The Respect party MP for Bethnal Green and Bow is on a swing through the US to promote his new book, Mr Galloway Goes to Washington, about his blistering appearance at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill this spring investigating scams and scandals in Iraq's oil-for-food programme. But the New York stop always promised to be more entertaining than any other. He would have company on stage.
Yes, ma'am, you have a ringside seat for the political prize-fight of the season. Never mind the mayoral elections going on the city right now or that Messrs Bush and Blair are merely a mile away at UN headquarters charting all of our futures. What you are about to witness is foreign policy discourse at its most raw and bloody and - no question about it - most personal. Get ready for Galloway versus Hitchens.
It was minutes before Galloway's Senate performance in May when he had his now famous run-in with Christopher Hitchens on the street. Hitchens, the Vanity Fair columnist and renegade from the left with a new career defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq, berated Galloway for his anti-war stance and his past ties to Saddam Hussein, upon which the MP called him "a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay".
Such insults should not be left unattended, or so thought Hitchens, who subsequently challenged Galloway to join him in a public debate at a time and venue of his choosing. That moment came on Wednesday night at Baruch College. In the audience was the entire beau monde of the New York left, including the publisher and editor of The Nation magazine, Victor Navasky and Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and the motion set forward was this: "The war in Iraq was necessary and just." More than half an hour behind schedule, at last the bold contenders are brought before us. We quiver with anticipation, because this is a land where political debate is normally dreary in its politeness. There is real bad blood here. "No handshakes, no courtesies," Hitchens growls before the evening even begins.
Pasty-faced, scruffy and slightly coy, Hitchens ambles to his podium. He lets his jacket fall to the floor from his left hand and his blue shirt is soaked in patches of sweat. Stage-right, meanwhile (not appropriately), Galloway is all prosperity with a perfect late-summer tan and perfect beige suit and tie.
No one is more intrigued - or perhaps more appalled - by the event than the woman two seats to my left, Oona King. She, of course, is the former Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow who knows first hand what it is like to go up against the barking Galloway. Some of us are imagining that Hitchens, a man of no small intellectual rigour, will surely get the better of the man from Dundee tonight. But perhaps Oona knows better. She whispers something to me about Galloway being "brilliant". Oh dear.
There is the small matter of the crowd. Hitchens fears they will not be in his corner and has been outside working the queue (hence the damp patches), doling out leaflets casting doubt on the integrity of his opponent. Amongst tit-bits included were the words allegedly spoken by Galloway to Saddam during a visit to Baghdad in 1994. "I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem."
The moderator, Amy Goodman, a left-wing radio personality (a precious species in the US) gives Hitchens the first 15 minutes. Perhaps unwisely he opens by asking for a moment's silence for the more than 150 victims of violence on Wednesday in Iraq. It seems gimmicky and a man yells that he won't join in silence with someone who has condoned the war in the first place. Ignoring the interruption, Hitchens begins in earnest, depicting the kind of world we would live in if the pacifists got their way. From the reactions around us, it seems he might have a good third of the hall in his pocket; he should do fine.
It is still not quite clear to me at what point exactly Hitchens jumped the rails. Much later in the night, when Hitch and I and a few others have repaired to a friend's loft in SoHo, I attempt something of a post-mortem with him. Is there anything, I dare to wonder, that he perhaps wishes in hindsight he hadn't said to Galloway? Has he any regrets from the evening? Of course, he says flat-out no. "There are things I didn't say that I wish I had," he replies instead. We then spend a good time lingering on the moment that Galloway came close to calling Hitchens a racist, taking issue with his assertion that most of the insurgent fighters are "foreigners" from outside Iraq. "If someone calls me a racist, I will sue," Hitchens says darkly, drinking, but not drink-soaked. "I always sue and I never let go. I never let go."
In fact, both men tonight had waded into areas they would have better avoided. Galloway caused paroxysms saying the planes that slammed into the twin towers four years ago did not come out of "a clear blue sky". Rather it was the fault of the US and its foreign policies, especially on Israel. "I believe they emerged out of a swamp of hatred created by us", he said. "I believe that it's because of the total, complete unending and bottomless support for General Sharon's crimes against the Palestinian people."
As Hitchens pointed out, this was not entirely sagacious of the MP, who does not boast sensitivity as a middle name anyway. (Ask Ms King about that). "Mr Galloway," he said quietly, "you picked the wrong city to say that". In the meanwhile, he went on, the suggestion that somehow the misery caused by the terrorists here and in London is somehow our fault in the first place is, he said, "piffle, dangerous piffle". "Our fault? No, this is masochism. And it is masochism being offered to you by sadists."
