Hitchens in North Beach
He Knew He Was Right, The New Yorker, 2006:
At a dinner a few months ago in San Francisco with his wife, Carol Blue, and some others, Hitchens wore a pale jacket and a shirt unbuttoned far enough to hint at what one ex-girlfriend has called “the pelt of the Hitch.” Hitchens, who only recently gave up the habit of smoking in the shower, was working through a pack of cigarettes while talking to two women at his end of the table: a Stanford doctor in her early thirties whom he’d met once before, and a friend of hers, a librarian. He spoke with wit and eloquence about Iranian politics and what he saw as the unnecessary handsomeness of Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco.
In the noisy front room of the North Beach restaurant where the friends had met, Hitchens made a toast: “To the Constitution of the United States, and confusion to its enemies!” The conversation was amiable and boozy; Hitchens might be said to care more for history than for individual humans, but he was in an easy mood, after a drive, in beautiful early-evening light, from Menlo Park. (He and Blue, a writer working on a novel, live with their thirteen-year-old daughter in Washington, D.C., but spend the summer in California, where her parents live.) During the ride, he had discussed with the Pakistani-born taxi-driver the virtues and vices of Benazir Bhutto, while surreptitiously using a bottle of Evian to put out a small but smoky fire that he had set in the ashtray.
And then the young doctor to his left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was “a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, “I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a “pathological liar.”
“All politicians lie!” the women said.
“He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.
“But he’s a politician.”
“No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for “doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) “Fine,” Hitchens said. “Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”
“That’s wrong!” they said.
“You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. “I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”
“But Christopher . . .”
“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”