Vanity Fair's Smoking Gun
Ready, set, go: Mother Teresa is a "wizened, shriveled old lady," a "political opportunistic promoter of a cult of submission among the poor," "an ideological accomplice and moral legitimizer for the political right" a veritable "hell bat." Furthermore, this "dangerous sinister person properly belongs in the caboose of the Pat Buchanan baggage train;" she is the "Ghoul of Calcutta."Want more? Dick Morris was Bill Clinton's "pimp" who was "urging the Clintonoids to uphold family values and throw poor children to the wolves for the crime of illegitimacy [even as] he was fathering a child out of wedlock and wasting his or our substance on whores" in a D.C. hotel.Had enough? If asked to "choose between the word of a whore [Carrick's own Sherri Rowlands] and the word of the Chief Executive, I must say I'd feel that the whore was being unfairly bracketed."Surely not the Monarchy, you say?! The House of Windsor's "a miserable, secretive family" whose Prince was forced to marry a "disco-loving airhead."And don't even get him started on Henry Kissinger.What do you call a bloke that harbors such sentiments? And all in print? Blasphemous bastard? Scurrilous scoundrel? Cheeky rogue? When it comes to fulfilling the stereotype of the cynically brazen British expatriate, Christopher Hitchens fills the role as comfortably as he does his loose-fitting shirt and very rumpled dark navy sports jacket. Beyond the scruffiness and irascibility, this somewhat left-of-center, non-mainstream writer, intellectual journalist and newfound academic offers perspectives that stir up debate, even shock, but always in a way that can change minds.Changing minds has been Hitchens' forte for over 25 years. You might have read his pieces in The Nation ("Minority Report"), Harper's ("Capital Letters") and presently in Vanity Fair, where he writes the monthly "Fin de Si?cle" column. Hitchens also pens book reviews and essays in the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New York Newsday and Grand Street His mug also can be seen among the "chattering class" on C-SPAN, C-SPAN and CNN.The image of the uncompromising freelance journalist (read "hack"), turning his pen and venom onto almost anything (read "brave, but often unwell"), defying convention and offering a lonely dissenting voice (read "typically poor") has been around since people could first write. Hitchens takes great pride in being the gadfly in the ointment and fits the definition of a Renaissance man: someone with either many interests or a very short attention span. His writing is across the board: on art and politics, the historical plight of the Palestinians, the situation in Cyprus, literature, ethnicity and regionalism, religious fanaticism and the destructively cultish man-made illusions of the Church, the Windsors and the so-called "Ghoul of Calcutta" herself.Going into this encounter with Hitchens, I wondered if I could handle such an imposing wit and raconteur. I'd met him a half-dozen times, most notably at some boring British Embassy function. I also had read most of his 11 books and, given my own somewhat lesser published output -- all right, I've published no books to date -- I knew I had my work cut out for me.We met for two hours over drinks, his signature drink being a long line of Johnny Walker Blacks with soda water on the side. I'd also sat in on the two courses he's teaching this term at University of Pittsburgh on a visiting Andrew Mellon fellowship. The first class deals with the role of the press as an opposition force in a democracy: exploring the ways that journalism has (and hasn't) provided an independent, alternative perspective. The second, "Blood, Class and Nostalgia," examines that old theme of his, the overt and subliminal ways in which the English have influenced, pressured and used Americans to subtly retain or reclaim their "lost" Empire.Hitchens' constant theme of the "End of Empire" helped determine where we'd meet for the bulk of the interview dinner at Pittsburgh's Grand Concourse. Upon entering, Hitchens is quite charmed by the Grand Concourse's dark-recessed, yellow-lit atmosphere and its arched stained-glass ceilings. This palace of Edwardian splendor rests in the shadow of where Clinton took John Major when they came to town, dining on black cherry-covered filet mignons. The Edwardian Age seems to represent those old notions of Empire for Hitchens: the old gentleman's club world that operated out of the hereditary principle of blue blood which, in turn, perpetuated the class system. The United Kingdom, an island-nation where blood and breeding are often synonymous with class and character, still retains a House of Lords, knighthoods, a royalty but possibly not for long. Hand-in-hand with this notion of Edwardian Empire comes one additional element: entropy, decline, the stench of decay.Now sitting comfortably at our table with his first scotch and my merlot, Hitchens a man whose publisher labels "one of today's most devastating polemicists" and Oliver Stone calls a "breath of Tom Paine" begins to unwind from his rushed week. He's suffering from a cold picked up living the previous month in Northern California during the floods, eyes often runny and bloodshot, voice somewhat hoarse. We order the best bottle of merlot in the house. The curved booth we'd been taken to could hold six comfortably. Yet, Hitchens prefers sitting in the hard-backed chair on the outside rim forcing me to take the whole inside curved, plush