David Corn: What Happened When Hitchens and I Shared a Tiny Office

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 11:54 AM

Hitchens and I Shared an Office

A very small, windowless office. Here’s what I learned about him.

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“Oh, yes, of course.” And as soon as she had departed, he’d open his desk, rummage through a drawer, and pull out an 800-page biography of the British prime minister. It was clear to me that the book had yet to be opened. He’d tuck the volume into his bag and say goodnight.

By this point in the day, I knew all his plans for the evening, including the 11-ish rendezvous for cocktails. I wondered how he would be able to read this book and write a review by the next morning. But come the following day—after the calls about the previous night and the calls about the lunch to come had started—he’d trundle into the office, Pochoda would show up, and he’d hand her a 1,500-word essay. And it was—you know the punch line—brilliant. Did I mention this was in the days before computers? Next, it was off to lunch.

I did learn much from Hitchens, but never how to function in quite this manner. What allowed him to live such a packed life was a trait that any of us would relish: He never forgot what he had ever read or learned. His mind was always expanding. That was a natural gift that few of us possess. He could not teach it. But observing Hitchens practice his craft and thrust and parry with intellectuals almost as sharp as him was as valuable an experience as I could have imagined. It sure beat attending J-school. And I much appreciated his sense of social egalitarianism. I found that few journalists of his stature paid much serious attention to the young wannabes nearby. I recall one particular moment, at some social/literary event, when I heard him utter what at the time seemed to be these improbable words, “Carly, you do know David Corn, don’t you?” (It was that Carly.) She, of course, didn’t. Hitchens, as a journalist and as a colleague, was inspiring.

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In later years, Hitchens and I had our differences. I was not heartened when he provided left-of-center and intellectual cover to the impeachment crusade waged by extremist radicals of the right in the 1990s. And we had words over his support for the Iraq War—including within the pixels of Slate. I wish I could forget the time, a few months into the war, when he assured me, “Wolfowitz has the rats on the run and this will all be over soon.”

Yet policy and political debates, as important as they are, come and go. Examples remain. Hitchens set one for me. And I know there is no reason to ask him to rest in peace.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

David Corn is Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones and an MSNBC/NBC News analyst.

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