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National Notes

“'Okay,' I said, giving him a chance to rationalize his snitching, which all informants have to do when they start out.”

— J. Wambaugh, Blue Night

Hitch the Snitch

Many people go through life rehearsing a role they feel that the fates have in store for them, and I've long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss. Indeed an attempted physical embrace has often been part of the rehearsal. Many's the time male friends have had to push Christopher's mouth, fragrant with martinis away, as, amid the welcomes and good-byes, he seeks their cheek or lips. And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Christopher has made the big time. At the end of last week, amid the embers of the impeachment trial, he and his wife Carol Blue trotted along to Congress and swore out an affidavit that they'd had lunch with White House aide Sidney Blumenthal last March 19 and that Blumenthal had described Monica Lewinsky as a stalker. Since Blumenthal had just claimed in his deposition to the House impeachment managers that he had no idea how this linking of the White House stalker stories had started, Hitchens' affidavit was about as flat a statement as anyone could want that Blumenthal has perjured himself, thus exposing himself to a sentence of up to five years in prison. At the very least, Hitchens has probably cost Blumenthal about $100,000 in fresh legal expenses on top of the $200,000 tab he's already facing. Some friend.

And we are indeed talking about friendship here. They've been pals for years and Hitchens has not been shy about trumpeting the fact. Last spring, when it looked as though Blumenthal was going to be subpoenaed by prosecutor Starr for his journalistic contacts, Hitchens blared his readiness to stand shoulder to shoulder with his comrade: “…together we have soldiered against the neoconservative ratbags,” Hitchens wrote in The Nation last spring. “Our life a deux has been, and remains an open book. Do your worst. Nothing will prevent me from gnawing a future bone at his table or, I trust, him from gnawing in return.” This was in an edition of The Nation dated March 30, 1998, a fact which means — given The Nation's practices — that Hitchens just writing these loyal lines immediately after the lunch — Hitchens now says he thinks it was on March 17, at the Occidental Restaurant near the White House — whose conversational menu Hitchens would be sharing with these same neo-conservative, right-wing ratbags ten months later.

The surest way to get a secret into mass circulation is to tell it to Hitchens, swearing him to silence as one does so. His friends have known this for years. As a compulsive tattler and gossip Christopher gets a frission I'd guess to be quasi-sexual in psychological orientation out of the act of tattling or betrayal. Fifteen years ago a right-wing magazine did a long, disobliging profile of me, which came as no surprise. But what did sting somewhat — this was at a time we saw a lot more of each other than we do now — was a disobliging quote from Hitchens in the article. To those enquiring about this act of treachery Hitchens answered either that it had all been taken out of context and that he had been misunderstood, or — somewhat more honestly — that he wasn't quite sure himself why he'd spoken thus.

This brings me back to Hitchens's snitch psychology, and the years of psychic preparation that launched him into the affidavit against his friend Blumenthal. Like those who question themselves about the imagined future role — “would I really leap through fire to save my friend,” “would I stay silent if threatened with torture” — Hitchens has, I feel certain, brooded constantly about the conditions under which he might snitch, or inform. A good many years ago we were discussing the German Baader-Meinhof gang, some of whose members were on the run at the time. Hitchens, as is his wont, stirred himself into a grand little typhoon of moral outrage against the gang, whose reckless ultra-leftism was, he said, only doing good to the right. “If one of them came to my front door seeking shelter,” Hitchens cried, “I would call the police in an instant and turn him in!” Would you just, I remember thinking at the time. I've often thought about that outburst since, and whether in fact Christopher was at some level already in the snitch business.

Over the past couple of years the matter of George Orwell's snitching has been a public issue. Orwell, in the dawn days of the cold war and not long before his own death, compiled a snitch list of Commies and fellow travelers and turned them over to Cynthia Kirwan, a woman for whom he'd had the hots and who worked for the British secret police. Now, Orwell is Hitchens's idol, and Christopher lost no time in defending Orwell's snitch list in Vanity Fair and The Nation. Finally, I wrote a Nation column giving the anti-Orwell point of view, taking the line that the list was mostly idle gossip, patently racist and anti-Semitic, part and parcel of McCarthyism. Bottom line, I wrote, snitching to the secret police wouldn't do.

