BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Christopher Hitchens, author of For the Sake of Argument, you've got a section in there called "Rogues' Gallery." Was that your idea?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yes.
LAMB: Why create a Rogues Gallery?
HITCHENS: For a lot of people, their first love is what they'll always remember. For me it's always been the first hate, and I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going. If you don't let it get out of hand, it can be canalized into writing. In this country where people love to be nonjudgmental when they can be, which translates as, on the whole, lenient, there are an awful lot of bubble reputations floating around that one wouldn't be doing one's job if one didn't itch to prick.
LAMB: A couple of months ago, back during the Bush administration, in some article I remember a paragraph that said, "Dan Quayle's favorite book is The Modern Society by Paul Johnson."
HITCHENS: Modern Times by Paul Johnson.
LAMB: You have Paul Johnson in your Rogues' Gallery. Who is he?
HITCHENS: Let me just say that Modern Times and Paul Johnson is a terrible reactionary British history, pseudo-historian, I'd say. He used to be the Christmas gift of Richard Nixon. He, in the Quayle and Bush era, became a cult figure on the right, and there's a wonderful description in Peggy Noonan's book of walking past Quayle's office and seeing Modern Times portentously opened at a certain page as if Quayle's reading this book, and walking past it several weeks later and seeing it was still open at the same page. He's a cult on the American right. He used to be my editor at a British leftist liberal magazine called The New Statesman, once a very famous weekly review where we both worked. He's probably the classic instance of the guy who, having lost his faith, believes that he's found his reason, in other words, a defector. He's become a, "Thatcherite," figure and wrote a terrible book called Intellectuals, which I decided to unload upon.
LAMB: At some point in this point that you have, and this is a book of all kinds of pieces you've written for a lot of different publications, you say, "Sorry about that, Paul." Is it hard to punch at somebody you know or used to work for?
HITCHENS: It can be hard, yes. George Orwell used to say, "I won't have lunch with X or Y because I'm going to write about him soon, and I'm sure I'm going to find he's really quite nice, and, therefore, I don't want the corrupting effect of an acquaintanceship or friendship. I'd rather keep clean and keep pure." I. F. Stone in Washington used to do the same thing. He wouldn't go to briefings and little soirees because he wanted to be able to say what he thought about people. I'm not that fortunate; I'm impulsively social. But with Johnson, I had to say, "In your book Intellectuals, you have said that certain people, mainly liberal and radical intellectuals, can be defamed grossly defamed, actually, in his book, on grounds that their private life wasn't exemplary. Well, Paul, "use of the first name," I know you, and I think it's unwise of you to make the private life the measure of anything."
LAMB: For instance, you say, "This often involved drunken and boorish conduct towards women, including his wife." This is up front in this piece.
HITCHENS: Yes. I had to say, "Look, I don't think this kind of stuff counts." I, if I was writing about Voltaire, would not go and look in his linen basket in order to attack his ideas, but if you're going to do it, then you've become a hostage to it yourself. So the first part of the piece is supposed, really, to be a lampoon. I say, "If I was doing Johnson as a political figure, and if I was Johnson doing it, I'd do it like this," just to show him how it feels. Then, I hope successfully, I make a transition into the rest of the article and say, actually, that's all for show; that's not the point. The problem with Johnson's theory about Noam Chomsky, who he attacks revoltingly, about Voltaire, about Marx, about other great figures of the modern world can and should be attacked in other ways. I don't know what the American equivalent is exactly, but in England there's a motto, a schoolboy morality motto, which says that you attack only the bull and not the man.
LAMB: This book has a black-and-white picture of you on the cover sitting there with a cigarette in your hand. Is that alcohol there in front of you?
HITCHENS: There are about nine or 10 empty glasses in front me. Only two or three of them are mine, I hope it's clear. Only about two of them are filled or have just been emptied of booze. It's me slumped over a dinner table the night I got married, and Annie Leibovitz was there and took a picture of me, which I thought did actually look, for better or worse, pretty much like I do.
LAMB: Let's take a look at it again. Was this your idea to put this on the cover?
HITCHENS: Partly it was because not everyone has the chance to have their picture taken by Annie Leibovitz, because, secondly, she is a genius photographer and she does capture what I'm like after about eight o'clock in the evening. And, third, one of the longer articles in the book is a defense of smoking and drinking, alcohol and nicotine, against the current sort of prohibitionist mentality that's sweeping the country. It's a sort of in-your-face reply to the new puritanism. I'm sitting here now, for example, thinking how much I like these sorts of discussions and thinking but if I just had a brandy and soda there and an ashtray how much better a side of me you'd be seeing.
LAMB: Do you think that's you?
HITCHENS: Yes, I'm afraid so. I had to face it, like everyone else. I keep mentioning Orwell, but I think he says at the age of 40 a man has the face he deserves, and I won't see 40 again, so I guess I'm stuck with that now.
LAMB: The purpose of a book like this?
HITCHENS: I wrote it as a reply. The pieces are very various, that's what I think anyway. They're a salad, but they have a common theme, which is it's a reply to all those who say that since the 1989 revolution that there's really no need for the left critique of society or politics anymore, that we've moved beyond all that, that society is just basically a liberal, problem-solving matter and no more, though the conservatives, I notice, are still allowed to have their say. Implicitly everything in there is about the origins of the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe, which I covered in some part, and its consequences. I define it as a real emancipating revolution that I'd long hoped for and worked for and supported, but one that by no means makes politics any more one-dimensional. I think actually it restores the left as a very necessary part of the political argument, so even when I'm writing about something else, I'm always trying to bear that in mind.
LAMB: The articles come from places like a magazine called The Nation. If someone's never read The Nation, what is it?
