A telling moment occurred outside the Hickory Stick
Bookshop in bucolic Washington, Connecticut, only minutes
after Christopher Hitchens had finished signing a small
mountain of copies of his new book, The Trial of Henry
Kissinger. The British-born (Portsmouth, 1949), Oxford-educated
(Balliol College, 1970) author, who has lived in Washington,
D.C., for the past two decades and cemented a reputation
as America's most formidable gadfly, was taking the opportunity
to savor a desperately needed cigarette, or three.
womana fanwanted to pin a "medal
for courage" on his rumpled sport jacket. Hitchens
politely demurred, then made a concerted effort NOT
to be stuck with the thing, an antique badge festooned
with an absurdly large and ostentatiously gilded blue
ribbon, the sort routinely given to hatchet men and
hired assassins by despots and dictators. Journalists
with cameras were present, and Hitchens wanted to
limit any possibility that he was pandering to what
he'd, just moments before, excoriated as a "morally
lax and tawdry celebrity culture that judges actions
by the reputations of people rather than the reverse..."
"What I have done
didn't require courage," he said, pausing to
collect his wrath, which at any given moment can be
prodigious. "To not say anything would be cowardly,
but to speak up when you know the truth is simply
what must be done."
This uncommon appeal
to common decency is in keeping with Hitchens's modus
operandi over the past two decades as "Minority
Report" columnist for The Nation; a Washington
editor of Harper's; contributor to Vanity
Fair, London Review of Books, New Left
Review, Dissent and the Times Literary
Supplement; and an author of numerous books, both
scholarly and polemical. He, like his spiritual forebear
George Orwell, has an unerring eye for cant on either
wing of the political spectrum and, as Orwell put
it, "a power of facing unpleasant facts."
One of the most unpleasant
facts Hitchens has ever had to face is the "lonely
impunity" of Henry Kissinger. It, he says, "is
rank, smells to heaven, and if it is allowed to persist,
then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher
Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs:
strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak
to hold the strong. In the name of innumerable victims
known and unknown, it is time for justice to take
to his growing reputation as "an attack dog,"
Hitchens makes it clear that writing about Kissinger
is as painful and necessary as passing a kidney stone.
In other words, somebody has to do it, and he has
merely chosen to pick up the gauntlet that was dropped
along the way by his colleagues in the journalistic
one of the many things that deeply troubles Hitchens
is how the press has failed over the years to do its
job. As he told one reporter in front of the bookshop,
"I would be much happier writing about Oscar
Wilde. I really would be."
Because Hitchens spared
no invective in the doing, his book is a world-class
polemic in which he argues for a war crimes tribunal
to be convened in The Hague, with Kissinger in the
hotseat. It is with such venom coursing through his
veins that Hitchens has come to Washington, Connecticut,
to dispense the only sort of justice left in his quiver:
He has come to Washington,
Connecticuta village that is virtually unchanged
from the day, or night, when George Washington slept
here (and, of course, for whom it is named)with
one goal in mind: to finally meet Henry Kissinger.
It can't be that hard,
can it? After all, Kissinger lives only a few miles
away, in the tiny rural enclave of Kent. Not only
that, but the former Secretary of State and National
Security Advisor has agreed, on this day, to be the
guest of honor (the "local luminary," as
they are billing it here) at a library fundraising
cocktail party that will take place just up the street
from the bookshop where Hitchens is holding court.
Tables at the fundraiser sold for $1,000. And because
the opportunity to suck up to "Doctor" Kissinger
is too rich to not RSVP, all tables sold out the week
before. No room for crashers or last minute planners.
Hitchens himself has
gone to some trouble to be here. His wife is facing
surgery in a California hospital, and he hasat
her encouragementtaken a red-eye flight east
to get his man.
