New Part Three - Mar 1
James Fallows - Feb 26
Christopher Hitchens - Feb 27
Part One - Feb 21:
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His books include Hostage to History, The Elgin Marbles, Prepared for the Worst, Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, For the Sake of Argument, The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie To, Unacknowledged Legislation, and (forthcoming) The Trial of Henry Kissinger. He is Professor of Liberal Studies in the Graduate School at the New School, New York. He won the Lannan Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 1992.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996).
Previously in Fallows@large:
Darwin Had It Backwards (January 17, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on politics
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
Atlantic Unbound | March 1, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Christopher Hitchens
Subject: Literature, Politics, Kissinger—and Our Man Bill
Once again, greetings Christopher.
I'll try to make it slightly shorter this time—and therefore, by the logic of our latest exchange, slightly more infuriating. Actually, I had worked up a little riff on fury, casuistry, and other background tones in this exchange. I was going to assign each of us a "computer avatar"—you know, those animated characters that represent participants in online meetings and chat sessions. Mine was going to look and sound like Jimmy Stewart. But I'll save the rest of the scenario, including my nominee for your avatar, until a face-to-face meeting.
Here's the state of play as we wrap this up:
1) I accept your characterization of Henry Kissinger as a monstrous character and acknowledge the sweep and detail of the evidence you've marshaled in Harper's. I resist the main organizing conceit—that it's useful to consider Kissinger personally a "war criminal"—for reasons I've explained, and that don't convince you. It seems to me logically insupportable to indict Kissinger and not include other responsible members of the Nixon and Ford Administrations. You don't suggest that the episodes you describe were rogue operations or conducted outside normal channels. So if the articles had been called "The Nixon and Ford Administrations: War Criminals in Power," I could have no logical objection. Same if the articles had been called "Henry Kissinger: Man Who Should Be Ashamed." But if you're making the case for the essential "criminality" of certain policies, I can't see how you can exclude the other responsible parties—except that Kissinger himself is a juicier target than, say, Gerald Ford.
2) We disagree about Charles McCarry. Stipulating again that he is a friend of mine, I submit this to the wisdom of onlookers. Dear reader, please go to Amazon or eBay (or the library) and dig up a copy of The Tears of Autumn. If you find it tendentious or uninteresting, let me know, and I will apologize for wasting your time.
3) On a more positive, indeed quasi-glutinous note, I'm still looking for any secret you can reveal about this tremendous volume of output. I usually feel as if I keep pretty busy, but I am humbled by this Stakhanovite feat. Nonstop pots of coffee? Any advice appreciated.
4) Yet more glutinous, let me steer readers to the essay in your book on Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Your assessment captures both the glory and the constriction of Powell's series. It also includes one footnote practically worth the entire cost of your book.
Now, back to an area of certain disagreement: our man Bill.
I am in the uncomfortable position of holding a widely caricatured view, which I will try to defend. Namely, that Clinton's actions in the past six weeks justify a harsher view of him than his previous conduct did.
The contrary case is, "What took you so long?" The people who have been suspicious of Clinton all along are also suspicious of late converts. Their argument is: You kissed up to this guy when he was in power, but as soon as he stopped being influential you turned on him. In this analysis, Clinton is behaving no differently now from the way he has over the past eight years. The only difference is, he has less power to reward friends and punish critics.
I won't assume, without asking, that this is your view. But I will hardly be surprised if it turns out to be. My case is: the way Clinton behaved in his final weeks in office, above all with the pardons, actually was different from his previous record.
The Clinton of old, I would contend, was a success by many "policy" measures, above all with a balancing act for economic growth. This is the theme of the Atlantic essay to which you refer. The personal, umm, excesses of the man were in the main channeled into personal misbehavior. Yes, I am aware of the exceptions. The main one is his countenancing the execution of the mentally retarded Ricky Ray Rector in the middle of the 1992 campaign, when Clinton needed to show that he was tough on crime. Until the last month, I had thought of this as the worst thing Clinton had done—and it may still be.
But in general his misbehavior was, yes, "personal." It supported the clichéd Gallic distinction between personal comportment and responsibility for affairs of state. And the other cases of "public" misbehavior seemed debatable at best. Raising money? Unfortunately—and here Nader was completely right—that is the nature of modern politics. Lying to his cabinet, and to the grand jury, about Monica? Awful, too, but arising from personal misbehavior rather than a real abuse of official power. "Triangulation" and adjusting policies by poll results? That's democracy. It may not be inspiring, but it's hardly an abuse of office.
The bazaar atmosphere of the final days was different in kind, in that it involved clear misuse of public power. Yes, I grant you that it raises questions. If he was capable of this, what is he not capable of? But to judge him by his actions, not by whatever guesses we would like to make about his nature, I still submit that the Clinton of the past six weeks behaved differently from the Clinton of the preceding years.
I find myself for once sympathizing with the old Nixon crowd. When Clinton was elected, I did a radio broadcast predicting that he would be the Democrats' Nixon—that is, an intelligent man who would probably win two terms, even though perhaps one third of the public would always hate his guts. The difference (I thought at the time) was that Clinton wouldn't be driven from office by scandal. I guess I was right—he had his scandal, but he wasn't driven out.
There's a further Nixon similarity. After Nixon's fall, his many detractors argued that he'd been rotten all along. The only difference was, he'd finally been caught. The supporters said that he was an impressive figure who had made a tragic and atypical mistake with Watergate.
That's how I see the pardon fest. A complicated, talented, and flawed man made a final gross mistake of a kind that he had previously avoided. Therefore, it is reasonable to judge him more harshly now than six months ago.
I expect that you feel differently. So here's your invitation, in an easy, slow pitch across the center of the plate: Are we allowed to be madder at Clinton now, because of his actions during his final days in office, than during the rest of his term?
This has been interesting. Thanks for joining in.
What do you think? Join the conversation in