HITCHENS: The Nation is America's oldest political weekly magazine, founded in 1865 towards the end of the Civil War by a group of abolitionists, and it's basically upheld the liberal left end of the rope ever since. It still proudly comes out every week, and every other week it features and has for the last 10 years, a column by me called, "Minority Report," which is sometimes about politics, sometimes about a new book, sometimes about a personality, but is, again, an attempt to mount a left critique of society and politics.
LAMB: There are other publications like Times Literary Supplement. Which Times?
HITCHENS: The London Times, though the "TLS," as it's called, sells independently as a weekly and actually half its subscribers are in the United States. I used it be its American columnist. In there I've written about more general subjects, like the work of Graham Greene or P. G. Wodehouse, who is perhaps my favorite author, and a couple of other more literary pieces. But, again, I try when I'm writing about literature not to leave the political dimension out. When I'm writing about politics I try and recall that politics isn't all there is to life and try and import what you might call cultural or literary or aesthetic points to it. This must make me sound insufferable, but that's my ambition anyway.
LAMB: Doesn't George Will also write about P. G. Wodehouse all the time?
HITCHENS: Yes. You get into terrifically bad company some of the time if you're a fan of Wodehouse. That's true of also being a fan of Kipling or Orwell or many other people. P. G. Wodehouse is the author of the most imperishable double act in fictional history, Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves. Of course, a joke is never a joke if it has to explained, so those who haven't found and discovered and immersed themselves in this, I can only say they should start today. It sounds a bit, "cultish," but those who have already done it will already know what I'm talking about.
LAMB: Who is he?
HITCHENS: Was. He died at the age of about 93 in the mid-'70s. He was an English comic writer who got driven out of England, partly by poverty, and moved to America, which he adored, and stayed for the last 50 or so years of his life on Long Island. He was always writing about the mythical golden past of the English country house and of the English gentleman of leisure and man about town, Bertie Wooster, who's a complete chinless idiot and can't get himself out of any scrape without the help of his amazingly impassive, brilliant, classically educated, as he's called in the stories, personal gentleman's gentleman, the butler Jeeves, who's always rescuing him. It's not unlike The Importance of Being Ernest. These are guys who would be nowhere without their servants and are always getting involved in ridiculous love affairs that have to be explained to them and they have to be hauled out of and stood up on their feet.
LAMB: Another member of your rogues' gallery is Henry Kissinger.
HITCHENS: Of whose rogues' gallery is he not a member? Mark Twain said if you give a man a reputation as an early riser, he can sleep until noon. Kissinger has somewhere or another along the line picked up a reputation as a statesman and peacemaker and negotiator and sort of miraculous deal maker and bridge builder. I invite people in this piece to consider any instance in which he's left a country or a cause or a problem better off than when he found it, and I also point to what I consider to be a record of crime in his past. He's been complicit in the commissioning of assassinations and in the covering up of mass murder, and I think there are some signs in his memoirs and his behavior that he enjoys it, that he's a very dangerous person, a war criminal. I give the list of instances where I believe that to be true, and I'll give them here and now if you like.
LAMB: Before you do that, you say you're a social person. He is known to be social from time to time. Have you ever come across his path?
HITCHENS: As a matter of fact, I have twice been on the verge of being introduced to him and broken my usual rule, which is, I think, for a journalist a necessary one. There's no hand one shouldn't shake, and one's job is to see everyone and talk to everyone and do everything. But I can't do it with him. I've just had to turn away and once was rude before so to him. In other words, I feel that everyone must have some kind of moral last ditch, and this is mine. I couldn't be polite to him, and so it would be hypocritical to be, as it were, presented, not that he cares or even notices, I'm sure.
LAMB: You don't think he notices?
HITCHENS: It's difficult to say. He's often shown he's got a very thin skin. When the Seymour Hersh book came out, he went into a terrific tantrum, if you'll remember, and he also went into a great tantrum about Walter Isaacson's book, of which this is a review. He likes to think he's tolerant, generous and broad-minded, and when he's on "Nightline" with no opposition, he likes to crack the odd, rather sinister joke. But I don't think, in fact, he does have any talent for introspection or humor or self-doubt or self-criticism whatever.
LAMB: We can come back to Henry Kissinger possibly. There's so much to talk about, I want to move to Mother Teresa. You have a piece in here that was in The Nation in April 1992, called "Ghoul of Calcutta." Mother Teresa?
HITCHENS: Mother Teresa, the ghoul of Calcutta. I always had real doubt in my mind as to whether there really was this saintly person. If you ask people why they think Mother Teresa's so great, they'll always say, "Isn't it true that she spends her time always helping out the poor of Calcutta?" But if you really push them, they don't know anything about her at all. They just take it on faith, as saints always are taken.
So I went to Calcutta, actually for another reason. I thought while I was there I'd go and look her up, and I was rather appalled by what I found. She showed me around her mission and announced that the purpose of the mission to run the campaign in Calcutta and Bengal against abortion and conception. As it happens, I have my doubts about abortion. I find I'm very squeamish on the subject, but one thing that Calcutta definitely does not need is a campaign waged by an Albanian Catholic missionary against the limitation of the population. It rather, to me, spoiled the effect of her charitable work. She was saying, actually, this is not charity; it's really just propaganda. I think the Vatican policy on population control is calamitous.
So that aroused my curiosity anyway. It had been a bit of a disappointment meeting her then, and I didn't like her manners particularly, either, as she went around among the poor. Then I found her turning up as the defender of the Duvalier family in Haiti, saying how lovely they were and how gentle and beautiful. I found her turning up as Charles Keating's personal best friend in the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal, taking a lot of money from his for a private plane, giving him blessings and crucifixes in return. I found her turning up in Albania where she's a supporter of a very extreme right nationalist party. And quite a few other such things.
