Posted Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, at 1:07 AM
Slate's "Fighting Words" columnist has died at age 62. As recently as three weeks ago, he was still filing columns for Slate. Grasping for some coping mechanism just now, unwilling to confront his final reflective essay in Vanity Fair, I went back and re-read those final Slate pieces. Anyone who writes about politics knows how tricky it is to observe a scene that millions of people are watching -- and in the age of social networks, waxing pundit-like about -- and coming up with an original thought or cliche-free line. Go back and read the lede Hitchens gave his final political column.
“OK, that’s it,” said my guest a few nights ago. “That’s what?” “The Perry campaign: It’s officially over. Look, I’ve found the moment.” Together, in mild stupefaction, we watched as a fellow-creature, accoutred with gorgeous mammalian hair that is fully the equivalent of Mitt Romney’s, and fashioned in the very image of god, failed repeatedly to remember the names of the federal agencies that he had sworn to put out of their misery. We watched further, inwardly wincing and cringing, as the awful moment somehow managed to protract itself.
Hitchens was the best kind of essayist. You'd start reading, unsure what position he was going to take. You'd finish knowing just why he took it, and you'd be wondering why you didn't, or spitting with frustration at how wrong he was, how you just knew it, how you could prove it if you, well, you'd need a few minutes to sort this out, first you needed some paper...
You'll soon be able to read plenty of Hitchens tributes, many of them here at Slate, many by people who knew him well. (He was generous to friends, and eager to spend time with new ones, which made his churn-churn-churn of quality essays even more incredible.) I didn't know him well, but here are the freshest memories I have of him.
2001: Hitchens speaks at Northwestern University, where I'm a meandering freshman journalism student. He's touring his new book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. I know only historical trivia about Kissinger, and make a note to check whether what he's saying is true. Anyway, I'm more struck by the lessons he imparts to young would-be-reporters. "We have a show-biz media that has lost its critical faculties and has such contempt for you," he says. "One of my largest jobs is to get you to think of them as they think of you -- as contemptible, as disposable."
2007: Reason magazine, which pays me to report on politics (mostly Ron Paul, at that moment), brings Hitchens in for an event that he suggested -- an anti-Christmas Party. The staff inflates a Grinch, who bobs in and out of an equally inflatable chimney, and procures a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Hitchens shows up early (we're a short walk from his house), smoking and wearing his leather bomber jacket even though it's utterly unfit for the cold weather. (I think this is the jacket he's wearing in a photo taken during the American liberation of Iraq, when he passed out cigarettes to the newly un-Baath'd Iraqis.) Hitchens keynotes the event by singing Tom Lehrer's "Christmas Carol" a cappella.
2010: I'm working for Slate, but taking a night off to hit a Christmas party. Hitchens is there, five months after being diagnosed with cancer. He's wearing that bomber jacket again, but he's much thinner, and chemo's taken his hair away. I want to re-introduce myself to him, but notice that he has a loose receiving line of well-wishers, joining or leaving a small circle around him. It's pretty clear what's happening: There are people who assume they'll never see him again, and they want time with him. Me, too. I edit myself (the guy doesn't want to hear that you're some young hack who was forever Changed by him), and end up saying something about the Lyndon LaRouche cultist who needled him at that 2001 college talk. He remembers this -- or maybe some of the idiots who think they can impress their parents or cult leaders by "heckling" him have started to blend together -- and we have a mostly one-sided, trivial, funny chat.
Being a pessimist, I leave this wondering how long Hitchens will stick around and keep writing. He kept writing for a year. He kept speaking in public even when fluid was injected in his neck to make that possible.
And he's still around. You've heard of YouTube, haven't you?