“Come for a drink on Thursday and stay as long as you like,” came the e-mail reply, gracious and open. I’ll admit I was thrilled to get my time in the near-mythic company of one of the world’s great intellects and drinkers, Christopher Hitchens.
It was the fall of 2006 and I wanted to talk about Henry Kissinger, who I was then profiling for New York magazine. Hitchens would have much to say, having excoriated Kissinger masterfully in both print and film. So he directed me to his home in Washington, “just behind the Hilton on Connecticut (sometimes unfeelingly known as the Hinckley Hilton).”
When I arrived that evening, he welcomed me into his apartment in stockinged feet, shirt open at the collar. I followed him into the kitchen, where he was cooking us dinner: steak, peas, potatoes – properly English. His wife, friendly and talkative, had just returned with their daughter from piano lessons. A reporter for dinner was just part of the domestic churn.
As Hitchens tended to our steaks, we talked about Kissinger. He'd seen him recently in an airport, where he told me Kissinger "walked with surprising speed away. He put on a good pace."
But talk of Kissinger was soon overtaken by a more glaring and pressing subject, one we couldn't at that moment avoid: Iraq, his support of it, and how incredibly bad it was going. We started off in his library, sipping Johnny Walker Black and smoking cigarettes. When dinner was ready, the drinking and smoking traveled to the dining room, where we would spend the next five hours talking about the war.
The truth is, Iraq’s descent into a bloody quagmire was so self-evident by then that I could somehow hold my own against his vastly superior debating skills. I remember he seemed somewhat morose that night, even resigned, and to sustain his now-complicated pro-war position fell back on story after story he’d been told by Iraqi dissidents of the horrendous oppression and torture under Saddam Hussein, perhaps trying to soften up my sense of human sympathy in support of the cause.
The next day, I wrote an e-mail thanking him for his hospitality and explaining that I’d looked over the cliff of his argument on Iraq and could simply not take the leap.
“Pleasure mine,” he wrote back. “I of course have to view it from the other end of that abyss ... Can't jump OUT.”
It seems ironic that Hitchens died only two days after that war officially ended. We will argue for years over whether it was worth it. But it's sadder than I'd ever imagined that Christopher Hitchens won't be here to make his case.