A Hitch in Time
‘The real problem,’ the LRB’s lawyer told the paper in 1990,
comes with Christopher Hitchens’s opinions about [Conrad] Black – that he is a mad, tyrannical egoist, a sinister eccentric, a megalomaniac … a defence of ‘fair comment’ can be set aside if Mr Black can show that Mr Hitchens was motivated by ‘malice’ when making his attack. All Mr Black would have to do would be to show that Christopher Hitchens had an ulterior motive for his attack. It is transparently obvious that Mr Hitchens does have such a motive and I believe a defence of ‘fair comment’ may well fail for this reason.
At a public event many years later, Hitchens said that one of his main reasons for leaving London for Washington DC in the early 1980s had been British libel law, which ‘makes journalism almost impossible … The person bringing a lawsuit in Britain (many of them tried it on me when I was there) has only to prove their reputation has been damaged or that their feelings have been hurt. They don’t have to prove what I say is not true … it’s a secular form of a blasphemy law.’
Not that moving to the US helped much. In 1999, Hitchens and his publisher, Verso, were sued by the Democratic Party consultant Michael Copperthite for an unfounded assertion in Hitchens’s takedown of Bill Clinton, No One Left to Lie To. By 2001, the shoe was on the other foot: after Henry Kissinger responded to Hitchens’s denunciation of him (‘So studiedly defamatory that if Kissinger values his reputation, he really must sue,’ in the words of the Literary Review) by claiming Hitchens was a Holocaust denier, Hitchens told the New York Post this was ‘false, malicious and defamatory, and if he says it again, we will proceed against him in court’.
A Hitch in Time, a new collection of Hitchens’s previously unanthologised pieces for the LRB, will be published by Atlantic Books on Thursday (you can order it from the London Review Bookshop now). In his writing for the paper he kept an eye on his most ghoulish compatriots – Diana Mosley was the ‘worst and not the least bright of the “Bright Young Things”: with a vile mind and a gorgeous carapace, and with a maddening class confidence allied to a tiny, repetitive tic of fanaticism’ – but the sharpest spikes in the index come after four American names: Clinton, William ‘Bill’; Kissinger, Henry; Nixon, Richard; and, out in front if you count Joe, Bobby and Jackie O. too, Kennedy.
Some of the pieces in A Hitch in Time are followed by the letters to the editor they provoked. In a review of several books on ‘donkey business in the White House’, starring the full gang of four from the index, Hitchens described Arthur Schlesinger Jr as the author of ‘the founding breviary of the cult of JFK’. (In an earlier piece on Kissinger, Hitchens had referred to Schlesinger’s ‘wet smackeroos to the buttocks of the powerful’.)
‘Hitchens goes on about “the sick Kennedy obsession with Cuba”,’ Schlesinger replied. ‘Let us rather mourn a really sick obsession – Christopher Hitchens’s obsession with John F. Kennedy.’ Hitchens, in response, wrote of ‘the mania of the JFK cult, and the imperviousness of its remaining devotees’. A fortnight later, the novelist and journalist Mervyn Jones wrote in to say that Schlesinger had claimed, at a conference hosted by Kissinger where he was also in attendance, that the US ‘was in no way involved’ in the Bay of Pigs invasion. ‘The next time Mervyn Jones goes around attributing statements allegedly made nearly forty years ago, he should try to make them credible,’ Schlesinger retorted in the following issue. A month later, Hitchens steamed in with the last word:
Arthur Schlesinger insists that neither he nor Henry Kissinger has ‘any recollection’ of that evening at the Harvard International Seminar. How I wish I could have overheard the ponderous discussion during which these two men, both congested by a lifetime of apologetics, agreed on this now classic line of defence. ‘Statements allegedly made nearly forty years ago’ cannot be expected to be remembered by such busy fellows, who are not too busy to recall with crystalline clarity that they would certainly have denied making them. So it goes. I sympathise with Schlesinger almost as much as with Mervyn Jones in this instance, because the task of keeping pace with his own protean story is indeed a daunting one.
So it goes. Hitchens’s unwaveringly energetic focus on the prevarications and hypocrisies of supposedly great men (not to mention Mother Teresa), and supposedly progressive great men in particular, remains one of the best reasons to read him, ten years on from his death: at the heart of A Hitch in Time is a 13,000-word demolition of Isaiah Berlin.
But when it comes to Kennedy, Schlesinger may have been onto something. The surprisingly solitary reference to JFK in the index of Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22 takes us to a revealing episode from his schooldays, the origin of – let’s call it his lifelong preoccupation, rather than a sick obsession. ‘In my very first term, in October 1962,’ he writes,
President Kennedy went to the brink, as the saying invariably goes, over Cuba. I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me. (It was on the touchline, being forced to watch a rugby game, that I overheard some older boys discussing the likelihood of our annihilation.) … We were left to wonder how the adult world could be ready to gamble itself, and the life of all the subsequent and for that matter preceding generations, on a sordid squabble over a banana republic … I have changed my mind on a number of things since, including almost everything to do with Cuba, but the idea that we should be grateful for having been spared, and should shower our gratitude upon the supposed Galahad of Camelot for his gracious lenience in opting not to commit genocide and suicide, seemed a bit creepy. When Kennedy was shot the following year, I knew myself somewhat apart from this supposedly generational trauma in that I felt no particular sense of loss at the passing of such a high-risk narcissist. If I registered any distinct emotion, it was that of mild relief.
Reading that today, on the 58th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I wonder how I’ll feel about the compromises on climate policy of the last two decades, and the politicians most responsible for them, for the rest of my life; and I think I start to understand Hitchens better than I did before.