Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens, and Enjoy Your Betrayal of a Journalist Pal

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make swear out affidavits. So Christopher Hitchens, the Oxonian wit gone Washingtonian witless by ratting on his erstwhile friend Sidney Blumenthal, has perhaps done us a favor by reminding the huge circle of his ex-friends–along with the many interested passers-by, staring at what Mr. Hitchens has wrought like spectators slowly passing a wreck–what happens when personal bonds are snapped like so many inconvenient scruples.

I refer, of course, to the affidavit sworn out by the British journalist Mr. Hitchens, alleging that his (now ex-) friend Mr. Blumenthal lied when he maintained, under oath, in a Feb. 3 deposition for the Senate trial of President Clinton, that he had not spread derogatory rumors about Monica Lewinsky to reporters. Curiously referring to his wife as his “associate,” perhaps to establish that the infamous lunch with Mr. Blumenthal last March was all business, Mr. Hitchens alleged that “Mr. 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. I have personal knowledge that Mr. Blumenthal recounted to other people in the journalistic community the same story about Monica Lewinsky.” Mr. Blumenthal, himself a well-known former journalist turned White House aide, responded plausibly, “The notion that I was trying to plant a story with this rabidly anti-Clinton friend is absurd.” The destruction wrought in this case is, at the very least, moral. As usual, there is a political rationale. Moral purity made him do it! By filing an affidavit against Mr. Blumenthal–the same man he still dares claim as a “friend”–Mr. Hitchens thinks he has proved his anti-Clintonian mettle. “The source I’m ratting is Clinton, not Sidney,” he told Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post . Tell it to Mr. Blumenthal’s lawyer, as his clock ticks. Now, on the strength of Mr. Hitchens’ affidavit and with supporting documents from his wife and another affidavit-swearing supporter, Scott Armstrong, it is possible that we shall see the re-entry of Kenneth Starr, should he, after the Senate frees his greatest white whale, find himself weary of indicting Webster Hubbell and be on the lookout for new investigations to while away the rest of his inquisitorial term.

In the course of many frantic media appearances, Mr. Hitchens has been straining to define his disgrace down. In his Washington Post Op-Ed, he resorted to a favored journalistic alibi, the Story Was Already Out There: “I had already told a recognizable version of the story in The Independent of London last Sept. 13.” Mr. Blumenthal didn’t object then, so why not fire off an affidavit, too? Mr. Hitchens also tried to patch his moral cluelessness with this happy scenario: “The Senate lets Bill Clinton walk. Judge Starr decides to proceed against Sidney, who by his excess of loyalty has become one of Clinton’s victims. And I withdraw my affidavit (as I then would) and am cited for contempt.” Heroism at last! Subpoena envy triumphs at last! Staunch defender of Ms. Lewinsky’s reputation, Mr. Hitchens hopes to emerge as a standard-bearer of rectitude after all. Sorry about that, Sidney.

I confess that I cannot get my mind around the logic of Mr. Hitchens’ defenses. They are also too downright idiosyncratic–in Randy Newman’s words, “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” What issue of great moment required such a breach of faith? Some general miasma of morals must be in play, some full-moon, rip-roaring, go-for-broke nihilism of the Henry Hyde, Lindsey Graham sort, and this is one reason why the Hitchens-Blumenthal case has ripped the complacency off much of the so-called journalistic community, especially on the left. In a moral swamp, Mr. Hitchens has inadvertently reminded his legion of ex-friends what decent society cannot bear.

To the delectation of the Republican right, Mr. Blumenthal has been traduced by a man who affects revolutionary virtue. This is the more or less rational side: Mr. Hitchens belongs to a long line of left-wing fundamentalists, purists who, in what they imagine to be their rational brains, believe that what stands in the way of their hearts’ desire is the treacherous class enemy, who used to be Social Democrats (a.k.a. “social fascists,” in Stalinist parlance) and are now ordinary Democrats misleading the otherwise vigorous proletariat. Mr. Blumenthal’s Clintonian “third way” centrism is, from this point of view, synonymous with betrayal. At a time when the center-left is as strong everywhere in the West as the unreconciled left is puny and marooned, the compromised friend becomes the bitterest enemy. Policies that might actually improve life become heinous “lesser evils.” Squaring off against dangerous Bill Clinton, the Trotskyist Mr. Hitchens believes that no holds are to be barred. Belletristic denunciation will not suffice. Call in the law!

Mr. Hitchens’ betrayal also, of course, involves the question of what constitutes friendship in the first place. (I should disclose here that I consider Mr. Blumenthal a friend and Mr. Hitchens an ex-friend, but nothing I write here relies on any conversations I have ever had with them, as I am prepared to affirm under oath–a qualification that seems to have become necessary in this foul clime.) Here is the heart, and heartlessness, of the matter: If Mr. Hitchens’ affidavit is false, that is one sort of betrayal; if it is true (despite Mr. Blumenthal’s salient objection, above), that is another sort. In either case, friendship has been betrayed. There is an eerie parallel in two recent books, Norman Podhoretz’s Ex-Friends and Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow . In a superb review in the current issue of Dissent , the writer George Packer asks what kind of friendships these were that were so lustfully, so irreconcilably broken. They were not what one normally thinks of as friendships. They were little mutual-use societies. These shredded friendships were, in effect, business deals gone bad. The two books, Mr. Packer writes, “call into question the very notion that literary friendship itself is possible.”

In the case of Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Hitchens, accomplished writers both, the deals were largely political, not literary, but Mr. Packer’s point stands for them as well. Journalists tend to befriend journalists and organize convivial associations of their kind. Even rivals are warmed by the fires of the same fraternity (or sorority). As in every professional circle, they cement their bonds with gossip, among other things. They dine out on facts–meaning, in part, each other’s facts–and they also confide. What they must not do is burn each other.

If this principle sounds cozy, it is also, in journalism as in politics, a prerequisite for social decency. In the early years of the Cold War, friendships shattered when ex-Communists named the names not simply of spies but run-of-the-mill Communist Party members. What was so deeply corrosive was not simply that the ex-Communist witnesses disagreed about Stalin or the Cold War–God knows that was long overdue. They could have written articles, even film scripts, denouncing each other’s views. That would have been the politics of the pen–what one expects from writers, after all. No, what was corrosive was that friends went before Congressional committees and courts to inform. They hadn’t been friends at all, connected person to person. They had been “comrades,” a bond they had thought more exalted–fused in a totalist enterprise that they thought surpassed such bourgeois claptrap as trustworthiness. They were badly, grievously wrong. Their opportunistic bond proved paper-thin.

From Linda Tripp to Kenneth Starr to Christopher Hitchens, poisons are circulating. There is something uncanny, and therefore deeply unnerving, about the sequence of events. Ms. Tripp’s illegal tape recordings led to impeachment, hot pursuit of a President led Mr. Starr to circulate his illegally gotten gains all over the world, and now Mr. Hitchens joins them in moral cluelessness. Wiretaps, subpoenas, affidavits, the whole criminalizing apparatus of betrayal–all this destroys trust. Abuse the trust of friends and you shred honor. Shred honor and you plunge civilization into the war of all against all. Talk about moral lessons for the young.