Of course Christopher wrote another column by way of retort and then, on the Nation cruise last September he was eager to take up the topic. We had a long wrangle in the bar, trudging back and forth over the same patch of ground, and he seemed genuinely surprised by my basic position that snitching is a dirty business, to be shunned by all decent people.

Then, in the middle of last week, he snitched on Sidney. Why did he do it? I didn't see him with Tim Russert on Meet The Press, but apparently he looked ratty, his physical demeanor not enhanced by a new beard. I have read the transcript where, as I anticipated, Hitchens says he simply couldn't let the Clinton White House get away with denials that they had been in the business of slandering women dangerous to them, like Monica, or Katherine Willey.

There were couple of moments of echt Hitchens. Unlike Blumenthal, Hitchens said, “I don't have a lawyer.” Only Christopher could charge someone with perjury and then sneer that the object of his accusations was contemptible for having a legal representative. And only Christopher could publicly declare Blumenthal to have lied to Congress and then with his next breath affirm in a voice quivering with all the gallantry of loyal friendship that “I would rather be held in contempt of court” than to testify in any separate court action brought against Blumenthal.

Did Hitchens really think things through when he told the House impeachment people towards the end of last week he was willing to swear out an affidavit on the matter of the famous March lunch? Does he think that with this affidavit he’ll “reverse the whole impeachment tide,” bring Clinton down? Or is he, as Joan Bingham told Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post, merely trying to promote a forthcoming book? I doubt he really thought it through. A woman who knows Christopher well and who is inclined to forgive, has suggested that the booze has finally got to him and that his behavior exhibits all the symptoms of chronic alcoholism: an impulsive act, dramatically embarked upon and, in the aftermath, only vaguely apprehended by the perp.

It's true, Christopher does drink a lot with, as all acquaintances will agree, a truly amazing capacity to pull himself together and declaim in a coherent manner while pints of alcohol and gallons of wine are coursing through his bloodstream. But he does indeed seem only vaguely to understand what he has done to Sidney. On Sunday, he was telling one journalist that he still thought his friendship with Sidney could be saved. I've no doubt he'll soon be saying, if he hasn't already, that he'd done Sid a big favor and saved him from his worser self.

Perhaps more zealously than most, Christopher has always liked to have it both ways, identifying himself as a man of the left while, in fact being, as was his hero Orwell particularly towards the end of his life, a man of the right. “I dare say I'll be cut and shunned,” he told the Washington Post and I had the sense of a halo being tried for size, with Hitchens measuring himself for martyrdom as the only leftist who can ever think through the moral consequences of Clintonism and take appropriate action.

But the problem is that even though Chris Buckley, also quoted in the Washington Post, tried to dress up the affair with the historical dignity of return of the duel between Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers, this is a footnote to history, costly though the footnote will be to Blumenthal at least in lawyers' fees. The worst price Hitchens will have to pay will be in terms of Georgetown party invitations. In Georgetown, as Buckley also told Grove in The Washington Post, it is “a tectonic event for our crowd.”

There is the final question: is Christopher making it all up, about the March 17 lunch? Blumenthal says he has no recollection, and adds, as all agree, that there had already been hundreds of references in the press to Monica being a stalker, and he may just have repeated to Hitchens and Blue what he'd read in the papers. It was a month, remember, when the White House was being very careful in what it was saying about Monica because they were uncertain which way she would jump and didn't want to piss her off. Joe Conason of The New York Observer, certainly an eager recipient of White House slants at the time, says he spoke to Blumenthal in that period and Blumenthal refused to talk about Lewinsky at all. It's true, Christopher can be a terrific fibber, but, short of willful misrepresentation, maybe, amidst his fury about Clinton he's remembered the conversation the way he deems it to have taken place rather than the way it actually took place. Either way, the lawyers will make money thrashing it out. I think Christopher has done something very despicable. It wasn't so long ago that he was confiding, in solemn tones, that for him the most disgusting aspect of the White House's overall disgusting behavior was “what they have done to my friend Sidney.” He's probably still saying it. Christopher always could cobble up a moral posture out of the most unpromising material.

War Weary

At this stage in the famous End Game the Lewinski affair gives one the impression of stalemate on the western front in 1917. Exhaustion is everywhere to be seen, except in the pert responses of Monica herself to Rep Bryant's interrogation. The minihubbub over People's profile of Chelsea was one illustration; the war weariness of the columnists another. Long after there was nothing much left to be said, commentators are finally running out of things to say, like the failing glimmer of a star that actually died two billion years ago.