I thought, hey, I don't like any of these things singly or together, and, second, when does she ever get time for the poor old poor of Calcutta. She's forever on some, "scumbag's," Lear jet going around cashing in on everyone else's belief that she's a saint. I think this is probably how medieval religion was worked. You took the faithful as credulous, and you reckoned that they would believe whatever you said.
LAMB: Let me just take her side for purposes of discussion. Let's say that she went to the Duvalier family and got money, went to Charles Keating and got money and moved it over to the poor. Wouldn't that be charity?
HITCHENS: I don't think it's necessary for someone who is supposedly conse-crated to the mission of charity and who's world famous for it to ever have to beg for money. If she ever wanted it, she knows where to go for it. People would open their pockets and, I think, their hearts. The fact is, I don't know if she got any money from the Duvaliers. What she was doing was defending them as a dynasty in Haiti, and everyone knows what the record of the Duvalier family is. She did get money from Keating, and I actually ask in my piece, you know, would she care, would anyone care to say that they know where it's gone because she must have known or should have known that that money doesn't belong to Keating and doesn't belong to her. It's stolen money.
But the fact is she was giving him in return various kinds of absolution in his campaigns, and I think this is because he started off life as morals cop. He was another of the prohibitionists who began his career as an anti-pornography person. She's evidently, it seems, on call for people with dubious characters of this kind. I just thought it was worth pointing out. I can't tell you the mail I got about it. If you touch the idea of sainthood, especially in this country, people feel you've taken something from them personally. I'm fascinated because we like to look down on other religious beliefs as being tribal and superstitious but never dare criticize our own.
LAMB: Over the years, what has brought you the most mail?
HITCHENS: That was one. Gosh, my mind suddenly goes blank when I think what the other mail bags were. Actually a piece I once wrote about Henry Kissinger was another one. That was in one the earlier books.
LAMB: People writing that they agreed or disagreed with you?
HITCHENS: I shouldn't be the one to say, but actually people were writing and saying, "I've long wanted someone to write about him in that way," not to write about him as if he was a great statesman, but as if he was a great criminal.
LAMB: Another piece was in the Conde‚ Nast Traveler in 1990, and it's about P. J. O'Rourke, and it says "not funny enough." What are you doing writing for the Conde Nast Traveler?
HITCHENS: Listen, I'm not in a position to turn anyone down. I'm very proud if anyone ever asks me. In fact, I work part of the time for Conde Nast, more or less all the time. I write a column for Vanity Fair called "Cultural Elite," which appears every month now.
LAMB: By the way, who's Conde Nast.
HITCHENS: Conde Nast was an individual, a great publisher and designer, and he started the family of magazines that we associate with Vogue, Vanity Fair, which is its flagship, a travel magazine called Conde Nast Traveler, the New Yorker, the core of American magazine life, now run by the Newhouse family.
LAMB: P. J. O'Rourke is in your rogues' gallery. Who is he?
HITCHENS: P. J. O'Rourke is a guy who gets away, in my opinion, with murder. He's another ex -leftist, '60s radical dropout, who wrote very funnily about what it was like being permanently stoned and bummed out and paranoid in the '60s. Then saw the light, put on a collar and tie and became a young Republican and has been cashing in this chip ever since and has a terrific following as a humorist for his books of essays, one, the first one, quite funny. It's called Republican Party Reptile and the next one is called Holidays in Hell and the more recent one is called Give War a Chance. These sell terribly well among the young, much better than any of my books ever have and it gets me down, so this is my revenge upon him.
LAMB: Do you know him?
HITCHENS: Yes, I've met him, sure. He's a guy you go to hang out with in a bar and so forth. But I've reckoned that he was running on empty with this joke about "I know, I've been there, I've been the radical, now I see how wonderful it would be to be a completely buttoned-up button-down Tory." The joke basically depends on a satire on political correctness. Okay, so people try not to make jokes about AIDS; P. J. will make a joke about AIDS. Okay, it's not funny to laugh at cripples; well I laugh about cripples. I said, in the words of the title of the review, "That's quite funny, but it's not funny enough." It's a gentle rebuke.
LAMB: Where were you born?
HITCHENS: Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. I'm a navy brat in other words.
LAMB: What did your dad do?
HITCHENS: He was a lifetime naval officer in the service of the king and, indeed, of the empire. Until I was about 12, I wanted to do the same.
LAMB: Is your dad still alive?
HITCHENS: No, alas.
LAMB: Your mother?
LAMB: How many kids in the family?
HITCHENS: Just me and my brother. My brother's a very conservative journalist who writes for a conservative tabloid in England called the Daily Express. He's just become its Washington correspondent, having been in Moscow for a long time. He's a very brilliant guy, very thoughtful, a very good writer with political views the opposite of mine. He's just arrived in Washington this week, so I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to have to give a party or something and say, "Here's the Hitchens family secret. Now you know everything."
LAMB: What's his first name?
LAMB: Is the Daily Express the paper that Lord Beaverbrook . . .
HITCHENS: That's right. It was Beaverbrook's flagship. I used to work for it myself, but I had to quit. It was too much for me.
LAMB: You grew up in Portsmouth, which is located where in Great Britain?
HITCHENS: It's on the south coast. If you can think of the south coast as a sort of line at an angle to Europe, there's a small island called the Isle of Wight, which, by protecting a certain area of the coastline, forms a perfect natural harbor. Portsmouth is where Lord Nelson last set foot on land before joining his ship and going off to Trafalgar. It's always been the home port of the British Navy. It's where the great ships were built. It still is very much in that maritime tradition, and there's a graveyard full of Hitchenses on the hill that overlooks it.
LAMB: What year were you born?
LAMB: How long did you live there?
