With the ascendancy of Barack Obama, and Christopher’s much busier and more public schedule, we saw less of each other. I found Obama a sort of Greek cathartic figure — the sum total of a half-century of flawed assumptions that now had inevitably arrived as our collective Greek nemesis. Hitchens came to welcome Obama (although he was masterly in his dissection of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) as the modern scientific mind’s proper antidote to the supposedly superstitious and pre-modern Palin (an “ignoramus” and “idiot,” he thundered, who did not believe in subsidizing Drosophila research) or the surely “senile” McCain. He was savage in the 2008 race in insisting McCain/Palin were medieval, with Obama/Biden avatars of the Enlightenment — a contrast he had never made in the case of the supposedly erudite Kerry and the evangelical Bush, whom he voted for. When I later pointed out all sorts of instances where Obama simply had made up historical facts and based policy on pseudo-science, it was a futile rear-guard action from someone who already sullied himself by once defending Palin — as if I were a pathetic sort of William Jennings Bryan pitted against Clarence Darrow.
I once ambiguously remarked to him that he would soon learn — with his support for Obama (yet I think this support was genuine rather than contrived), along with the publication of God Is Not Great
— that his former critics now were more likely to welcome him home where he belonged. In one of my final arguments with him, I remember hearing in near disbelief his championing of John Edwards (in the days well before the sex “disclosures”). I pressed him to tell me just one good thing about such an unimpressive figure. He tried, but even his gifts were not up to it, and finally he resorted to the fact that he knew Edwards and especially his impressive wife. I suggested that his support for Edwards was far more logically suspect than was my admiration for Sarah Palin’s odyssey from Wasilla to the governorship. (Attention, John Edwards: If you are reading this, be assured that Christopher Hitchens supported your sorry cause to the bitter end.)
In this regard, I never quite understood why conservatives thought Hitchens a conservative. He was most certainly not. Did they expect that his brilliant polemics on behalf of finishing the job in Iraq would lead to metamorphoses on other issues? Did they not see that for Hitchens the issue was not supporting George Bush — or conservatives or Republicans or a U.S. war, right or wrong — but helping to rectify the betrayal of the Shiites of 1991, showing solidarity with the long-persecuted (and at times Trotskyite) Kurds, opposing a murderously illiberal radical Islam that sought to hijack our own liberation from a genocidal Saddam, fulfilling both the U.N. and congressional authorizations, and in the process tweaking a number of liberal hypocrisies that long had needed to be tweaked? I note too that he had an enormous respect for U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq that made the thought of opposing what they were in the middle of fighting for impossible.
So we met less frequently after 2009, with the ascendancy of Obama, the quiet in Iraq, and the new rounds of fresh Hitchens invective that earned headlines rather than reflected logic and good sense. Even for the late Jerry Falwell (yes, Jerry Falwell) was there not to be any sense of de mortuis nihil nisi bonum? Of course not! Why the low blows to Paul Johnson? Hitchens laughed all that off as not rising to the level of needing rebuttal — given my bumpkin ignorance of long-ago London literary hypocrisies — but on one occasion at his home in California he walked over, went into his files, and handed me a Xerox of an old review of Johnson’s Intellectuals with the quip, “I hope it is as bad as you remember it.” I once suggested to him that whether Mitt Romney wore holy underwear or not was none of our business, but whether Barack Obama smoked was; he answered with a brief three-minute exegesis about why underwear most certainly trumped cigarettes.
I had read Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain and some of his columns, and liked what he wrote, even as I accepted that he was as hostile to Americans who supported the Bush foreign policy as he was to leftists. Here I was sincere in praising Christopher’s brother, not seeking a barb from Christopher; but he exceeded my praise with compliments of his own. That too was a trait of Mr. Hitchens. Whatever he may have written, in informal conversation he had only reverence for his father, his mother, his children, and especially his wife, Carol — and apparently his rival brother as well. As a general rule with the me-generation over 50, what they say now about their parents is often a valuable window into their souls.