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My Liquid Dinner With Hitch

Vying for the attentions of the ornery pundit

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Leaning back from the table, ever-present Rothman smoldering away, Christopher Hitchens turned from globalpolitik to what was really on his mind: why the nickname "Spanker" goes so well with most British surnames, and what the sexiest word in the English language might be. "The most exciting word in the language?" wondered the apostate ideologue rhetorically, tugging at his drink. "It's preemptive. Yes, preemptive. In fact, I'm getting excited by it right now."

Hitchens was holding court in the back of Edgewater's Ethiopian Diamond restaurant, where he'd repaired with an entourage last Thursday after a speaking event at nearby Left of Center Books. Local journalist Danny Postel--a friend since 1996, when they chatted on Postel's radio show Free Associations about Hitch's Mother Teresa smackdown--had organized the evening, promising a lively conversation about the author's notorious split with the Nation, and the left in general, after 9/11. Only when most of the standing-room-only crowd had drifted home did Hitchens, a generous shaker of strange hands, make the move to the restaurant, the rest of us trailing along.

The Diamond was officially closed, but Postel, a regular, had arranged to keep it open for the afterparty. Unfortunately, the special treatment did not extend to a temporary repeal of the smoking policy--forcing the guest of honor, a famous champion of elective vices, to quickly abandon the party of 20 or so for the small smoking section at the rear.

When I sidled over a few minutes later, Hitchens had already accumulated a four-finger glass of whiskey and a relentlessly inquisitive graduate student. Hitch proffered a light. His interlocutor eyed me up and down, then recommenced firing away.

Why did globalization seem to target those third world countries least equipped to deal with socioeconomic upheaval? Isn't such havoc--not to mention the effects of less subtle occupations--at least partially responsible for all manner of radicalizations and insurgencies around the world? How does a vulnerable nation protect itself from the IMF? Now that you and Wolfowitz are on the same page, what's your take on Syria? Iran? Most of the questions alluded in one way or another to Hitchens's seeming transformation from maverick contrarian liberal to Chomsky-bashing neocon apologist, and for the most part he was genial in response--though his chair did seem to edge inexorably away from his inquisitor as the evening progressed. Finally landing a sycophantic jab, however, the querant was tartly warned by Hitchens against "pulling my whiskers" again.

The grad student turned to a couple people who'd joined us, and informed them that he was trying to decide whether or not to become a poststructuralist. Meanwhile, Hitchens held forth on a wide range of topics, from Al Jazeera to AIDS to suicide bombers to the future of Cuba to his worst wishes regarding the convalescent pope. The institutional cowardice of the American press corps and the venerable tradition of crafting and fielding softballs was one recurring motif, so I lobbed one: "Is journalism in crisis?" "You know, that's a good question," replied Hitchens, "and I'm glad you asked it. We're looking into these things, and these matters are certainly of great concern to all of us. We're continuing to work on it, and I assure you that we'll continue to do so in the future . . ."

By the time the food arrived, the group at the table had grown only slightly; most of the party remained in the main room. Hitchens had moved on to his second four fingers when the grad student hit us with a new one. "So, do you know who Camille Paglia is?"

Hitchens looked exhausted; his chair seemed to have scootched another six inches to the right. But he dove in gamely, with more patience, warmth, and wit than you'd expect from the belligerent caricature his recent columns for Slate and Vanity Fair might suggest he's become. Every writer has to deal with a disconnect between a whole living breathing idea and what ends up on the page, and for all his skills as a prose stylist, Hitchens's cheery enthusiasm for argument comes off way better in person. So, by the same token, does the actorly way he plays his shtick to the hilt--down to the smoking, drinking, and occasional bawdy remark.

Several drinks and topics later, Postel strolled back to check on his charge, most of the well-wishers from the main room having departed. "Christopher," he chirped, brandishing a fresh carafe of wine. "I've come to lubricate you!"

"Darling," said Hitchens with a throaty sigh. "I thought you'd never ask."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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