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The Boy Can't Help It

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Yet he clearly is also searching for approval, telling me with obvious pleasure that he received a warm welcome at the book party from one of the city's leading social arbiters, the writer Sally Quinn. "I like Christopher, I think he's brilliant," Quinn says. More to the point, she stands with him in anti-Clinton solidarity. "Christopher did what he had to do, and I don't have a problem with that."

Just as President Clinton kept apologizing endlessly last fall in hopes of finally getting it right, Hitchens still cannot stop explaining himself, even if it's in his interest to let the controversy die down. First came a column in The Nation, then his op-ed for the Washington Post, and now a blow-by-blow account in this May's Vanity Fair of how and why he came to write what may be his most famous words, the one-page affidavit. Next week he's starting a national tour -- including L.A., New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle -- to promote his new book, an entertaining screed against Clinton called No One Left to Lie To, which sums up every Clinton deed Hitchens finds abominable and includes a final chapter about the Blumenthal affair. (Since notoriety usually sells, his publisher, Verso, has already increased the first print run by 10,000, to 35,000 copies.)

"I told him, do this column, and don't talk about it again, don't make it the lead paragraph in your obituary. Move on," says Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. But he knows Hitchens can't just leave it alone. Carter jokes that he's had to ban Hitchens from further airing his unwavering hatred for our commander-in-chief in the magazine: "Christopher is very rational about most things, but he's missing a sense of proportion on this."

In truth, the great joy in reading the prolific Hitchens's work is that he's devilishly clever and unafraid to go over-the-top. He's fearless in tackling taboo topics, whether debunking Mother Teresa, railing against the Princess Di mythology, complaining about the uselessness of airport security, or ripping into Washington, D.C.'s, inept and corrupt city government. His rabble-rousing stories, along with his serious literary criticism, have made him well-read on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis are the thinking woman's crumpet," says Joanna Cole, a columnist for the Times of London. She recalls a literary gathering two years ago in London where young women in black queued up to talk to the two men. "They made being intellectual sexy, which it wasn't in Britain."

In America, British accents are sexy, and Hitchens sports an upper-class one that makes people think he grew up living the good life. But the voice is actually just good packaging. "A great attempt was made by my mother to make sure I spoke as I do now," he says. Hitchens was born on a naval base in Portsmouth. His father, Eric, was a career officer who met his much younger mother, Yvonne, a Navy wren, during World War II. The couple struggled financially to send Christopher, at age 7, and later his two-years-younger brother, Peter, to boarding schools.

It wasn't a terrible childhood, but it doesn't sound like a very happy one. Hitchens can still work up an angry tone of voice as he describes his well-to-do classmates' sense of entitlement, and his pleasure in discovering that he could use words as a weapon to humiliate rivals in debate. School, for all its mixed blessings, provided an escape from the tensions of home. His father drank and his mother chain-smoked, two vices their oldest son acquired. "I've wondered all my life why my parents married," Hitchens says. "My father couldn't believe his luck; she had charisma. He was a conservative, stodgy guy. She was a liberal, and she would have liked a life with more music and gaiety." Somehow, it is not surprising when he adds, "I take after my mother; my brother wants to be my old man."


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