HITCHENS: In Portsmouth, not for awfully long at first because my father was being moved around a lot. There was still quite a big British naval and military presence in the world then, and the first place I can remember is the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean, which was then a semi-colony of the United Kingdom. That's where my brother was born. My first memory is of the grand harbor at Valetta, which is, by the way, a magnificent thing to have as your first memory. That's why I've always loved, I think, the Mediterranean. Then we were sent to a navy base in Scotland. We moved around like that. We came back to Portsmouth for a bit. The place I spent longest in is Oxford and then London.
LAMB: Your father politically was what?
HITCHENS: Very conservative.
LAMB: Your mother?
HITCHENS: Rather more of the compassionate liberal type, my mother.
LAMB: How did that work?
HITCHENS: Well, actually, I must say, neither of them attempted to impose their political opinions on me, and until I developed my own views I didn't really know what theirs were. Then I found out. My father really believed it all about basically the Conservative Party, the monarchy not so much the Church of England, I don't think, but you could say what it stood for and felt sad and bad about the decline of England as a country and as a society.
LAMB: You went to Oxford?
HITCHENS: Sort of pessimistic and a bit resentful at the way things had turned out in his old age. Yes, I went to Oxford University.
LAMB: How'd you get in?
HITCHENS: I was the first member of my family to go to a university or certainly to go to Oxford. We had as a family sort of worked out the steps. If you want to be upwardly mobile in Britain, that's the key thing, so that step one is you have to go to a private school basically, if you're starting from where we were. My parents made a big sacrifice to send me to a private school in Cambridge actually, a Methodist public school, a pretty good school. There I decided that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a writer.
LAMB: Were you making good grades throughout all this period?
HITCHENS: Good enough, yes. You have to have certain grades to try for Oxford and then you sit for an exam and have an interview and so on. I knew that I wanted to go to Balliol College in Oxford, and I wanted to read philosophy, politics and economics the PPE courses, it's called. I wanted to be a writer or conceivably a politician, so I knew from very early on what I wanted to do.
LAMB: Who went to Balliol that you knew in history?
HITCHENS: No one that I knew about in history. Most of the last five or six prime ministers have been there and a lot of the radical journalists and historians and authors have been there. It was a kind of forcing house. It's resented in England, the fact that even the opposition types, the famous ones, have been to the same colleges as the ruling class, but in a small country and a very encrusted society like that, it's probably unavoidable.
LAMB: Who's your favorite radical journalist in history?
HITCHENS: In history I suppose I'd say George Orwell. I know it's a cliche‚ because everyone now pretends to admire him, but there was a long time when he wasn't well known and certainly not well liked. I think it shows in his prose, and it's those bits of his prose that I admire. He didn't go to university at all; nor did my living favorite, Gore Vidal, go to college, either. I've always thought that's a good counsel for people who think that credentials are everything. You don't have to do any of that. Orwell went to a privileged public school, but because it was in his family, went off to be a colonial policeman in Burma.
LAMB: What did you like about George Orwell?
HITCHENS: Again, nothing so unconventional about it. I think he really would follow logic and honesty to their full conclusion. He would not be deflected by the fact that this might offend someone he knew or some cause with which he was associated or, more important, wouldn't even discompose himself. In other words, he thought, okay, if I don't like this conclusion, I'm still sticking with it if it's been arrived at honorably.
It sounds like an easy thing to do or to say, but it's actually very hard to live by and I think he really did live by it. I thought he put up a good show for the left in his life at a time when it was in great difficulty because people were pressed very hard to say, "Look, if you're on the left you must support the Soviet Union because it's endangered and encircled by fascism, and you mustn't criticize it in public even if you have your doubts." He said, "No, that would be stupid. That would be giving up the thing that makes me radical in the first place, which is the right to think for myself."
That was a little harder to do than it sounds. And then I think he was a very witty and brilliant stylist, I think his writings on other authors like Dickens, for example, his reflections on eternal subjects like capital punishment or family life, ordinary things, arguments that never go away, always worth rereading.
LAMB: When did you come to the United States?
HITCHENS: I'd been coming ever since I left university. I came here on a scholarship in 1970. It was a traveling scholarship. You got to travel all around the U.S., and I decided then and there that I'd rather live in America. I thought it was great. I nearly didn't go back when the scholarship ran out, but I sort of had to because I was ought of dough. Actually, there was a woman in the case. I actually had to go back to England. I didn't come back again for about another five or six years, but started coming more and more often, and then The Nation offered me a job. I took about 10 seconds to decide, yes, I'm coming for good.
LAMB: Where have you lived in the United States?
HITCHENS: New York at first and then in Washington. I've been in Washington for nearly 10 years now.
LAMB: I can hear folks saying, "He likes it here in the United States, and he's a socialist." I'm sure you've heard that before. If you wanted socialism, why did you come to the United States?
HITCHENS: It's a very good question and I ask it myself. There's the long tradition that's unfortunately being buried and forgotten, and it's exemplified by, I suppose, the greatest Englishman or certainly the greatest angry American, Thomas Paine, who is, in effect, the moral author of the Declaration of Independence and important bits of the Constitution and who wrote The Crisis and wrote Common Sense and was one of the people who really nerved the colonial leadership to actually separate and declare for the United States, was the first person ever to use the term "The United States of America," would have written slavery out of the Constitution if he'd been allowed to and wasn't allowed to, would have put the emancipation of women in. He lost that battle. Think how much trouble would have been saved if he'd won.
He is the founding radical, really, of the British left and, though they don't know it, of American democracy, too. I wouldn't dream of comparing myself obviously, but I mean to say he's the founder of a tradition that does exist in both countries of which I'm proud to be a supporter and which I try, in my previous book I wrote a long defense of Thomas Paine, try to uphold and live by. I think America has a fantastic radical tradition, a very admirable one. It goes from Thomas Paine through the anti-slavery campaign, particularly John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Some of their descendants were associated with The Nation, incidentally, through Eugene Debs, through Martin Luther King, through Cesar Chavez, and that's my tradition, if I can make such a bold claim. I hope not to disgrace it, even if I don't enhance it.
