Editing Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday at the age of 62, was the easiest job in journalism. He never filed late—in fact, he was usually early, even when he was clearly very sick—and he managed to make his work seem like a great lark. His weekly e-mails always read the same jaunty way: “Herewith. Hope it serves, As always, Christopher.”
The feeling that his work was anything but a grim chore was confirmed in an outtake from 60 Minutes’ profile of Hitch last spring, in which Christopher Buckley testified to watching him bash out a Slate column in 30 minutes at the end of a tiring weekend. No columnist—except perhaps Michael Kinsley—is more frequently and less successfully imitated, but the mimics can never disguise their hours of hard labor.
Hitchens’ writing style defied editorial intervention. Consequently, he reduced editors to fact-checkers. He had a prodigious memory, but his head wasn’t just stuffed with lines of poetry and tables of arcane facts: Apparently, he could also recall chunks of prose from the New York Times more or less accurately. Shortly after the news of Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest in an airport men’s room broke, Hitchens filed the piece that for me best exemplifies the breadth of his interests and the completeness of his recall—it contained quotes from an obscure academic work, recollections of hilariously profane bathroom graffiti, remembered conversations with British politicians, and lines of satirical verse published decades earlier.
Indeed, his long memory was the key to his talent. The news changes every day, but Hitchens never forgot a fact, a friend or—even more entertainingly—an enemy.
Selecting a collection of his best pieces is an impossible task, but there are certain themes that he returned to again and again:
Enemies: Henry Kissinger, Mel Gibson, Pope Benedict, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, (oh, and the Mormon Church too), Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Saddam Hussein, Michael Moore, Mother Teresa, Christmas, Hanukkah
His obituaries were particularly refreshing, because he refused to moderate his opinion of the subject simply because he or she had died. See, for example, his farewells to: Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms, Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic, Yasser Arafat
He could not bear the thought of banning words or ideas, and so he wrote powerfully in defense of the F word and N word, the free-speech rights of the Danish cartoonists, and the term Islamofascism, and against the impulse to obfuscate the horrors of the Armenian genocide.
And, of course, he dispensed advice. How else would Americans learn how to make a proper cup of tea?
Please tell us your favorite Hitchens column in the comments, below.
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