Hitchens: The TV Gladiator
Every pundit that has tried to make a point, throw a punch, or declare victory should pause today to salute Christopher Hitchens.
He burst on the U.S. media scene first on William F. Buckley Jr.’s television series Firing Line, then on CNN’s Larry King Live and Crossfire in the early Reagan Presidency. He (along with now presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) knew immediately that cable television was the new media play for serious public policy combat. The “disruptors,” as our web friends say now. Hitchens didn’t talk to the empty chairs each night on C-SPAN as Gingrich did to make his points and show the American people that he was still at work, he just swung for the rafters with every comment on the only two cable shows.
Pat Buchanan, a great verbal brawler in his own right, is the only person I ever saw who could anticipate the blows. Hitch had a big fight with Bob Novak once on Crossfire and Bob banned him from the show for a while. It was like losing a world champion. I think Bob finally let us bring him back because he knew Hitch had real fight in him, and we kept bringing up his name.
Hitch was even more dangerous in person. The twinkle, the total confidence — he never missed anything. To be invited to Hitch’s home was Washington’s equivalent of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. There was no doubt that anyone who mattered would be there. With his incredible wife and partner, the writer Carol Blue, you knew you were at ground zero for intellectual conversation.
When longtime friend Christopher Buckley’s book, Thank You for Smoking, hit the movie screens, I attended a small dinner celebration at the Metropolitan Club. Being with these magical word masters and best of friends on such an important occasion was a total treat. These gladiators of language would throw something in the air and it would burst into fireworks dazzling those lucky enough to watch it rain down. It was then I decided the greatest TV show of all time would be The Dueling Christophers. (Yes, I did later pitch the idea to PBS.)
Carol, Hitch and I went to the Naval Academy to attend the memorial service for the father of our friend, Elizabeth Edwards. Hitch wanted to be there for his friend. After selling millions of books condemning religion, to my surprise, he gently sung all the hymns. I asked when the last time he was in a church and he said six months earlier at Bill Buckley’s funeral.
One of my favorite TV stories was when a young ABC News producer booked him to give funeral commentary for one his favorite targets, Mother Teresa. It was another brief but great Hitchens TV moment. You didn’t have to share his beliefs to share his passion for debate. He was voted one of the top five public intellectuals on a website for a publication only the very elite read; we used to joke he moved down the list when he quit smoking. In the last few years, when I was lucky enough to get to know him well, he was telling me about his summer plans. I interrupted him to tell him I already knew his exact schedule and told him every TV producer in town knew about his annual trips and his phone numbers at the various locations. He was a ringer, a sure thing, and we tracked him like a criminal to bring into an important show.
Last year I asked him if he would talk to a young writer, Graham Moore, who had just signed with Jonathan Karp at Hitch’s publisher, TWELVE. Hitch guided Moore through the publication of the best selling novel, The Sherlockian. During a book party for The Sherlockian at Vice President Biden’s home, Moore got to meet and thank Hitch for his mentoring. Despite serious health challenges, Hitch was determined to go and finally meet his protégé in person; and in the company of all who glitter in Washington no one twinkled more than Hitch, with Carol and his kids at his side. For a town and an industry still mourning the loss of Tim Russert, this is a painful day. So let’s drop our iPhones and iPads, and raise a glass to remember a great gladiator.