Kissinger had, or so
he thought, left nothing to chance with this little
library shindig. Ahead of time, he had insisted that
all the names of those invited to this dinner be sent
to Kissinger Associates in New York, the financial
institution to which he lends his figurehead. For
someone who was given the Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger
is one paranoid fellow.
This is the man, Hitchens
reminded the people at the bookshop, whom Nixon admired
"for his ability to betray and keep it secret."
Hitchens had planned,
after he finished at the bookshop, to walk up the
street to a reception held by friends in his honor,
then to find his way over to the luminary's dinner.
Despite his dark mission and preoccupation of worry
over his wife, he is among kindred spirits, including
his hosts for the night, Joe Mustich and Ken Cornet.
"I had wanted
to have Christopher up earlier in the week to give
a talk at the library," said Mustich, who has
organized cultural activities in the Litchfield hills
community for years. "But I got the OK to host
a luminary dinner with Hitchens as guest for today,
so I decided to schedule the signing at the shop on
the same day. But they didn't quite know who Hitchens
was at the library, I'm afraid, and when they found
out, people started to get nervous."
Soothed by the congenial
mix of people who'd come out on a postcard-perfect
May day to see him, Hitchens soon calmed down over
the contretemps over the medal, took another swig
from his bottle of water, another hit off his cigarette,
and laughed uproariously at the sheer pretense of
When he learned that
the medal the fan was proferring was actually a vintage
ribbon from an agricultural fair, Hitchens decided
that it was okay to be pinned.
"A bovine medal
I will accept," he said. "I am a mad cow,
I suppose, or rather one who is completely sane."
it was a touching and not uncommon gesture for one
of Hitchens's growing legion of devoted readers, why
would the writer, one of the world's least craven, need
courage on this day? After all, this is a man who has
written a deliciously mean rant about Mother Teresa
(The Missionary Position), calling her "cunning,"
"calculated," a friend to dictators like Duvalier
in Haiti, and a money launderer for the likes of Charles
Keating; who took on Bill Clinton at a time when all
correct-thinking liberals were sworn to silence about
the man (No One Left to Lie To); whose lonely
voice pierced the "fiesta of back-slapping"
that attended Colin Powell's recent confirmation as
Secretary of State to remind anyone who would listen
that the beloved Powell "played a direct role in
suppressing the inquiry into the My Lai massacre"
and "helped to deceive Congress about the trading
in heavy weapons with Iran" and who, only days
earlier, had told a public radio audience that the Bible
was "a bunch of mumbo jumbo."
The medal for courage,
it appears, has been offered to the wrong man.
Henry Kissinger is
the one in need of a buck up. Henry Kissinger is the
one with the yellow streak up his back.
Henry Kissinger has,
alas, canceled his appearance at the library fundraiser.
He doesn't even have the decency to be honest about
it. Rather than simply admit that he doesn't wish
to cross paths with Hitchens, that he finds the risk
of being called on the carpet for the myriad sins,
crimes, and misdemeanors delineated with almost cosmic
precision in Hitchens's The Trial of Henry Kissinger
too much to bear, he has opted for the lamest of lame
excuses: "a previous commitment."
"Wouldn't it be
nice to learn what that previous commitment was?"
Hitchens is muttering under the awning between prodigious
puffs on his cigarette. "I have heard that he
is telling people he has houseguests. Perhaps his
friends in the Indonesian death squad are in for the
weekend, or perhaps he is merely choosing to stay
at home reading his memoirs and calling out for a
pizza. He would, of course, be reading them for the
first time, as they were written from stolen documents."
It is clear from this
snub that though Kissinger may go to his grave having
been proclaimed a powerful man, he will not be able
to show his face among his neighbors for a while.
He has let the bluebloods
The chairwoman of the
"Library Luminaries Committee" is desperately
trying to spin this exercise in deceit into something
positive. She is straining even her most generous
of blueblood supporters' credulity by insisting that
"his conflict with house guests has nothing to
do with controversy or replacement. Dr. Kissinger
not being able to come has nothing to do with Mr.