Then there were the moments in the evening where Hurricane Katrina entered the hall. Galloway could not resist rehearsing the point, why send billions of dollars to Iraq when you can't help your own people in New Orleans? Foolishly, Hitchens then took it upon himself to defend President Bush and the Pentagon's post-Katrina clean-up. The White House, he said, had 200,000 soldiers to send to the devastated Gulf area after the hurricane, but wasn't able to until it got the say-so from state governors. That was the problem - it wasn't lack of compassion. Even more rashly, he castigated the left for making assumptions about the numbers of victims being disproportionately black "before the bodies were even identified". Sharp intake of breath from Ms King there, who briefly considers joining the Galloway camp.
Thus Hitchens simply invited Galloway to repeat the charge that if he was not in the pay of the Bush administration, then surely he had become its most ardent cheerleader. It also allowed the esteemed member from Bow to ridicule his opponent for changing his position so drastically in barely a decade, because, as any of his friends and readers know, Hitchens opposed the 1991 Gulf War. "What Mr Hitchens has done is unique in natural history, the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly into a slug," Galloway barked with evident glee. (Dear Lord, how he is enjoying this. How long before he is signed up by a cable channel here to froth nightly before Americans in their living rooms at least when Parliament is in recess?) "The one thing a slug does leave behind it is a trail of slime." Both men also fell into the trap of insulting the audience. Galloway did it just a little when he lamented that anyone could doubt the statistics recording the numbers of Iraqi dead because of the war. (100,000 he says.) "How far has the neocon rot seeped into your souls?" he asked us. But as the evening wore on, Hitchens visibly tired of his hecklers and returned fire in tones that were equally arrogant and snide. Those shouting at him were "zoo animals". But mostly the two men just insulted each other. "You have fallen out of the gutter and into the sewer," Galloway tells Hitchens, who had just made hay of the fact that his opponent had recently visited Damascus to chum up with Syria's "slobbering" President Assad. It is Syria, asserts Hitchens, who sends in the insurgents to murder and maim. Syria that sent in the bombers that destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad. "Is it not rather revolting to go to Damascus and stand beside Assad?" Hitchens asks. "Mr Galloway, beneath each gutter there is another gurgling gutter underneath." This was a mismatch because Hitchens is a thinker and writer. He is also a debater, but not a politician or campaigner. Galloway, as Ms King tells me, is a trained stump orator with a killer instinct. While Hitchens burbles slightly - smart burble, it is true - Galloway gives terse, knock-out one-liners. And just as he spies Ms Goodman preparing to wind the night up, Galloway snatches the chance at the end to look gracious - while Hitchens just looks exhausted. "I think we have generated as much light as we are going to," he says. "And as much heat as we ought to."
Hitchens on Galloway
* "The man's search for a tyrannical fatherland never ends! The Soviet Union's let him down, Albania's gone, the Red Army's out of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia, the hunt persists! Saddam has been overthrown. On to the next on the 30th July in Damascus in Syria, appearing... I've given it all to you in a piece of paper, in front of Mr Assad, whose death squads are cutting down the leaders of democracy in Lebanonas this is going on to tell the Syrian people they're fortunate to have such a leader."
* "I believe it is a disgrace that a member of the British House of Commons should go before the United States Senate Subcommittee, and not testify, but decline to testify, and to insult all those who try to ask him questions with the most vile and cheap guttersnipe abuse, I think that's a disgrace. How can anyone who has had dealings with this regime show their face at a city like this and not content with it, not content with it!"
Galloway on Hitchens
* "You start off being the liberal mouthpiece for one of the most reactionary governments this country has ever known and you end up a mouthpiece and apologist for these miserable malevolent incompetents who cannot even pick up the bodies of their own citizens in New Orleans."
* "The most foreign fighters in Iraq are wearing British and American uniforms. The level of self-delusion is bordering frankly on the racist. The vast majority of the people of Iraq are against the occupation of Iraq by the American and British forces."
* "They intend, if they can, to have an Iraq Americana, but the Iraqi people have decided otherwise."
* "People like Mr Hitchens are ready to fight to the last drop of other people's blood, and it's utterly and completely contemptible".
* "Mr Hitchens's policy has succeeded in making 10,000 new Bin Ladens."Reuse content