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Christopher Hitchens: A Profile

TUESDAY 25th June 2002
What do Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton have in common? They have all had their reputations pilloried by Christopher Hitchens, celebrated iconoclast and long-time subscriber to the "all that glitters is not gold" philosophy. "An essayist and contrarian"

With a honed intellect and piercing wit, Hitchens calls himself "an essayist and a contrarian". He has been based in Washington for 20 years, and has become an authoritative voice on all things American. Gore Vidal has jokingly appointed him his successor, but Hitchens does not share the older man's tolerance for people over politics.

Observing Clinton's ability to shape his thoughts around the occasion, Hitchens raged that "he could change his mind on any issue, but couldn't change the fact that he was a scumbag".

Never blinded by the glare of celebrity, he can taint the names of two other luminaries in a stroke. He explains, "With Kissinger, you can tell how many people he killed. With Mother Teresa and her preaching of surrender to poverty and against family planning, we can't be sure of the figures."

Lapsed socialist

Indignation and ease with words have made Hitchens a potent and prolific journalist on both sides of the Atlantic. A columnist, literary critic and social commentator, he writes most regularly for the American left-wing weekly The Nation, as well as Vanity Fair magazine.

Hitchens was a socialist until the collapse of communism in 1989. In his recent book Letters to a Young Contrarian he encourages the youth of today to remain "principled and oppositional".

Questioning the principles of those he opposes has been his untiring hobby. Left alone in the boxing ring when Kissinger failed to sue him, Hitchens "decided to cheer myself up by suing him instead". Kissinger had called his tormentor an anti-Semite. However, Hitchens' maternal grandmother was Jewish, a discovery he made at the age of 38.

Family tragedy

Hitchens' father was a triumphant wartime naval officer, but personally reserved. His mother was more outgoing but committed suicide in an Athens hotel room. For their son Christopher, "family life pretty much ended then".

His brother is also a successful journalist, but there is a chasm of religious belief between Christopher and the more reactionary Peter. Of this fundamental difference, Christopher explains, "I don't trust anyone who believes in religion".

He shows the same lack of patience with George W Bush's claim to have been "rescued from the booze by Jesus" and has described the leader of the Western world as "abnormally unintelligent".

But after his derision of the White House's previous incumbent, Hitchens has proved surprisingly tolerant of the man he calls Boy George. Dubya's agenda in the Middle East appears to coincide with Hitchens' own long-running tirade against manifestations of religious fervour. More pithily, Hitchens says it does prove, though, that "anyone can be president".

Self-analysis

This professional ego-basher doesn't reserve his criticism for others. Every time he sits down to write, he lays claim to "a slight sense of imposture" and wonders, "Will this be the day they find me out?"

And remembering his father's wartime achievements, he plays down his skill at the typewriter. Christopher Hitchens may flatten the hype surrounding some of society's most revered figures, but he points out, "I've never sunk a Nazi battleship."