pink couch to myself. "Back problems," he murmurs, but it does leave me with the distinct impression that I'm being made the subject, the one who's being interviewed.Hitchens lights up a cigarette. The consummate smoker, he once wrote a piece called "Booze and Fags" ("Fag" is Brit-speak for cigarette), stating that "Like money, booze and fags are happiness, and people cannot be expected to pursue happiness in moderation." Writing of those truant public school days of his youth, a favorite rite of passage was to "inhale a pint of suds in each [pub] within the space of an hour ... without puking, or without puking until the end:"You never see him without a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other. Yet he lacks a smoker's hack and never seems drunk, forever alert, observant and sharp. Booze and nicotine seem to fuel his engine, faithful companions on a winter's day. After a long drag, he reflects upon the arched glass ceiling way above us.As the first course arrives, Hitchens begins to tell his story: the upbringing which allowed him to surpass his modest family life, enter the old boy Oxbridge school system and lead to the life and access he now enjoys.As we sit eating and talking, I wonder to myself if this truly is the man who wrote those nasty things, who so many love to hate. Is he really "multilingual, well-traveled, hypereducated, pissed-off" (Village Voice Literary Supplement)? Does he truly "rejoice without inhibition in the pleasure of hating ... know[ing] that satire is murder by other means." (The Observer)?. Even the publication in which he regularly appears, The Nation, labels him "fuel for intellectual conflagration." But beyond this image of the difficult polemic, irreverent wit, he's really quite charming in person accessible, self-deprecating, hilarious at times, filled with empathy and dare I say it harmless to fear. Fear and loathing I encounter daily, but not here.Still, Hitchens' pen and wit can turn acidic on all subjects. The real strength of his writing is his use of sarcastic wit to make his arguments so much more palatable, sellable. Hitchens is more in the tradition of Swift, Twain or even Lenny Bruce, as opposed to the cheap shock tactics of a Howard Stern. True satire, while mocking, derogating or diminishing a subject or person, has an important social role: It functions as a way to hold individuals, institutions and society itself up to ridicule for not living up to their greatest potential. It's an ideal world by which our real world is compared and found wanting.By this time our first bottle of merlot had been exhausted and Hitchens ordered the maitre d' to produce a "Xerox" of the last. The maitre d' stands confused momentarily until Hitchens explains that by "Xerox" he means another "copy."Hitchens says that as far back as 1975, he could see this coming rise of conservatism, a counter-revolution to the '60s. "By the mid-'70s, having seen the '60s dying on the vine in the U.S. and England, I felt that the elections of Malcome Fraser in Australia proved to many conservatives in England that she [Thatcher] could win when almost all [conventional wisdom] went against it." Hitchens was convinced after coming to America during the 1980 election that Reagan would win similarly. "None of the fucking liberals in New York could see this coming," Hitchens says. "They all said, 'No, I don't know anyone who works for Reagan,'" The phenomenon of Reaganism-Thatcherism gave him a subject to expand upon in his columns. Around 1989 he started his "Capital Letters" column for Harper's; his move to Vanity Fair forced his departure at Harper's.Does Hitchens see himself as a "muckraker" in the old-fashioned sense? Not really. "Most of my columns are about the battle of ideas and observations."One "battle" Hitchens has waged is against the treasured role of Henry Kissinger in American foreign policy and political life. Hitchens is convinced that he can prove many times over conclusively that Kissinger committed war crimes. He says he'd love Kissinger to sue and is in the process of raising funds for a documentary (possibly titled, he says, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) that establishes Kissinger conspired to commit murders. Among other things, Hitchens maintains that Kissinger: "helped the Nixon campaign in its secret effort to destabilize the Paris Peace Conference," allowing tens of thousands more to die in Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere; "inaugurated the second front or home front of the war [by] illegally wiretapping the telephones even of his own staff and of his journalistic clientele this war against the enemy within being the genesis of Watergate"; played a role in the civilian massacre policy in East Bengal (Bangladesh); had direct personal knowledge of the CIA's plan to kidnap and murder General Ren Schneider, the head of the Chilean Armed Forces; approved of the preparations by Greek Cypriot fascists for the murder of President Makarios; abandoned the Kurds in 1974 in northern Iraq to be slaughtered; supported the invasion of East Timor by the Armed Forces of Indonesia that employed American weapons and caused the deaths of 100,000 or more. Hitchens also maintains that Kissinger's policy of leniency towards the Beijing dictatorship after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 had more to do with Kissinger possibly being "on the take" in some fashion; he was at the time "privately advising" H. J. Heinz, Atlantic Richfield, ITT