My minute with Hitch
I got word this morning, December 16, that the most iconoclastic journalist of his time, Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday. I thought you might like to hear of my one interaction with him.
It was June of 1998 in Washington, D.C., where I led a small delegation from C-ville Weekly to the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. It was quite the weekend event!
For starters, we all went out to a bar where the thumping bass and cacophony of lights couldn't overshadow the treat of the evening: Mayor Marion Barry. Having regained the mayorship despite an embarrassing bout with crack cocaine and prison, Barry arrived at this official convention social event at a bar on a cobblestoned alley which his dark limousine ably traveled. Thrilled to meet a man who had turned himself into a public tragedy, members of the gaggle of hard-drinking journalists took turns introducing themselves.
Speaking of hard-drinking journalists, Hitchens was the star of the weekend confab. I say this because at the next day's quite sober programs, Hitch was booked into a large ballroom while a simultaneous or near-simultaneous speech by Ralph Nader took place in a room not much larger than a storage closet.
Anyway, in that standing-room-only space, Hitch proceeded to gently scold the so-called alternative press for failing to investigate, for failing to take chances. That resonated with me, someone who has long been perturbed by the preening self-satisfaction of some newspapers that elevate style over substance. So I threw him a softball. In fact, his response was so savvy that it was as if we'd rehearsed.
"Mr. Hitchens," I said, "What do you think about the fact that nearly all the newspapers represented in this room– certainly a majority of them– publish the same canned astrological advice column."
"You mean a psychic column?" he asked.
"Yes, and I'm embarrassed to say that the column– Free Will Astrology– actually runs in our paper too."
"Well," said Hitch. "It's long been my hope and my joy to take the reins of a local newspaper that has been running the prognostications of a psychic. In fact, it would give me great pleasure to type up the letter announcing his or her termination. It would start like this: 'As you have no doubt already correctly predicted...'"
And that brought the house down.
In the years following, Hitch turned his pen on institutions far more powerful than psychics, eventually becoming one of the leaders of the so-called New Atheism movement with his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
A brave man. A bold man. And, as I learned first-hand over 13 years ago, a very funny man.
The above dialogue was drawn from memory. A few days after I published this story online and after it had been quoted in other media, I found an online video of the 1998 speech, including my question; and the wording was a little different. I captured the spirit of the exchange here but not the exact words. Sorry!Read more on: christopher hitchens