An Astonishing Spat Between Hitchens and Conrad Black.

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 1:18 AM

Brilliant Contrarianism

A delightful spat between Hitchens and Conrad Black, who owned the magazine he worked for.

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Christopher Hitchens, 1949 - 2011

Photograph by Christian Witkin.

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

In retrospect it seems obvious that Christopher Hitchens always needed a larger canvas on which to perform in his many roles as a journalist, debater, and public intellectual, but it nevertheless came as a surprise to many in London when this left-wing British Marxist, apparently happily ensconced in the socialist weekly the New Statesman, suddenly took off for the United States in 1981, never to return.

It was almost equally surprising that he immediately started writing a column from Washington for the New Statesman's conservative rival, the Spectator, of which I was then the editor. He always expressed gratitude for this job, which he said had been a lifeline during his early struggle to establish himself in America; and he survived on the Spectator long after my time, although the magazine's subsequent owner, Conrad Black, could not stand him and in 1986 wrote a letter to his own paper describing a piece by Christopher about Ronald Reagan as "unequivocally the most disgusting article I have ever read." Christopher had written that, following an operation for colon cancer, Reagan had become incontinent, and that this would cause great embarrassment at his imminent summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. Incontinence, however, was only one of the reasons why he considered Reagan unfit to be president. Despite Black's reference to Christopher's writings as "the demented ravings of an unspeakable poseur," he was as much appreciated by the readers of the Spectator as he has been by those of every magazine, of whatever hue, for which he has ever written. The appeal of brilliant contrarianism knows no boundaries.

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

Alexander Chancellor is a columnist for the Guardian.