Let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious: I am the last person Christopher Hitchens wants to see defending him in his current imbroglio with White House henchman and ex-friend Sidney Blumenthal. Like them, Hitchens and I were also once political comrades, though we were never quite proximate enough to become friends. But for nearly two decades we have been squaring off on opposite sides of the political barricades, and I know that Hitchens’ detractors will inevitably use my support of him to confirm that he has lost his political bearings and betrayed them to the other side.
For that reason, let me add that I hardly expect Hitchens to have second thoughts, politically speaking, and join those of us who are critics of the movement to which he has dedicated his life. On the contrary. As everything Hitchens has put on the public record in the last year attests, his contempt for Clinton and his decision to expose Clinton’s servant as a liar spring from his deep passion for the left and for the values it claims to hold dear.
In his mordantly incisive articles in both Vanity Fair and Salon, Hitchens has demonstrated that the nation’s commander in chief cynically and mendaciously deployed the armed forces of the greatest power on earth to strike at three impoverished countries, with no clear military objective in mind. Using the most advanced weaponry the world has ever seen, Clinton launched missiles into the Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq for only one tangible political purpose, to — as Hitchens puts it — “distract attention from his filthy lunge at a beret-wearing cupcake.”
Hitchens’ claim that Clinton’s military actions are criminal and impeachable is surely spot-on. Republicans, it seems, were right about the character issue, and failed only to demonstrate how this mattered to the policy issues the public cares deeply about. Instead they got themselves entangled in legalistic disputes about perjury and obstruction, losing the electorate along the way. In making his own powerful case against Clinton, Hitchens has underscored how Republicans botched the process by focusing on criminality that flowed from minor abuses of power — the sexual harassment of Paula Jones and its Monica Lewinsky subtext — while ignoring a major abuse that involved corrupting the presidency, damaging the nation’s security and killing innocents abroad.
Reading Hitchens’ riveting indictment stirred unexpected feelings of nostalgia in me for the left I had once been part of. Not the actual left that I came to know and reject, but the idealistic left of my youth, when I thought our mission was to be the nation’s “conscience,” to speak truth to power in the name of what was just. This, as is perfectly evident from what he has written, was Hitchens’ own mission in exposing Blumenthal as the willing agent of a corrupt regime and its reckless commander in chief.
Unfortunately, in carrying out this mission, Hitchens was forced to trip over the Lewinsky matter, specifically Blumenthal’s effort to smear the credibility of the key witness to the president’s bad faith. But that is because it was through Lewinsky that the Kenneth Starr investigators had set up the character issue in the first place.
It is difficult to believe that a sociopathic personality like Clinton’s could be compartmentalized to stop at the water’s edge of sex, or that he is innocent of other serious accusations against him that Starr and the Republicans have been unable to prove. In fact, the same signature behavior is apparent throughout his administration (an idea aptly captured in the title of Hitchens’ forthcoming book about the president — “No One Left To Lie To”). The presidential pathology is evident not only in his reckless private dalliances (the betrayal of family and office), but also in his strategy of political “triangulation” (the betrayal of allies and friends) and in his fire sale of the Lincoln Bedroom and advanced military technology to adversarial powers (the betrayal of country). Hitchens is quite right, therefore, to strike at the agent of the king, since the king is ultimately to blame.
Given the transparent morality of Hitchens’ anti-Clinton crusade, it is all the more revealing that so many of his comrades on the left, who ought to share these concerns, have chosen instead to turn on him so viciously. In a brutal display of comradely betrayal, they have publicly shunned him in an attempt to cut him off socially from his own community. One after another, they have rushed into print to tell the world at large how repulsed they are by a man whom only yesterday they called “friend,” yet whom they now apparently no longer even wish to know.
Leading this pack was Hitchens’ longtime colleague at the Nation, Alexander Cockburn, who denounced him as a “Judas” and “snitch.” Cockburn was followed by a second Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt, who smeared Hitchens as a throwback to McCarthy-era informers (“Let’s say the Communist Party was bad and wrong — Why help the repressive powers of the state? Let the government do its own dirty work.”). She was joined by a 30-year political comrade, Todd Gitlin, who warned anyone who cared to listen that Hitchens was a social “poison,” in the same toxic league as Ken Starr and Linda Tripp.