LAMB: There was a show that we did when you had Alexander, your son, standing by you and we opened the show up. You're married.
HITCHENS: I'm not married to his mother anymore, but I'm married again, yes.
LAMB: How many children do you have?
HITCHENS: I have two, and I have one on the way by my new wife, so I'm about to become an exemplar of family values one way or another.
LAMB: Let's go back to Oxford, because in the book you have a number of articles about then-candidate Bill Clinton. You went to Oxford at the same time. Did you know him there?
HITCHENS: No, I didn't. I knew the house where he lived, 46 Leckford Road, quite well, because it was a well-known hangout for American exile, usually Rhodes Scholar, but not always anti-war and pro-civil rights people. Those were my friends, and I knew people who knew Bill Clinton and I still do know some of them. I remember the milieu very well, and I remember we used to do all kinds of stuff to help out the American anti-war students, who I think were being very brave at the time much braver than they give them credit for. I've looked at pictures of him at the time, and I'm sure I don't remember him. During the campaign I said to people, "I can prove to you Bill Clinton is a moderate as he claims because if he was an extremist, I definitely would have known him."
LAMB: What were you like there?
HITCHENS: What was I like? Well, I was, as I still am, an extreme leftist.
LAMB: Did you speak out?
HITCHENS: Yes. There was an occasion where we may even have been on the same platform, but there's no picture that I can find, which was the moratorium against the war, which, you remember, was huge candle-lit meetings in all the American cities against the war stop it now, shut it down, the moratorium. In every European city there was a sympathy demonstration, and there was quite a big one in Oxford where I spoke. I know that Clinton was there, and he may even have spoken with me, but I can't bring his picture back into my mind.
LAMB: Who did you know then that we would know now.
HITCHENS: Ira Magaziner, who is sort of in charge of what's laughingly called Hillary Clinton's Health Care Task Force and who was always the sort of technical and organizing brain of the Americans in Oxford and is considered to be a very terrific, "number-cruncher and reasoner," of that sort. I remember him very well. He was at my college. George Stephanopolos was there later. Balliol had a special attraction often to these kinds of Americans my own college did. But Bill, no. As I say, I think that proves that he must have been, as he says he was, one of the more moderate anti-war people.
LAMB: Can you remember when you became a socialist?
HITCHENS: Pretty much, yes.
LAMB: What year?
HITCHENS: I can remember when I decided that I supported the Victory Labor Party, which, as you know, is a very different thing, but that was in 1964. I'd been reading a lot of Orwell. Actually, the thing that had more influence almost than anything was the poetry of Wilfred Owen. He was the great poet of the First World War. He wrote a wonderful poem called "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and another which has a Latin title that's on war memorials, "Sweet and seemly to die for the country," fantastically powerful anti-war poetry written from the trenches. Very tragically he was killed, I think, on the very last day of the First World War or the day before, the very last moments of the nightmare.
His mother got the telegram about his death as the church bells were tolling for victory in 1918. It had a tremendous effect on me reading that. Another book which some people may remember, called How Green Was My Valley by the Welsh mining guy, introduced me to the idea which had been strange to me up until then of there being such a thing actually as a working class with, as it were, a life and mind of its own. You can't be a socialist if you don't think that.
LAMB: When did you start writing and enjoying it, or do you enjoy writing?
HITCHENS: I don't really know if I do or not. I'd hate not writing, I know that. I sort of do it because I feel I have to. Sometimes it's real pleasure doing it. Usually the pleasure comes, though, when you see it in print not until then and usually not until some time after.
LAMB: Where do you write?
HITCHENS: Well, I write a column every month for Vanity Fair called "Cultural Elite."
LAMB: I mean where physically.
HITCHENS: Oh, I'm sorry. I write on a table at home in longhand.
LAMB: When we see this picture, though, is this what you look like when you're writing, with a cigarette in hand?
HITCHENS: Yes. I sometimes write in bars, too, in the afternoons. I go out and find a corner of a bar. If the noise isn't directed at me, in other words, there's not a phone ringing or a baby crying or something I quite like it if the jukebox is on and people are shouting the odds about a sports game. I just hunch over a bottle in the corner. I write in longhand anyway, so I can do it anywhere sometimes in airport terminals. Then when I've got enough down, I start to type it out, editing it as I go. I don't use any of the new technology stuff.
LAMB: Do you have a technique that gets people's attention? Is there something . . .
HITCHENS: I should ask you.
LAMB: Well, there's the headline on it. I don't even know where this one was published. I'll find out. Newsday, July 1990. How often did you write for Newsday?
HITCHENS: I used to do a book column for them every week.
LAMB: This is called "A Pundit Who Need Never Dine Alone."
HITCHENS: That's George Will.
LAMB: George Will, and you start off here by saying, "Study and ponder the following lines written by George F. Will as Ronald Reagan went tottering back to his California estate in 1989." Then you go on to, "lambast," him for writing what you said is basically unintelligible.
HITCHENS: I think George Will's stuff is very affected and overwritten, yes. It's full of, I think, rather bogus shows of learning and classical tags and things of this kind. I have a weakness sometimes for quotations of that sort myself, so I think I recognize the disease in others. It's in a very advanced stage in his case. I think he's a courtier. I think especially during the Reagan era, he basically was making a living as a professional flatterer of the Ron and Nancy court.
LAMB: What's wrong with that?
HITCHENS: I don't think journalists should do that. I think it's even more important not to do it when your friends are in power. What's wrong with it? I think it'll congest your style very badly. You'll be full of things you can't really say, things that are half-confidences that have been given to you by people in power. Your stuff will start to puff up. Your paragraphs will start to get rotund with all the things you could say if you really wanted, but you can only hint. That's bad. It's bad intellectually, and I think it's bad morally. It means that your contract is no longer with your readers.