and others on their investments in China through his Wall Street consulting firm Kissinger Associates. Hitchens concludes, "It seems to me absolutely outrageous that he's still considered a member of what's called decent society ... that he's walking around far more than [people] like 0. J. Simpson."It's not just the Right that Hitchens skewers: he takes on all sides, an equal-opportunity polemic: "I didn't go into politics or journalism or teaching to just be inoffensive or innocuous." As we sit finishing off the last bottle and prepare for the dessert, I try to pin him down on his ideology; yet it seems impossible. After I identified myself as a "left-leaning liberal," he exclaimed, "Well, yes. We're going to have to work on that." Another time he advises me to "fight liberalism with every fiber of my being." According to him, the corruption of the American process didn't begin with Nixon, but with the Kennedys: "Look. No one should forget that it's the Kennedys, whom every fucking liberal ... still adores, to begin with with their fucking mobbed-up lives and disgusting dynastic arrangements. Liberals don't deny it, but can't really accept it." Writing in The Spectator in 1983, Hitchens asserted that much of the Kennedy legend was a pure lie:... [Kennedy's book] Profiles in Courage was written by Theodore Sorensen, who also penned Kennedy's flatulent but memorable inauguration speech. And the Pulitzer Prize committee ... was lobbied ... by Arthur Krock ... who used the whole weight of the Kennedy family to get the prize for his friend and patron JFK ... It may be ... a complete waste of time trying to undo the grandiose absurdity of the Kennedy myth. If Americans knew then what they do now about JFK, that he shared a mistress with a Mafia murderer, ... faked the authorship of "his" books, ... gave a fictitious account of the wartime PT-109 episode, ... that he dissembled about Vietnam and lied in his sparkling teeth about Cuba they might not have trusted him as they did .... Somehow, the drama of Dallas has sanctified and canceled everything.Hitchens tries to clarify his position. "Look, don't get me wrong. Nixon was evil in his own right. Nixon was very good at class-hatred mobilized by the right-wing what we now call populism that's being pushed by Pat Buchanan. Well, Nixon first tapped into that. Yet Nixon was innocent during the infamous 1960 elections in that it was the Kennedys with the help of the corrupt union influence in West Virginia, corruption in Cook County (Chicago), Joseph Kennedy, Sr. who stole the election with dirty money and mobsters."All this talk about Dallas and rigged elections gets us onto the topic of how cynical, even paranoid Americans have become in the last three decades. According to Hitchens it's gone well beyond the John Birchers and Joe McCarthys of the '50s and '60s. "Look, back then there's what the nut cases believe and what the rational consensus believe. Now that's no longer true. So much has happened since then. Almost everyone in America has at least one kind of paranoid reservation, something that doesn't add up here, that we're not being told everything or the truth the so-called official story. On the other hand, the public now believes in any old thing. G. K. Chesterton used to say that 'when people cease to believe in God ... they come to believe not in nothing but in anything.' The absolute faith in God and country and government has been shattered; that's good in many ways, but people also now believe in anything and everything they pick up from God knows where: from astrology to what's available on the Internet you believe in the last thing you've heard."President Bill Clinton and many other Yanks were at Oxford during Hitchens' days there. Hitchens says that Clinton, "part the hanging judge and part the therapy-oriented defense lawyer," doesn't lose any sleep over any of his deeds. "He's the worst of my age that we have inflicted upon the globe." Hitchens has a special revulsion and an additional layer of misery since that "this is the nearest I'll come to someone of my generation come to such power ... someone who was in the anti-war movement with me at Oxford as President. This is it and there are some things he doesn't have the right to betray."Hitchens' disdain for Clinton crystallized during the 1992 New Hampshire primary over the infamous Rickey Ray Rector execution. Rector, a black Arkansas murderer on death row, was reduced to a lobotomized mental state as the result of a self-inflicted bullet. Governor Clinton refused to grant clemency to Rector; this was the weekend of the Gennifer Flowers scandal and the famous 60 Minutes interview. Clinton was besieged with Flowers questions and the last thing he felt he needed was the label of being soft on crime; he flew directly back to Arkansas to push through the execution. At the Manchester airport press conference, Hitchens changed the subject from Clinton's self-admitted adultery: "Well, Governor, I've got a change of subject for you." Clinton looked very pleased. "What about Rickey Ray Rector?" Clinton simply turned his back on Hitchens and walked away which Hitchens felt was bad form, but worse, felt let down by his own fellow journalists. This proved to him that Clinton was and is a "calculating opportunist."Hitchens' latest book, The Missionary Position, is a 98-page rebuttal to the sainted image of Mother Teresa, an image that 99 percent of the world holds dearly. Even its title is a blasphemous blow up