A talent to abuse; profile; Christopher Hitchens

Clinton's trial has spawned a bizarre piece of media savagery.

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"THIS WAS, for our generation, a Chambers versus Hiss moment," said the American journalist and novelist Christopher Buckley (son of William F). Fifty years ago, Whittaker Chambers claimed that he had had worked for the Comintern in the 1930s, and that Alger Hiss, an official who rose high in the state department, had been a Soviet agent, an accusation which tore America apart.

And what was Buckley's "mom- ent"? Last week one journalist accused another of dissembling. More precisely, Sidney Blumenthal, sometime of the Washington Post and the New Yorker, and a man widely disliked even before he joined the staff of the White House and became one of President Clinton's official apologists, had been summoned before the Senate hearing. Among other things, he had testified on oath that he had never called Monica Lewinsky a "stalker", who had pursued the President.

But he had called her that, said Christopher Hitchens. Not only did Hitchens say so, he swore an affidavit claiming that, at a lunch last March, "Blumenthal stated that Monica Lewinsky had been a 'stalker' and that the President was 'the victim' of a predatory and unstable sexually demanding young woman". That clear accusation of perjury was made against an old - now former - friend. It could conceivably have Blumenthal prosecuted, and will certainly add to his large legal bill.

Far-fetched as Buckley's comparison seems, "Hitch and Sid" was the talk of Washington and New York last week. Not everyone went as far as Alexander Cockburn, another former friend, who has written that "Hitchens has done something very despicable". But everyone thinks he has done something very strange, even by the standards of a man who is known for his erratic brilliance and courageous pugnacity. Who does Christopher Hitchens think he is?

Well, as his own affidavit says, he is 49, "a citizen of the European Union and the United Kingdom", and a self-employed journalist. The family background is a slice of English upward mobility. His grandfather served as trooper with the Army in India, his father grew up in a poor Baptist home in Portsmouth, joined the Navy, rose to Commander, married a Miss Hickman - who had more to her than met the eye - and had two clever sons. Christopher went to the Leys School in Cambridge, and then read PPE at Balliol.

At Oxford 30 years ago, CE Hitchens coincided with the Rhodes scholar WJ Clinton, but, despite friends in common, Bill didn't know Hitch (a nickname he says he likes, rather than "Chris", which he does not). Hitch was a Trotskyist then, and with James Fenton, the poet and critic, he used to distribute flat ephemeral pamphlets to workers who didn't want them. They were joined on the far left by Hitch Minor, but Peter Hitchens has moved on, and is now a self-proclaimed reactionary pundit on the Express and Talk Radio.

After a short stint on the Times Higher Educational Supplement, Hitch became one of "Tony's boys", the group of gifted young writers assembled by Anthony Howard during his editorship of the New Statesman, along with Fenton, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. Even in that remarkable company Hitch was not overshadowed, a writer who early showed a rare gift for caustic wit, and sometimes verbal violence.

In the early 1970s, Hitch had been taken to a lunch club of the literary right - Amis pere, Robert Conquest, Anthony Powell, John Braine - at Bertorelli's in Charlotte Street, where "the conversational scheme was simple ... One had to pretend that Britain was a country where it was dangerous to hold conservative opinions". By the end of that decade, the boys had their own lunch table at Bertorelli's, where the conversational scheme was less political than scabrous, as well as self-congratulatory. They laughed at each other's jokes, and scratched each other's backs.

Then in the 1980s, they went their different ways, in Hitch's case to America. His first, Greek wife, Eleni Maleagrou, gave him two children as well as an interest in the Cyprus question and the Elgin marbles, whose return to Athens he demanded in a polemical book. He now lives in Washington and California with his second wife, the American journalist Carol Blue, with whom he has another daughter, and who also swore an affidavit delating Sidney Blumenthal.