What I try and do, and the reason I write in longhand and write in isolation, is to say the only person I have a deal with is the person who might read this, and I'll give them my best. I don't care what the editor thinks, the advertising department thinks, friends and colleagues think. You try and live as if none of those people counted. What's the best account I can give the customers of this? Most of Washington punditry is nothing of the kind. It's private letters written to other pundits appearing in public space.
LAMB: Have you done as well in this business as you expected to?
HITCHENS: Better than I expected to. Better than I expected to, not as well as I would have once or twice been led to believe by my teachers, who were always telling me, "Come on, Hitchens. You shouldn't be sitting there moldering. You should be Daniel Defoe or something," so they held me to impossible standards. But better than I expected, yes.
LAMB: Can you make a decent living doing this.
HITCHENS: Yes. America's very generous to people who write if they keep at it. There are rewards for it and people who are willing to print it and pay for it.
LAMB: Are there people who genuinely dislike you that you come in contact with?
HITCHENS: There ought to be by now. I mean, I've certainly my best. If I didn't have enemies, probably people I don't know about as well as those I do, I would have obviously failed. It would have meant I haven't been drawing blood when I have certainly meant to.
LAMB: How do you know when you've gotten to people?
HITCHENS: Sometimes they will come up to you and speak.
LAMB: Have you ever had a confrontation? There was some confrontation you had on a television show.
HITCHENS: Sure. That was Ed Meese.
LAMB: Got a little physical?
HITCHENS: I thought it was going to get physical, as a matter of fact, yes. I thought it was just such a disgrace that such a man could be the attorney general in a country that has a Justice Department. I had to tell him everything I thought about him, and he wasn't, which is not my fault -- used to hearing that kind of thing.
This is a bit of digression, but the scandal that he helped cover up, the Iran-Contra scandal, was grossly covered up, of course, and lied about by both Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Reagan did say one truthful thing about it. He said, "If it wasn't for that rag in Beruit, we'd never have had all this trouble," and I thought that was true. If it wasn't for a newspaper in Beruit, the Iran-Contra scandal never would have come to light, and yet how many journalists would you say there are in Washington, well-paid, well-informed, well-connected thousands of them who never broke the story. A lot of them didn't believe it even when it came out. That's a pretty tremendous indictment. I try as far as I can not to get too accustomed to the culture of journalism because I think it's likely to be the outsiders that will do the best work.
LAMB: But you said you were social.
HITCHENS: I like to go to gatherings and I like to meet the people firsthand. I always liked that and so I used to go to the Oxford Union when I was at university and debate against actual politicians and try and have dinner with them afterwards because you very swiftly found out if they were good for your education. If they didn't really know very much more than you did, then they weren't that much smarter. It's a good way of demystifying politics.
LAMB: I'm looking at something called, "How Neo Conservatives Perish." Do you remember this one? By the way, did you select all these? Were these your choice?
HITCHENS: I threw out the ones that I didn't think could possibly be reprinted because they either were no good, which was true in an awful number of cases, or that they had gone out of time, they were written just for that week or that day, and wouldn't survive. So the ones that could bear reprinting, I made a pile. Then I gave that to an editor and said, "You decide which ones you think would make the cut," so I left that to them.
LAMB: How many books do you have to sell to be successful with this?
HITCHENS: I have no idea. It's a figure larger than any book I've ever written has ever sold. Most of my books don't make back the small sum of money that I'm paid to write them. I don't know why. I don't have any knack there at all. There are very, very few publishers these days who will take a risk on a book that won't make money, and I'm probably exhausting the patience of . . .
LAMB: This is Verso Publishing?
HITCHENS: That's the publishing arm of New Left Books. It's a very fine publishing firm. It's published some wonderful books, but it has to take permanent risks on opposition writing and unknown writers. They probably would never let me down, but increasingly the mainstream publishing industry wants an assurance up front that everything's commercial and that you've got a tie-in of some sort, a serialization or maybe a movie deal. I'm no good at that. I wish I was.
LAMB: In this piece in Harper's in 1990, "How Neo-conservatives Perish," you talk about "key words and phrases uttered with the proper sneer ids-information, dupe, ripe fruit, choke point, fellow traveler, fifth columnist, Chamberlain's umbrella, captive nation, peace through strength, moral equivalence." What are you getting at here?
HITCHENS: Do you remember what it was like? Don't you remember what a hooligan atmosphere there was in American intellectual life for a long time because of the Cold War? Anyone who had any doubts that this war was worth fighting and worth the risk of a nuclear exchange was accused of being a dupe or a secret sympathizer or a fan of Neville Chamberlain's umbrella or all these other things. People were constantly being crushed and coerced and derided and driven out of the argument. I wanted to put that down before people forget it.
LAMB: "All these people were ostensibly there," meaning a conference of neo-conservatives." to take personal credits for the final collapse of communism. Why, then, do they look and sound so lost and deflated, like a herd of ants in search of a climax."
HITCHENS: No, it's a herd of aunties in search of a climax.
LAMB: Excuse me, my eyes are bad.
HITCHENS: I was convinced that partly because they'd lost their ability to be able to bully and blackmail the opposition and accuse it of treachery and sympathy for the other side that that was one of the reasons that the right wing is nostalgic for the Cold War, that it's lost its free pass as being the patriots where everyone else is disloyal. It's not the whole thing. They've also lost a lot of their subsidies, which, I think, makes them squeal even louder. These people used to have very fat foundations supporting any project of theirs, however mediocre or, "crackpot," Now they don't have that anymore. We're also beginning to count the cost of the Cold War to the United States, which is pretty enormous, to say nothing of the damage that it did to other countries around the world.
