By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.
By now, Christopher Hitchens, who has died from esophageal cancer after weeks of radiation treatment at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, will know whether there is or is not a God. If there is an after-life, we can expect Hitch to arrive in combative mood. His strident atheism, like many of the views that contributed to his reputation as America’s most gifted polemicist, was in its way a peculiar act of faith.
Hitch was paradoxical to the end. In his final piece for Vanity Fair, the magazine that brought out the best of his artful argumentative style matched to his almost flippant name-dropping erudition, he confessed, between searing pain and narcotic oblivion, to wanting “to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense.” It left some wondering whether he was sharpening his wits to meet God on the other side.
But then Christopher liked to have everything both ways. A bisexual, he enjoyed putting his liberal men friends to the test by kissing them smack on the lips in front of their wives. He lived half his life as a proud and passionate man of the Left before, in middle age, flipping to what he had until then reviled as the dark side of the political spectrum. He was above all, perhaps, an attention seeker, a born contrarian who desperately wanted to become a professional controversialist. In that, he spectacularly succeeded.
But his route to stardom was often at the expense of those who befriended him or had done him enormous favors. It was with great sadness, but little surprise, that friends of Anthony Howard, the distinguished editor of The New Statesman who gave Hitch his first and most important breaks as a writer, read Christopher’s sour demolition of his old and generous mentor, whom he ridiculed for, of all things, his mundane prose style. The intention, it seems, was no more than to take a prominent leftist scalp while showing he owed his success to no one.
A similar treachery was inflicted upon his pal Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist and Clinton presidential aide who had inspired so many of Hitch’s scoops. Christopher became close to the Blumenthals, attended the bar mitzvah of their son, and, when he belatedly discovered he was himself Jewish, claimed his true name was Blumenthal and that they were now cousins. Anxious to show his independence while trying to deliver a mortal blow to a president facing impeachment, Hitch felt he had been misled by Blumenthal and betrayed his source, leaving Blumenthal facing a jail sentence and landing him with a hefty legal bill. A bid by Blumenthal at a death-bed reconciliation with Hitch was rebuffed.