Hunting Henry
Alan Bisbort follows Christopher Hitchens into the heart of Kissinger country

First posted: 6-04-01

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.

A woman—a fan—wanted 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 a hand."

Contrary 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 trenches. Indeed, 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: poetic justice.

He has come to Washington, Connecticut—a 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 has—at her encouragement—taken 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 it all.

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."

Though 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 down.

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. Hitchens whatsoever."

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."

Hitchens 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 good doctor.

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.

Hitchens redeemed himself splendidly among the bluebloods—the "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 media.

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 Hitchens—the 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.

"They don't 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.

As 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.

"That 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 that face?"

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 administration.

After securing the victory, Nixon appointed Kissinger "national security advisor," and the two of them expanded the war in Southeast Asia. The combination of these two actions—the secret deal and the secret war—constitute "the wickedest thing that has ever occurred in American history," says Hitchens. "There aren't words to describe the treachery."

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 Quayle—all 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."

Hitchens holds 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?"

You 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.

"Just 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.'"

Hitchens is hoping the clock is finally running out for Henry Kissinger—and, 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 as much.

Still... 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."

Other fans 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."

Edward Said 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 provincial."

Susan Sontag said, "His allies, of whom I count myself one, rejoice in the sureness of his aim. May his targets cower."

Even the 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."

Hitchens 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."

Though still relatively young, at 51, he has intimations of his mortality.

"I can 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 assumed—turning him into something of a public figure—he is circumspect.

"I don't 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.

"Notice 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 1968..."

And off he goes again, hot on the trail of Henry Kissinger.

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