I met Christopher (never Chris) in 1997. Perry Anderson, a mutual friend, had invited us to debate the wisdom of American intervention in the Balkans. We were, unsurprisingly, on opposing sides—a position that all his friends have experienced, formally or informally. Hitch’s friends were comrades always; but allies only occasionally—that was a role impossible to hold consistently. Hitch, an idealist committed to protecting human rights and to putting thugs in their place, embraced a muscular internationalism consistent with the stand he’d taken on the Falklands war (in 1982, Christopher, a then-uncompromising socialist, was at one with Mrs. Thatcher) and that he would take on the war against Saddam Hussein. I held to my usual parsimonious view of the national interest, and so our debate fell into a well-worn groove. Early on I made a smart-sounding point, using a recondite historical analogy, which the audience—largely anti-interventionist—liked. But 10 minutes later, although the argument had moved on, it dawned on me that I’d scored a cheap shot, and I said so, explaining why my facile analogy didn’t hold water. Christopher held me in his gaze, touched his right hand to his chest (one of his characteristic gestures), and gave me an almost imperceptible bow. That was it for us. I had passed the only test that mattered to him, one in which he touchingly, anachronistically conflated intellectual honesty with a decidedly masculine, martial sense of honor.
Over martinis and dinner afterward, we talked about Hawthorne, mostly; I suggested he read Randall Stewart’s largely forgotten American Literature and Christian Doctrine (1958)—a book by a true southern conservative and a staunch Christian that only the most open-minded of atheists could appreciate. He read it within the month, and correctly pronounced it brilliant. In the following three years, we came together over Lewinsky, avoided Kosovo, and mostly talked about books and history. When I became literary editor of this magazine in 2000, I wanted to build the book section around a monthly column by Christopher. No writer in the English-speaking world could match the depth and range of his reading, experience, and acquaintances. He wrote slashing and lively, biting and funny—and with a nuanced sensibility and a refined ear that he kept in tune with his encyclopedic knowledge and near-photographic memory of English poetry. Our friend Steve Wasserman—Hitch’s comrade of 30 years and his future agent, the man who introduced him to his wife, Carol, and who would support him fiercely during his illness—helped me to get Christopher to agree to add yet another regular commitment to his Stakhonovite workload (this was a deeply generous act on the part of Wasserman, who understood that his friend would benefit from the perch, but as the then–literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, he understood that he would be losing Hitch as a regular contributor). For me, the editing was in the assigning. I largely asked him to write about subjects and ideas that we talked about regularly—Churchill, Lermontov, Larkin, Wodehouse. Or I’d come across a title that I knew he’d love (the reissue Miami and the Siege of Chicago)—or hate (Bob Woodward’s Bush at War). By far the most difficult assignment was when I pushed him very hard to write about his once-close friend, Edward Said, who was dying. Hitch knew he had to challenge the flimsiness, and what he saw as the perniciousness, of Said’s ideas, even as he knew that he would be deeply wounding a man who remained dear to him. Hitchens regretted that piece.