She is, in short, lying
for a man whom Hitchens has depicted as a pathological
liar, a man responsible for, among Hitchens's other
convincing charges: the assassination of a democratically
elected president in Chile and the propping up of
the Pinochet dictatorship; the "incitement and
enabling of genocide" in East Timor by the corrupt
Indonesian government; the "personal involvement"
in the assassination of leaders in Cyprus; and, most
pertinent to the occasion, the aiding and abetting
of Nixon's usurpation of power in the United States
and expanding a war in Southeast Asia that resulted
in "the deliberate mass killing of civilian populations."
At last count, Kissinger may be responsible for the
deaths of three million innocents in Indochina, a
carnage for which he has never been held accountable
and has never written about in what Hitchens calls
"his fraudulent memoirs."
had hoped that today would be that day. But Kissinger
bolted. The gunfight never happened. Hitchens has
won by default, which means he wins next to nothing.
A booby prize. A bovine medal.
As for Kissinger, what's
a few hundred bluebloods with their noses bent out
of shape to him? They're just more "collateral
damage" in a lifetime of the same.
For what it's worth,
the jilted bluebloods extracted some revenge. The
now-desperate library committee is in need of a luminary
to replace Kissinger at the dinner that was to be
held in the "Doctor's" honor. Enter Hitchens
again. The same couple who had planned to host Kissinger
at the luminary dinner following the cocktail reception
at the library has asked Hitchens to sit in for the
Hitchens, of the disheveled,
stained sport jacket, wrinkled shirt, bloodshot eyes
and nicotine fit. Every host and hostess's worst nightmare.
He will do. One can't help but interpet this as how
they, with impeccable propriety and peerless style,
say "fuck you" to the likes of Henry Kissinger
up in Washington, Connecticut.
redeemed himself splendidly among the bluebloodsthe
"ruling class," as he calls them. The host,
an international financier, had even quickly secured
a copy of the book on Kissinger, sped-read it, and
engaged in a dialogue with his guest over the charges.
All very high-toned and, well, civilized.
And why not? Hitchens
is an eminently cultured man, a college professor
(he teaches two days a week at the New School
in New York), a charming and wickedly funny man.
He is so much more, uh, presentable than Henry
Kissinger, so much more decent, that it only illustrates
the chasm of denial that underscores America's
celebrity culture. An accused war criminal is
an elder statesman, in demand as a commentator
at ABC News and friend to all who have clout in
The kick in the
head for Hitchens was that Kissinger, like so
many of his other well-deserving targets, was
saved from having to face his accuser. This is
another thing that deeply troubles Hitchensthe
lack of response from the targets of his wrath,
be they Kissinger, Clinton, or Tom Wolfe. Even
conservative hatchet men like Norman Podhoretz
won't engage him.
fucking reply," said Hitchens, sighing wearily.
"It's a form of condescension. Now I'm stuck
because of these too easily won laurels with this
reputation of being a sort of attack dog... I
suppose that's better than being a lapdog, although
I like to think of myself as a watchdog."
On an earlier occasion,
Hitchens told this reporter, "The people
I have always despised are those with no more
ability or courage or prominence than myself but
who seem to be willing to settle for less, not
even having been put under any sort of threat
or pressure, who are easily conscripted into some
foolishness or other... I barely had to turn over
in bed. I'm saying this so you don't think I had
to sacrifice very much. These were spurs too easily
won. It's depressing, in fact, to see how easily
they were won."
At the signing,
in his impromptu remarks, Hitchens gave an extemporaneous
snippet of Percy Bysshe Shelley ("I met murder
on the way. He had a face like Castlereigh.")
and even broke into a snippet from MacBeth when
the perfect blue skies outside the bookshop turned
dark, dislodging a torrential downpour, replete
with thunder and lightning, only to clear and
return to blue afterwards.