LAMB: Did you go to that conference?
HITCHENS: Yes, sure. I sat through every minute of it.
LAMB: How did they treat you? They know you're there to probably write something that's not . . .
HITCHENS: They had a queue of people for the microphones to ask questions and join the line. It was noticed even by some conservative people there present who actually had the decency to protest about it, but as soon as it came to my turn to get to the microphone, Norman Podhoretz, who was the chairman of the thing, cut off the discussion at that point. It was so blatant as to be laughable, but I was flattered by it.
LAMB: Who's your favorite conservative writer in the United States?
HITCHENS: William Safire. I'm a very great admirer of his. I think he's a wonderful writer. I think he's a very humorous writer. He's quite a brave writer, too. He tries to remember even when his own team are in power that that doesn't mean you're obliged to stop criticizing.
LAMB: Who's your favorite liberal writer?
HITCHENS: I don't think liberals make very good writers. I think liberals are always trying to have it both ways. They want to share in the idea that capitalism is basically the best humanity can do, but they want to be able to be compassionate about it. I think that leads to a lot of sickly kind of writing. I find it very hard to read, and I think it is harder to read than it is to write.
I think of the radical writers, though, there's some outstanding cases. I mentioned Gore Vidal already, who I think is one of the best writers of this or any other time and who is the person I've most, I guess, tried to model myself on in that he's so such much of a polymath. He has such a range and tries to synthesize literature and politics very brilliantly, so openly confess to a-sort-of, it would be wrong to say penis-envy for Gore Vidal, wouldn't it, but you know what I mean.
Then there's Alexander Cockburn, my colleague at The Nation, who's a master writer of polemic. There's currently operating in print, well, you see, the problem is that if I was to mention any other names, they would be names that never see the mass media because, in effect, the left doesn't exist as a regular contributor to the on-going national discussion on TV and radio and print.
LAMB: The Nation, June 1991: "What the hell did Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf think he was doing when he accepted, while he was still a senior serving officer, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II?"
HITCHENS: Yes, a question I could never get him or anyone at the Pentagon to answer. The Constitution of the United States, which I am consecrated to admiring because I come from a country that doesn't have a Constitution, so I think I appreciate it maybe more than people who take it for granted, very clearly says that American serving officials shall not take decorations or titles of honor from any foreign monarch or head of state.
There was Schwarzkopf being knighted by Queen Elizabeth. I thought, what is this? We're supposed to have a republic here and a republic of laws at that. I can't stand it when people think that the highest honor that can come to them is to be allowed to sprawl at the feet of the House of Windsor, which is a dysfunctional royal family that is now pretty discredited even in England.
LAMB: February 1991, The Nation again: "Bush and Churchillian Delusions. According to the 11 February issue of the New Republic, the scene that follows occurred one day after the proud inauguration of Operation Desert Storm. Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, brought a copy of Winston and Clementine, a book about the Churchills, to the Cabinet meeting on Jan. 17, intending to give it to President Bush." What was your point?
HITCHENS: That Bush throughout that whole war and especially in the run up to it constantly compared himself to Churchill and compared the confrontation that he was faced with to the one that Churchill had had to endure in 1939, borrowed from the speeches, used phrases like, "the defining hour," which are knock-off's of Churchill's speeches in 1939 and 1940, wanted the comparison to be made.
In the Senate debate for and against the war, the Churchill-Munich analogy was used more often even than Vietnam as a test of which side you were on. I wondered why it is in the United States people are such pushovers for this English mythology.
I also said there was no way, however it was sliced, that Bush could come off as Churchill, as we now know. As a lot of us guessed at the time, the war with Saddam Hussein was a quarrel that had broken out between two business partners, Bush and Hussein, who were fighting over the spoils. They wanted to involve everyone else in it, and they wanted it to sound noble. They fooled a lot of people for some of the time, but the disillusionment with that war and the rhetoric with which it was fought is now pretty near total.
LAMB: You spent some time in jail. Didn't you spend some time in jail in Prague?
HITCHENS: In jail in Prague, yes. I thought this was to be the consequence of my saying what I said about the great patriotic war in the desert. I got locked up in Czechoslovakia in 1988, I think. I went with a delegation of people there to meet the Czech opposition, and we got caught trying to hold a seminar and we were locked up and then deported. I wrote a piece saying that I thought it was obvious that the Czech and Polish and East German and Bulgarian regimes, the Russian empire in Eastern Europe was going to collapse. It seemed absolutely clear the regime had no further support and was simply living on police tactics.
LAMB: What was it like being in jail?
HITCHENS: It my case it was exhilarating because of the people I was locked up with, who were wonderful, a very nice selection of various Western human rights activists and some incredibly brave Czechs who were taking much more of a risk than we because we knew probably we were just going to get taken to the airport and thrown out, and they might have stay for rather longer.
But what impressed me about them was that many of them had not even been born at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1968, so that they had no memory, as it were, of the preexisting regime. They'd been brought up under the Russian dispensation and they'd seen through it completely and were prepared to take risks to defy it. I thought, well, that spells the end for them. I was right about that.
LAMB: When you're deciding where to go and what to write, is there travel money for you to go anywhere? Will The Nation send you anywhere?
HITCHENS: No. Usually the best way to do it is to just do it and then see if you can't sell the articles when you come back. That's what I had to do with Bosnia, for example. I thought I really must go and see what's happening in Sarajevo; I can't not go.
LAMB: When did you go?
HITCHENS: Last summer.
LAMB: How long did you go there for?
