Hitchens had all the facts at his disposal and a devastating way of presenting them.
The fierce writer Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday, cancer being one of the few opponents he failed to lick in his 62 years. Hitchens was renowned for his attacks on an eclectic list of enemies, from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton to God himself. It was always bracing to read his articles in The Nation, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, but even more so to experience him in the flesh. I had a chance in the early 1990s when he came to Madison for an unforgettable debate on the Persian Gulf War.
Hitchens was no stranger to Madison. He was spotted outside the Isthmus office in 2007, when he came to town to deliver a speech for the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As Matt Rothschild of The Progressive notes in his eulogy, Hitchens used the occasion to defend George W. Bush's pursuit of the Iraq War. But back in the 1990s, before parting with his leftist comrades, Hitchens opposed an earlier war in Iraq led by an earlier George Bush. He appeared at the Wisconsin Union Theater to debate conservative Morton Kondracke, who supported the war.
Kondracke had been the executive editor of The New Republic and the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek. In other words, no slouch. In fact, he looked like the respectable pundit in his made-for-TV suit, while Hitchens looked like a rumpled, dissolute dude who'd just rolled out of bed, with bags under his eyes and a cigarette in his mouth.
As soon as the debate started, however, you realized that Kondracke didn't stand a chance. Though he may have just rolled out of bed, Hitchens had all the facts at his disposal and a devastating way of presenting them, in that low-key British accent. He made mincemeat of Kondracke's arguments, citing the war's casualties and consequences. Ultimately, Kondracke stopped trying to defend himself and simply admitted he was wrong. When is the last time you saw that happen in a political debate?
The liberal Madison audience members were on Hitchens' side, of course, despite the war's overwhelming popularity in the U.S. They cheered him on and loudly booed Kondracke -- and that is when Hitchens had his finest moment. Instead of basking in the adulation, he stopped the debate to scold the audience for treating Kondracke so shabbily. As a leftist way outside of the mainstream, he knew what it was like to have his opinions shouted down, and he objected to his own partisans engaging in such behavior.
Folks, we won't see his like again anytime soon.