All of this lent
weight to the occasion and probably explains why
the targets of Hitchens's wrath don't respond.
They realize they are up against a formidable
opponent. Ideological hacks and second-rate shouters
don't bother them, but someone with the intellectual
acumen and grasp of the truth and the facts (not
always one and the same) who is amazingly quick
on his feet presents an unbeatable challenge.
They may be Goliath, but they don't want to risk
finding out if Hitchens is David.
the thunder and lightning boom and crash outside,
Hitchens holds up the book on Kissinger, which
when folded out to full dust jacket has a face
of "the great mammal" Kissinger.
face, that face," Hitchens keeps repeating.
"How many would you immolate, bomb, or destroy
to save that face?"
A collective chill
runs through the bookshop, reduced to rapt silence.
"If we could
build a wall to commemorate the dead Cambodians,
Laotians, and Vietnamese who died as a result
of the actions of Kissinger and Nixon, we would
die of shame," he said, his eyes nearly welling
with tears. "Don't go there unless you are
prepared to stay. Some have estimated that as
many as three million died as a result of Kissinger's
attempt to save face. That face, that face. How
many would you immolate, bomb or destroy to save
Indeed, he charges
that Nixon, with Kissinger's aid, illegally influenced
the outcome of the Paris Peace Talks just prior
to the presidential election in 1968. Kissinger,
then a middle-level diplomat at the peace talks,
"leaked" information to Nixon, then
a lawyer in New York, about the "secret"
talks. Nixon, without U.S. government approval
or knowledge, then communicated with South Vietnamese
leaders that they should hold off the talks until
after the election, the promise being that they
would get a "better deal" with a Nixon
the victory, Nixon appointed Kissinger "national
security advisor," and the two of them expanded
the war in Southeast Asia. The combination of
these two actionsthe secret deal and the
secret warconstitute "the wickedest
thing that has ever occurred in American history,"
says Hitchens. "There aren't words to describe
It not only led
to four more years of war (actually, seven more
years, given that the U.S. didn't officially withdraw
until 1975) but to 20,000 more American deaths,
names that would later be added to that Vietnam
Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It also
put men like Bob Kerrey in place at a time when,
with the tacit approval of their commanding officers,
they could kill old men, women, and children.
The same Kerrey who, 30 years later, has been
made into a political potato, to be gnawed on
by callow journalists and cravenly draft-dodgers
like George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, and
Dan Quayleall of whom genuflect in front
of Kissinger today but would not risk their lives
back then to save his face.
As Nicholas Von
Hoffman put it, "Who sent this young man
to wage war? A lot of them who did are still alive.
Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara are. But the
midges and earwigs of journalism invite them on
their TV shows and listen to their lies without
so much as a black-fly bite."
aloft the book, unfolds the covers, and stares
at the horrid dyspeptic mask of "that mammal"
Kissinger once more. He shouts, "That face,
saving that face! How many would you immolate,
bomb, or destroy to save that face?"
wouldn't know it to look at or listen to him on
this beautiful May day in Washington, Connecticut,
but Christopher Hitchens is in a relatively hopeful
mood. His mood has been buoyed in recent months
by the extradition and pending (though, not likely)
war crimes trial of General Augusto Pinochet.
to have been there when the British Special
Branch went to arrest him in his hospital
room, that is the one thing I would have
most liked to see. 'Come along now, Mr.
Pinochet, you've been nicked,'" he
said, clearly savoring the image. "Any
court in any democratic country will no
longer take the excuse 'I did these crimes,
but I have sovereign immunity.' These people
must now live the life of a pirate. Nowhere
to hide, nowhere to go, no longer able to
say 'I was trying to impress Richard Nixon.'"
is hoping the clock is finally running out
for Henry Kissingerand, if not in
this life, the statute of limitations will
follow him to his grave. His new book is
dedicated to "the brave victims of
Henry Kissinger, whose example will easily
outlive him, and his 'reputation.'"
