host] with a hug and a kiss. 'I want tongue. Give me tongue,' Hitchens implored, to no avail." Sullivan offered his readers this story through "suddenly unstoppable tears." It was left to other journalists to give Hitchens, at least in words, what Sullivan had so cruelly denied him in fact. "He was a wild and beautiful boy," wrote the left-wing activist Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. "The thirty or so years that we were friends are studded..." etc.

Her 30 years beats my 25, which I hope you remember from this column's opening line. Mayer's piece and the other tributes demonstrated that mawkish self-flattery is unavoidable among journalists when they compete to advertise their intimacy with the famous. I wish I kept a list of everyone who modestly admitted they "didn't know Hitch well" but nonetheless recalled an encounter with him in which he recognized, with mystical discernment, their soul-deep connection. ("I had passed the only test that mattered to him," wrote one editor...)

Most unexpected of all, at least by me, was the overpraise for Hitchens's habits of mind, and for his politics, which supposedly placed him courageously at odds with the establishment. "He offered a model of how to think," wrote one grief-stricken acquaintance. The PBS historian Simon Schama mourned the "unfillable space where his prose rocked and rolled in face of the demure, the hypocritical, and the ignorantly self-important."

Such excess obscures the most obvious conclusion we can draw from Hitchens's politics, which is that he was a crank. In the early 1980s he was convinced that the Reagan administration had colluded in the Soviet Union's downing of the airliner KAL 007. A few years later he was a vigorous promoter of the "Secret Team" theory that fit the Iran-contra scandal into a world-girding conspiracy of international bankers and private militias. A handful of memorialists dismissed his hatred of Bill Clinton as a lapse in judgment, but maybe you had to be there to see how unhinged it was: He really did believe that Clinton had been an accessory to the murder of a pair of hillbillies back in Arkansas. And the Queen, that "whore," was almost as evil as the Albanian dwarf. 

Posted by at February 2, 2012 6:42 AM

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