So how does one come to grips with the whirlpools of insanity that swirl around us these days? Copious amounts of alcohol are certainly a reliable option. An even better alternative is to spend time with wiser heads who are willing to dispense advice on how to navigate the road ahead. In my own case, over the years I’ve lost a number of friends whose wisdom and reason would be invaluable in trying to make sense of the sheer brokenness of the America we are living in.
Two of these friends were old Vietnam hands—Michael Herr and David Halberstam. Michael wrote Dispatches, arguably the finest book about the war part of the Vietnam War. Then he became a Buddhist and moved to upstate New York. David’s book The Best and the Brightest is the definitive account of the politicians and mandarins who drove us into Vietnam and kept us there long past our welcome. Their experiences with wrongheaded administrations—and in the case of David, with his own newspaper—gave them a healthy disdain for authority in all of its guises.
Until their deaths (Halberstam’s in 2007, Herr’s in 2016), I spoke with each of them for hours most weeks. David had the ability to work me up over whatever state of affairs was on the boil. And Michael had the ability to calm me down. Both men saw the American experiment for what it is: flawed and, just that, an experiment.
They were of an older generation, though. Perhaps the most significant avatar my own age was Christopher Hitchens, who died 10 years ago this month. Christopher had a wicked combination of learned understanding and searing wit that got to the core of the thorniest political and social issues.
If you ever had the good fortune to spend time with Christopher, as I did over long lunches and even longer dinners, you would have been an audience to one of the more spectacular minds in recent history. There was nothing Christopher hadn’t read and couldn’t recall from memory. Late into the night and well into his cups, he could recite Gussie Fink-Nottle’s prize-giving speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School—and precisely the way P. G. Wodehouse wrote it. Like all sane people, he considered Wodehouse the greatest practitioner of the English language.
I brought Christopher to Vanity Fair when I became the magazine’s editor in 1992—he was one of the first people I hired—and his remit was broad: from Mother Teresa to Joan Didion, from the Quran to the Kennedys, from the importance of being Orwell to the experience of being waterboarded. He once took a “revisionist chisel” to the Ten Commandments. (“Numbers One through Three can simply go, since they have nothing to do with morality and are no more than a long, rasping throat clearing by an admittedly touchy dictator.”) In 2000, Christopher also began writing for The Atlantic about books and literature, producing scores of pieces (on Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, Ian Fleming, Karl Marx, and, yes, Wodehouse) that somehow displayed both lightness and depth.
His judgments were in no way predictable. After one of the more gruesome school shootings in the ’90s, I asked him if he’d be up for writing a column on gun control. He told me that he’d love to. But he wanted to let me know up front that he was opposed to controls. Christopher’s reasoning was no doubt novel and well thought-out. I either stopped listening to his rationale or moved on to another subject; otherwise I could retail his pro-gun argument here. In any event, that column was never published on my watch.
His contrarian streak famously reached its peak after 9/11, during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. I was one of the few editors publicly against the war. And it was lonely out there. I was in a further bind, inasmuch as my most celebrated columnist was publicly for the war. It didn’t cause us friction so much as it created something of a sound barrier. We just couldn’t talk about it. Christopher wrote about dozens of subjects both important and just plain funny and entertaining. But for the remainder of his time at Vanity Fair, he didn’t write about the war.
As one of the few liberal public intellectuals to take this stance, Christopher found himself to be catnip to television-news bookers. And perhaps that was the point. What he couldn’t put into print, he could say on television. And he was on it a lot. In the late ’90s, he got into a heated dustup with Sidney Blumenthal over something that was or was not said. Christopher took a beating in the cable-news court of public opinion. (This was before Twitter and Facebook could unleash the hounds of hell.) Watching him on television one night, I realized it was all beginning to show. He looked ragged and unshaven, and I thought he needed some love from those of us who loved him. He came to New York. We fixed him up with a shave and some new clothes. And Brian McNally and I took him to Elaine’s.
In 2007, he faced up to the task of personal betterment, chronicling the results in a three-part series for Vanity Fair called “The Limits of Self-Improvement.” He lost weight, fixed his teeth, got a manicure, and reduced his intake of scotch and tobacco. “T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons,” Christopher wrote in one of those columns. “I sometimes wish I could say the same, but the truth is that the calibrations have been somewhat more toxic, and that caffeine has been the least of it.” As the pièce de résistance, he submitted to the male version of a Brazilian wax—“sack, back, and crack.” He said later that it was more painful than the waterboarding.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know where Christopher would come down on the current social and political divide in America. I don’t know whether he’d be on the lunatic left-wing fringe or the lunatic right-wing fringe. He could be a pro-Trump anti-vaxxer—if only just to drive his liberal cohort nuts. Or he could be way out there somewhere on the progressive left. The thing about Christopher—and it’s what separated him from his contemporaries—was that he was positively fearless. He hated tyrants and had a natural sympathy for underdogs, twin instincts that inevitably made him a Kurdish nationalist.
Being pro-war in the liberal enclaves that he traveled in was one thing. But name another essayist who would be willing to write a column on the subject of “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” as he did 15 years ago. It hardly mattered that his target was as much men as women, or that he had enlisted Fran Lebowitz and Nora Ephron as witnesses for the defense (not to mention evolutionary biology: “Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates”). That column got him into a good amount of hot water back then. Can you imagine what the marauding hordes on Facebook and Twitter would make of it now?
I was on an Iraq War panel with him at the Hay-on-Wye book festival sometime in the mid-aughts. The audience members could not have been more anti-war, and they were not shy in letting him know what they thought of him. He brushed it off. He just didn’t care. And that was a huge part of his attraction. Christopher had his beliefs and he honestly didn’t give a damn whether you agreed with him.
Christopher was also a spirited defender of free speech, whether it came out of the mouths of monsters or political idiots on the right or the left. His across-the-board defense often made people uncomfortable back in the day. I’m not sure he’d survive the current cancel-culture mobs—let alone the op-ed page of The New York Times. That very fearlessness would be his undoing if he were on the speaking-circuit prowl today.
One thing I do believe: The Christopher Hitchens I knew and adored wouldn’t be like the majority of us, huddling in our trembling silence, terrified of saying what we really think, and shaking our heads in the belief that the world has gone mad and the other side is the one destroying America. Christopher would be out there on the front lines. I just wish I knew which front lines he’d be on.