Throughout the entire scandal, particularly in recent months, I've liked Frank Rich's work on the New York Times Op Ed. He knows how to pack momentum into a 730-work column, a secret that has eluded A.M. Rosenthal from the dark day “On My Mind” was first hurled at a defenseless public. Happening upon a Rosenthal column is like rounding a corner to hear a deranged man howling uncontrollably, minute after minute until you round the next corner and the racket dies away.

From the contexts and references in his columns Rich sounds as though he may be gay — for all I know he came out years ago — and if so, the disposition gives his prose true edge. Rich is too loyal a Democrat and way too kneejerk a liberal about right-wing populism, but his hate is pure. He loathes the Hyde-Barr-Delay crowd con amore and has landed some telling blows, not least on the disinclination of the House managers to call Betty Curry.

But now Rich craves the mantle of a deeper thinker, not merely the tinny megaphone of 720 words a couple of times a week. The New York Times has just announced that in a few weeks Rich will give up the short column and do longer essays on the Op Ed pages at a diminished rate of production. I'm not at all sure this is wise. Longer pieces on the Times Op Ed (not here, of course) are usually shunned by sensible folk. It's like being offered one of those long sandwiches made entirely of tough French bread. Lots of chewing before you drop the whole thing in the trash.

By contrast, Maureen Dowd ran out of steam weeks ago and has been writing some embarrassingly bad stuff, a recent one in the style of Safire's “inside-the-mind-of” columns, a genre that should never be copied, not least by Safire himself.

War weariness has also been in evidence at the New Yorker, with its Monica Lisa cover. At first I thought this wasn't a bad idea, a cut above the normal winsomeness one associates with almost everything to do with the New Yorker. But then I found the cover was associated with dreary piece of hack work by the New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, about looking into Monica's eyes. From Remnick's piece I turned a few pages and came upon Jeffrey Toobin's paean to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a man of wayward brilliance and tempestuous independence. Moynihan has reaped numberless such articles down the years, and each time the sycophant up at bat appears to think something original is being offered. The usual theme is that Moynihan has been braver than a lion through the decades for “saying the unsayable,” grasping nettles and so forth. This is in reference to his famous remarks about the single parent/absent father syndrome being at the root of black problems in America. Of course there's never been anything remotely brave about this, the theme being very popular with the upper classes. More courageous would have been an analysis suggesting the condition of the poor and of many black Americans in particular has been due to capitalism and the agenda of the overclass. But that has certainly been beyond Moynihan, though when years of the Moynihan style of thinking produced “welfare reform” the senior senator from New York bleated furiously about the collapse of liberalism. For years now the Moynihan family has been muttering about the uncouthness of the Arkansas gang. If Bill's sex dalliances were on a par with Pat's long lover affair with the bottle the president would have had to flee the country.

So far as I can see, Monica's testimony offers ringing affirmation that Clinton, Vernon Jordan and Mickey Kantor were absolutely correct in singing her professional qualifications to Revlon's chief, Ronald Perleman and the others. She's as sharp as a tack, resourceful and witty. The dodo is Linda Tripp. It's obvious that Monica should go into the Agent-ing business, and if Clinton's a gentleman he'll give her the job of hawking his memoirs.

Meanwhile we have the spectacle of Senator Dianne Feinstein rushing around the Senate brokering the language of a motion of censure. This is truly dumb. The American people have made it plain, month after month, that they don't care for moral reproof. When people elect senators they aren't voting for them because they think they should arrogate the role of Almighty God and become moral judges. They vote for them because they want more roads, and kindred pork barrel projects. So now Feinstein, and some other Democrats try to borrow some of the Republican's moral posturing, declared abhorrent by 65 percent of the folks.

Whenever I look at Feinstein I can't forget something the late great San Francisco columnist, Herb Caen told me a couple of years before he died. Caen was having lunch with Feinstein and her businessman husband, Richard Blum. This was not long after the marriage and as Dianne scurried to and fro between the dining room and kitchen, Herb cocked an eyebrow as if to ask, What was her big attraction. Blum replied with every appearance of uxorious satisfaction that Feinstein was an absolute tornado in the sack. Maybe it's her awareness of the Beast Within that prompts the senior senator from California to these censorious motions.

