Christopher Hitchens opens the door of his Washington apartment, a glass of Scotch in his hand, and says with a grin, "I've started without you." It's 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and as Hitchens sits down in a book-lined alcove off the living room, placing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black on the table between us, he immediately mentions that tonight is Passover. He's been brooding about the Jewish holiday, he explains, since he usually spends it at the home of his former friend Sidney Blumenthal. Not this year.
"I've been thinking of just turning up at Sidney's and walking in when they open the door for Elijah," Hitchens says. It's hard to tell for a moment whether he's joking or he's serious, since this shambling, tousle-haired British journalist, an agent provocateur columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation, delights in the dramatic gesture, in impishly courting controversy. Then he adds, looking wistful, "I've decided it would be too theatrical."
It's been two months since Hitchens threw the grenade that bounced back to explode his own life. A week before the final vote of President Clinton's impeachment trial, Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, both left liberals, took the startling step of cooperating with House Republicans and ratting out their dear old friend Blumenthal. Both signed affidavits saying that the Clinton aide had told them over lunch that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker -- a smear that the White House had denied spreading.
The gesture was politically futile, but the personal repercussions were fierce. Even though Blumenthal has long been ridiculed as the ultimate Clinton toady, Hitchens was immediately branded the villain in this Washington drama. His behavior in turning state's evidence was seen as simultaneously traitorous and self-destructive. The Washington Post and other publications promptly ran stories suggesting he was headed for permanent social purdah. Yet Hitchens is acting anything but contrite.
"I don't care if people despise me; it's a badge of honor," Hitchens pronounces defiantly. "Some of the people who say they consider me an ex-friend have saved me the trouble."
In the grand tradition of Washington enemies lists, Hitchens, too, is keeping score. He tells me he's furious at New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for describing him as "snitchens" and a "canary." "That little cow," he fumes. "And I've always been fond of her." He's amazed, rightly so, at the venom of a series of unrelated personal attacks on his character: Edward J. Epstein charged Hitchens, in a widely circulated e-mail, of being a Holocaust denier. (He's not.) Alexander Cockburn implied in his own column that Hitchens makes drunken passes at male friends. ("I've certainly never tried to jump his bones," Hitchens says with a mischievous laugh.) L.A. Times columnist Bob Scheer even dragged up an old scandal, attacking Hitchens on TV for leaving his pregnant first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, for Blue.
But the worst insult of all? "The New York Times called me a 'Washington insider,' " he says in a tone of mock outrage. "Do you think I can sue them for libel?"
As he pauses to light one in a never-ending series of cigarettes -- making the point of telling me they're unfiltered -- it's clear he's putting on a show, with the intent to amuse. He's a rakishly attractive man, now gone a bit to seed from prodigious drinking ("I'm fat," he moans), a master of the devastatingly pointed phrase, a writer who both produces and is good copy.
Still, Hitchens is eager to salvage his reputation. His elegant, rambling apartment on the top floor of the landmark Wyoming condo building in the Kalorama neighborhood resembles a grad student's lair: virtually no furniture but thousands of books careening off bookshelves, stacked on the floor, tilting precariously on side tables. Hitchens is a born storyteller, and for hours he regales me with self-deprecatingly hilarious tales, confides riveting details about a haunting family tragedy, and tosses in literary and historical references as if striving for some conversational prize in erudition.