her holy robes. Believing that there are no sacred cows, Hitchens takes after her for what he sees as the sheer heresy that he feels she represents. He writes of first encountering Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1980: while touring there, he scheduled a drop-by at one of her Missionaries of Charity: "I nonetheless went for a walkabout with Mother Teresa herself ... There was something in the way she accepted the kisses bestowed on her feet, taking them as no more than her due ...." Then, after he noticed the small empty cot where an infant had just died, Mother Teresa announced: "You see, this is how we fight abortion and contraception in Calcutta." Hitchens writes "that the last thing that Bengal needs ... is a campaign against population control. Mother Teresa's avowed motive somewhat cheapened the ostensible work of charity and made it appear ... an exercise in propaganda." Mother Teresa has gone on to condemn mothers who abort their babies as "the worst evil" and "the enemies of peace." He quotes from Susan Shields' first-hand testimony:In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptize those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person ... [dying] if he wanted a 'ticket to heaven' ... The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient's head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa's sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems.Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa's belief that the dying and the poor should embrace their lot: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." And, according to Hitchens' evidence, suffer and die they most assuredly do. And he blames us for not interpreting what Mother Teresa really is: "[someone] who has never pretended that her work is anything but a fundamentalist religious campaign." Hitchens shows us the visit by a Dr. Robin Fox (editor of The Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals) at one of her hospitals: "There are doctors who call in from time to time but usually the sisters and volunteers ... make decisions as best they can ... Investigations are seldom permissible .... I was disturbed to learn that [their treatments] include no strong analgesics."In her hospitals run by her like the CEO of a huge multinational corporation (456 centers in 105 countries) the ill and the dying are denied diagnosis, treatment (even basic antibiotics) and anything that would ease their pain. Mother Teresa even brags that: "They die content. 23,000 have died there." While the poor die with no frills, Mother Teresa herself has "checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age."Hitchens fills this short volume with photos and tales of Mother Teresa meeting with the Haitian dictator's wife, Charles Keating and Ronald Reagan. She takes huge amounts of money from such company and afterwards goes to bat for them: she even wrote a letter on behalf of Keating reprinted in the book to the Judge Ito pleading for mercy.Does Hitchens think that Mother's harmless? "No, in that not only does she consort with dictators and assorted scum for cash, allow medical conditions to be substandard, but perpetuates a massive lie: her saintly persona."Among criticisms of The Missionary Position are that it's "too short", "zealously overwritten", and often too "flippant." While even the critics do not dispute the conditions of her hospitals or even the "scum" she assorts with for money, some (like Newsweek) are disturbed by Hitchens' lack of "extensive investigative work" to "justify such a scorched-earth condemnation." Yet, even the London Review ("extremely well written") and the New York Times Book Review (" ... argues his case with consummate style ... is rather convincing") support him overall in his task. Only the right-wing National Review goes out on the limb in hoping that, "The only good that will come from this book is the prayers the nuns ... are no doubt saying for its author."Hitchens contends that "the struggle against religion is really the most important struggle in some ways because, even at the times when what's crudely called fundamentalism isn't a threat, as a habit of thought it's so sloppy and sentimental and self-indulgent that it needs to be combated for mental health purposes, for moments of sheer clarity."The dessert arrives: a chocolate-molded replica of the Smithfield Street Bridge outlined against a cocoa-powdered Pittsburgh skyline. After initially balking, Hitchens digs in, taking the first bite. As we sit dividing up the city like so many past imperial powers dividing up the conquests of Empire, I realize that 1997 does seem like the ideal year to be taking on the End of Empire: in the U.K. they're set to ban fox hunting, the House of Lords, give up Hong Kong, junk the Royal Yacht Britannia. In many ways, Hitchens is the product of the Empire he detests and has spent his life debunking. "I'm deeply aware that my very accent and [Oxford] schooling have afforded me access into many doors and allowed me to escape whenever warranted."I try to summarize the overall goal of his work to see political, social, moral pretensions and to knock them down like hitting an overstuffed pinata with a cricket bat. "Yes, I think I have the best time personally write best and get the best responses when I ask myself why does everyone agree on this, think this way when it's obviously not true. When the real facts are right there before your nose. People need permission to think."