Why He Should Have Been Impeached

I've been dipping into a tremendous new book about Saddam Hussein's recovery from the 1991 debacle, and the fact that the book, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein is by my brothers Andrew and Patrick in no way detracts from the objectivity of assessment. Patrick was one of the very few journalists not to have fled Baghdad before the January 17 bombing back in 1991 and has returned there many times since, in his role as Middle East correspondent of the British Independent. Andrew has been to Baghdad numerous times himself. They've produced an account that is immeasurably the best reporting that's been done.

Among the book's many coups is an on-the-record disparaging assessment of the CIA operation in northern Iraq designed to overthrow Saddam by Warren Marik, who was a CIA field officer at the time. There's a riveting account of a dinner in the National Restaurant in Baghdad where Andrew and his wife Leslie had a prolonged exchange with Saddam's terrifying son's Uday and Qusay on such topics as Liberace and Uday's dreams of becoming a nuclear physicist. Not in the book is one remark by Uday to Leslie — this was at the time, in early 1992 that Bill Clinton was first coming under the scrutiny of the American people for his sex life — “Who is this woman Flowers?” Uday added high-mindedly that such gossip has no place in politics. “One doesn't undertake encounters with Uday lightly. If it had been me, I'd have hidden under the tablecloth as soon as I saw the Saddam brood. It was Uday, as my brothers describe, who chopped his father's pimp with an electric pruning knife and then shot him.

Particularly telling are the chapters giving the texture of life in Iraq during and after the war, the sort of detail that only comes from prolonged residence, rather than the standard weekend swoop in and out of Baghdad. Take for example Hussein Ali Majhoul, an eight-month old baby dying of meningitis in al Khatin hospital in Baghdad in February, 1998 for want of a working truck to pick up an oxygen bottle from the other side of time. This thanks to the UN embargo imposed by the US. Hussein Ali was one of the 4,000-5,000 Iraqi children dying under such conditions of scarcity every month. This adds up to over half a million deaths of children, “more children than died in Hiroshima,” as CBS 60-Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl pointed out to Madeleine Albright, asking “Is the price worth it?”

Albright's reply, cited by Andrew and Patrick, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” Andrew and Patrick write in their book: “At the end of the Gulf War, the Western public had been moved to pity by reports of slaughter on ‘the road of death’ leading north from Kuwait City. An Iraqi convoy of hundreds of trucks and cars fleeing up the highway to the border had fallen, easy prey to allied warplanes; disquiet evoked by the ‘turkey shoot’ had helped impel Bush to order a cease-fire. In fact, the casualties on the road had been comparatively light — perhaps four or five hundred — as was the entire Iraqi death toll from the fighting and bombing. The real slaughter came later, but because it happened in slow motion, without arresting images of victims with protruding rib cages or heaps of corpses, the impact in the West was minimal. Dry statistics detailing remorselessly escalating infant mortality rates, or the percentage of underweight children, or even the death of little Hussein Ali Majhoul for want of a working truck to drive across town could not jump-start an international furor over the sanctions policy.”

I did obtain an extra slice of enjoyment from Andrew and Patrick's matter of fact dissection of Ahmad Chalabi, once the CIA's hireling, and still the supposed freedom-fighting hero of Republicans in Congress and such credulous opinion mongers as Christopher Hitchens. Among the rockier patches in Chalabi's curriculum vitae have been rapid evacuation from Jordan after the collapse of a bank associated with his good name. In one Nation column Hitchens lauded Chalabi's efforts to prompt the US to assist him in a second invasion of Iraq. All in all, page for page, line for line, Out of the Ashes is an explosively exciting slab of history, up there with the best of Tacitus Thucidides.

It's this deliberate starving of Iraqi civilians, notably children that should get Albright and Clinton slung before a war crimes tribunal. The sanctions have also destroyed forever the credibility of the UN.

Most people have forgotten that on February 21, 1991, Rep. Henry Gonzales of San Antonio, Texas, submitted a resolution to impeach George Bush, on five counts, among them the fact that US forces dispatched to the Gulf violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, being “overwhelmingly black, poor white, and Mexican-American.” Also in the Articles of Impeachment drawn up by Gonzales was the charge that Bush was in violation of his constitutional oath, from the US signature on the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course Gonzales' resolution went nowhere, and today we've probably seen around a million or more die prematurely in Iraq, adults and children, from the sanctions, the responsibility for which rests partly with Clinton.

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