Ah, but it
would have been nice to confront Kissinger,
to gun him down in front of his gentrified
neighbors, to call him out in horse country
as something no better than a horse thief.
By his cancellation, Kissinger has done
damn that would have been nice.
The new book
is also dedicated to the memory of Joseph
Heller, who has called Hitchens "a
remarkable commentator [who] jousts with
fraudulence of every stripe and always wins.
I regret he has only one life, one mind
and one reputation to put at the service
of my country."
of Hitchens include a veritable Gadfly Hall
of Fame. Gore Vidal has said, "I have
been asked whether I wish to nominate a
successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delfino.
I have decided to name Christopher Hitchens."
offers, "He is accurate where others
are merely dutiful, unpredictable where
the tendency is to go for the cliché...
And he is an internationalist, respectfully
at home where others are merely brash or
said, "His allies, of whom I count
myself one, rejoice in the sureness of his
aim. May his targets cower."
reactionary Florence King has said, "If
Christopher Hitchens is a Marxist, I want
to be one too."
Lest we forget,
Dennis Miller has called Hitchens "the
Mark McGwire of skeptics."
is indeed skeptical of such praise. He insists,
"If you look up clips on me, even people
who write in a friendly way about me feel
obliged to mention 'oh, he's the guy who
trashed Princess Diana or Mother Teresa.'
And I guess I probably can't shake that
now. It's in the slush pile."
relatively young, at 51, he has intimations
of his mortality.
remember distinctly the realization that
I had outlived Oscar Wilde at 41, and George
Orwell at 47. It was quite a vertiginous
feeling," said Hitchens. "By the
time Orwell started to write his stuff on
British imperialism, he was in his mid-20s.
That's some of his best stuff, and people
don't realize that. I remember noticing
that I was now older than he was at his
death. He died a few months after I was
born. The same feeling with Wilde. It doesn't
come up all that often. After all, Anthony
Powell lived to be 92 or thereabouts. Robert
Conquest is a good friend of mine, and he's
about the only person still around from
that generation, apart from Bernard Knox
who, by good luck, I also know. They're
both well into their 80s and incredibly
equitable guys, and I'm dimmed. That's why
I can't stand it when people like Podhoretz
say that if Orwell had lived, he'd have
become a scumbag like him. One has to say
that that is not allowed."
As for whether
he, an astute judge and professor of great
literature, regrets the path his writing
career has assumedturning him into
something of a public figurehe is
have the sense that if I had been left with
more leisure time I would have produced
a sonnet sequence or a novel sequence,"
he said. "I am convinced that some
people are doomed to write and there's nothing
they can do about it. In my case, I was
lucky because I didn't want to resist. I
know enough novelists and poets to be pretty
certain that if I ever made a smart decision
in my life it was to look at their work,
decide I wasn't up to it (to say nothing
of the work of others, like George Eliot,
say), and concentrate on trying to make
an effort in the world of the essay... where
I have had some success."
As for the
current resident in the White House, Hitchens
reserves a special chamber of invective,
having called him "Governor Death"
in the past and vowing to dog his every
step in the present and future.
how often the phrase 'peaceful transition
of power' is being used to describe the
Bush ascendancy. They try to brush your
patriotic G-spot with this phrase. But why
do they keep telling you this?" asks
Hitchens, who then answers his own question.
"They want to ventriloquize you. If
it were a peaceful transition of power,
it ought not to be constantly brought to
our attention. But let us not be cynical.
To have a peaceful transition of power is
a good thing, and what a terrible thing
if it can be profaned. It did happen in
And off he
goes again, hot on the trail of Henry Kissinger.
More Best of Gadfly:
of the Apes
an Apathetic Audience
Cannes Film Festival
Ebert's 3rd Overlooked Film Festival/David
Is on My Side
Artist Not at All Known as Prince
Up on Ochs
From the Book of Job
in Terre Haute