HITCHENS: In Sarajevo -- two and a half to three days and nights, which is not long, but is plenty, I can tell you, unless you are, as some good reporters are able to put up with a lot by way of being bombarded and shot at and kept permanently scared. I'd got the point about being permanently scared after a few days. It's also quite a small city, and I was able to see a lot of it and the remainder of the country of Bosnia, and surrounding bits of Croatia and Slovinia rather longer, but not at such high risk. I thought, really, I had to go. The problem was I had no particular credential to represent anybody, but I just thought it was a sort of responsibility to go and see what it looked like. I think I've bored you with this in the past; I've become very obsessed with it since. Then I just wrote a number of pieces and sort of made back the money for the ticket that way.
LAMB: Do you travel as a British citizen or an American citizen?
HITCHENS: British passport. The reason I kept the European passport is as of 1992 there's now a Eurorail passport that makes you free to travel within the boundaries of 12 member countries, and I've always liked the idea of European unity, so I held out for a Eurorail passport and travel as a European.
LAMB: Will you ever change your citizenship?
HITCHENS: If you asked me and if I'd said to you, "I'm an American," you'd say, "But that's not true. You're really an Englishman." I think I would always probably sound and seem to be English, so it would seem odd to say I was an American in England or say I was an American here. I have a green card, a resident alien, as they say, and a European passport. I think that's a form of being an internationalist, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.
LAMB: Going back to where we started in the section of this book called "Rogues' Gallery," by the way, there are a lot of things we have not talked about in this book, and they had to do with your opinion of things other than American. How did you mix that? Is this book being sold in both countries?
LAMB: Is it being translated into any other language?
HITCHENS: We haven't any offers that I know about, but usually every book gets translated into Japanese these days. They're tremendously omnivorous in getting to read everything. I'd love to see myself in Japanese.
LAMB: This particular item is out of Dissent, "The Fall of 1990." What's Dissent?
HITCHENS: Dissent is the magazine associated with the late Irving Howe, who you may have read about. I say "the late" because he died, I think, the month before last. We're now at the first of September. Irving Howe was a great old self-made writer, scholar, essayist, socialist critic, best known for a book called, "World of Our Fathers," which is a wonderful account of the origins of Jewish life in New York from the first immigration to the Lower East Side and then the burgeoning out to become, I guess, the most successful of America's minorities. He discovered the writing in Yiddish of Isaac Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who later won the Nobel Prize, who was scribbling away unknown in Yiddish only small magazines in New York. He discovered him and had him translated and made him world famous. He also founded a magazine called Dissent, which is published four times a year, I believe, and I write for it occasionally.
LAMB: This is a piece called "Nixon: Maestro of Resentment." You lead off this thing by saying, "But as I read this, the latest of his awful books . . ." Over the years, has Richard Nixon been someone that you've found easy to write about?
HITCHENS: Yes, and also difficult, because, as I say in that piece, there's always the temptation to feel sorry for him. I fight it down, this temptation. I try not to give in to any, "promptings," of compassion or pity. But there is something sad and lonely and desperate and artificial about the guy, and it does occasionally give you a pang. That piece is about trying to fight off the pang.
LAMB: You wrote this sentence: "The interesting bits of Nixon's private existence, the foul mouth, the Jew-hating, the paranoia, all lie under a ban of denial and are bled out of the narrative."
HITCHENS: Yes. The Nixon of the tapes makes terrible remarks about how the Jews are behind his persecution, the Jews are behind the anti-war movement, the Jews are behind the arts life in America, he tells his children to stay away from the Jews, and even uses foul words like "kike" and "yid." Those are on the tapes and you can actually go and hear them as well as read them, if you care to, if you can stand it. In his book, it's not that he says, "Look, I was overwrought at the time and I shouldn't have generalized" or something. He just doesn't discuss it at all. It's a different guy writing than the person who's on the tapes. It would be dignifying that to call it schizophrenia. I think it's simply dishonest.
LAMB: You started all this by saying it's good for you to get up in the morning angry if you're a writer. What are you angry about now?
HITCHENS: Oh, that reminds me of someone I criminally left out when you asked who I thought was the great radical writer at the moment. I left out Professor Noam Chomsky, who I think is one of the most extraordinary moral human beings of our time and who's produced a shelf of books and critiques and findings and carefully calibrated work that holds up a mirror to American policy and society that it should look in more often.
The reason I'm reminded of it is that there's a wonderful story about Noam. He went to the dentist one day, it's true, and the dentist said, "You're grinding your teeth." He said, "No, I'm not as far as I know." He said, "A lot of my patients say that. You're probably grinding them when you're asleep." His wife sort of monitored him around the clock and he wasn't doing it when asleep, and they monitored him more closely and they found he was only grinding his teeth in the morning when he was reading the New York Times.
I think that's a great story about Chomsky, all of whose stuff anyone watching this should rush out and buy. He's an example to us all, but also because I have the same experience reading the mainstream take on daily life every day and the way that the editorials refer to "we" as if we were all one big family and it was all up to us. One thing society is not is a family, not even a dysfunctional one. The way it's always assumed that the consensus comes first and the bright little ways in which they sort of package the news and make it digestible for us always starts me off feeling thoroughly pissed off every day.
LAMB: How about an individual that makes you the angriest these days?
HITCHENS: Janet Reno is particularly annoying me at the moment, I think_ not just because I don't think she's anything like as good as people say, but because people keep saying how great she is. You ask them, "Why is that?" and they can't really tell you. I'm completely furious with her for burying the Iraq-gate scandal, for taking the Bush-Quayle line that there was nothing sinister by the bank in Atlanta that was arming Saddam for the later war between business partners that we all had to go through.
LAMB: How much longer are you going to do this?
HITCHENS: Until I drop.
LAMB: In this country?
HITCHENS: If they'll have me.
LAMB: This is what the cover of this book looks like. It's a compendium of articles in various publications, including Harper's and The Nation and others. Christopher Hitchens, thank you for joining us.
HITCHENS: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.