For 15 years or more, Hitch has prospered in America, writing, lecturing and riding the gravy train of American academia: his latest grandiloquent post is visiting professor in liberal studies at the New York School for Social Research. At his best, he is a scintillating writer, maybe a better literary critic than a political commentator. Although he has specialised in "attack journalism", savaging Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, and enjoyed a succes d'animosite as a result, he's actually more interesting when he thoughtfully praises Evelyn Waugh or Paul Scott.

But Hitch's real problems are different. Writing about Jay McInerney's latest novel, Hitch mocked him as "Mr Have It Both Ways". At the end of this review we were reminded that Hitchens is "a columnist for Vanity Fair and Nation" (the left-wing American weekly). One might think that a man whose bio-blurb read thus would not go round sneering at anyone else for having it both ways.

In fact, Hitch has always wanted it all ways. He likes to strike attitudes as a radical outsider, when he is - or was until a week ago - very much an insider in his own circles. Although his vulgar abuse may enrage Paul Johnson, his targets are cleverly chosen. As Colm Toibin said: "Acknowledging 'the help and counsel and support' of Gore Vidal and Salman Rushdie in his struggle against Mother Teresa must have taken real courage."

The most extraordinary example of "both ways" was admittedly fortuitous. Hitch always evinced the conventional left-wing hostility to Israel. Then 12 years ago, almost by accident when his father died, he discovered that he was himself Jewish, at least in the strict rabbinical sense of descent through his mother's mother. In a touch which now seems too weird to be true, his maternal great-great-grandfather came to Leicester from Breslau - and was called Blumenthal.

All of which may help answer the question: who does he think he is? But it does not answer the other question of the week: why did Hitch do it? As part of the legacy of McCarthyism, "snitching", informing or "naming names" inspires a horror on the American liberal left which it is hard to exaggerate. If Hitch has damaged Blumenthal, he has hurt himself even more, losing much credit and many friends.

All week, various more or less libellous suggestions as to why he did it have been floating in print and cyberspace, not least from Hitch's erstwhile friends. He is publishing a book about Clinton shortly, and the affidavit could be seen as the publicity stunt to end them all. It's observed that he is a prodigious toper, and that his judgement might have finally been affected, along with his looks. Once quite pretty in a naughty putto way, he has for some years looked corpulent and decrepit, even when not as hag-riddden and washed-out as he seemed on television last week.

But maybe the best answer was given weeks ago by the shrewd and witty Maureen Dowd of the New York Times: there's something about Bill Clinton - his knack of getting away with it - that drives people crazy. He has driven Kenneth Starr and the Republicans crazy, and his own defenders - and Hitch, whose hatred of Clinton has become a King Charles's head, an all-consuming obsession.

He deserves credit for grasping much that eluded American liberals. He perceived early that Clinton is an incorrigible liar and a "fawning jerk", whose "third way" means stealing the right's clothes and emptying politics of its content (lessons our own Tony learned from Bill), as well as being an old-fashioned philanderer, who uses and discards vulnerable young women like toys.

More than that, Hitch has often been factually right. We first learned Monica Lewinsky's name a year a ago, when Clinton denied having had sexual relations with "that woman". When Hitch insisted on Channel 4 News that the President was lying, and that there had been a cover-up and an attempt to silence Monica with the offer of a job at Revlon, he had Jon Snow screaming at him like a Soviet show-trial prosecutor (has Snow apologised since?).

Absurdly enough, his latest accusation isn't even strictly speaking new. Hitch had already written in this newspaper last September: "I've forgiven a good friend of mine, who sincerely lied for Clinton before a grand jury, for looking me in the eye last March and telling me that Monica was a 'stalker' " - an identity which few in Washington would have had difficulty naming.

Now, as his last and most ludicrous attempt to have it both ways, Hitch says he has promised "that I wouldn't testify against Sidney" even if "they jail me for contempt of court". This was just after swearing his written testament against Blumenthal. Neither man is in fact likely to face the martyrdom of a prison cell. But what a strange year it has been, and what a collection of casualties Clinton has left behind him.

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