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Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens on the reaction to the Path To 9/11, Jefferson, and Armitage

Wednesday, September 13, 2006
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HH: Joined as I am, whenever we’re lucky on Wednesdays, by Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Hitchens, welcome back.

CH: Very nice of you to reinvite me.

HH: I have the last two days been listening to your most recent book, Jefferson: Author of America. Did you…and it’s very finely read, by the way, in the version I have, at least. Did you intend to diminish Jefferson?

CH: No, by no means. How did I seem to do that?

HH: Well, it comes through over and over again, his double-mindedness about slavery, his hot/cold, even contingent affection for the French Revolution, his departures from deism, which seemed to trouble you greatly.

CH: Well, yes, that was a bit of a facer. Well, I mean, one can’t avoid the question of his position on slavery, of course, because he was an abolitionist, but he didn’t have the courage to be an emancipationist. In other words, he thought slavery should be abolished, and then all black people should leave the country. But he didn’t quite live up to this in his private life, and we are happy to say that his descendents all live happily in the United States, as people of…well, I refuse to say race, but of, let’s say, co-mingled blood, which I think has all been encouraging. I rather sympathize with him on the French Revolution. I think he was right to hope for the best for it. The main criticism I have of him is that he had, apparently, no sense of humor. He was a very, very sort of cold and often stiff guy.

HH: Yes.

CH: That was the most alarming discovery that I made about him.

HH: You had hoped that Franklin could have gotten in at least one joke into the Declaration, but he didn’t.

CH: If it had been up to old Ben, we would have had a gag in the Declaration, I think.

HH: But you also are very, very harsh on Dumas Malone, and I think the whole project…I don’t even know if you’re aware of it, but I was…I’m not much of a Jefferson scholar. I’m a Hamiltonian buff myself. I like Adams. You don’t care for his priggishness, I know. But I was…just walked away from it thinking to myself, I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens knew what he did, but I think he left Mr. Jefferson unhorsed.

CH: Well, I’ll have to think of it in…I’ll have to take that on board. I mean, look. I’m not one who believes in the great man, Thomas Carlyle’s theory of history in the first place. And I open by saying that many presidential histories, and I certainly meant to specify Dumas Malone, write about our founding fathers as if they didn’t have sexual organs, or other human mammalian equipment. And it’s always very important to remember about all supposed great figures, that they did. And in fact, it’s particularly important in Jefferson’s case to bear that in mind, because it actually mattered.

HH: You brought up the…

CH: So I mean, yes, in a sense, any biographical essay written by me would, in that sense, tend, if someone was on a pedestal, to remove them from it, because I don’t think pedestals is where human beings belong. That leads to dear leader and great leader stuff.

HH: What was your opinion…hard to tease out of Hamilton from this book. Obviously, you’re not writing about about that…

CH: Well, I have to say, I mean, before I even thought about writing on Jefferson, I did read a number of Hamilton, including the most brilliant, most recent one, and where I…which I think did him serious justice, and I think I’d now have to say that one may say one’s a Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian, and I think I’d still rather say of myself I was Jeffersonian. But what the revolution needed…really needed both of them. And on the great historic argument, as to whether America was going to become a country of business and commerce, or whether it was going to be an agrarian democracy, as Jefferson wanted, there’s no question who wins. I mean, Hamilton just won, and Jefferson acknowledged it. Jefferson was one of these people who thought that paper money was unsound.

HH: Yes. I also listened to this after having listened to Paul Johnson’s in the same series, a biography of George Washington. I’m struck A) they’re running around getting all these Brits who now are very familiar and living in the United States writing about our presidents, who themselves, of course, were British subjects at the time. But Johnson’s tone is so completely different. Have you read his?

CH: I don’t read Mr. Johnson anymore.

HH: Oh, why not?

CH: I haven’t for a long time. He’s a blowhard and a fool.

HH: (laughing) What do you really think?

CH: And a Catholic nut bag, and a demagogue. And so, I have to tell you, perhaps I can say this, and I hope your listeners won’t think I’m being conceited, but I was terrified to find that Gordon Wood, the great historian of the founding, was given both Johnson’s and my book to review. You know, you put yourself in the world of Jefferson scholarship, and you really dread being reviewed by someone like Gordon Wood. I was very happy indeed that he liked my book, and even more thrilled that in the same review, he pointed out all the mistakes in Johnson’s. The review could have been written by my mother, in other words, and it cheered me up.

HH: Well, I’m hoping that people go and read it. It just was very different from what I expected.

CH: Well, thank you. And what did you think of what Jefferson said about the Presbyterians?

HH: Oh, I loved that part. Now I know what you were referring to at the end. Yes, and you’re very much down on Pastor Rice, but Pastor Rice won. And that’s why I’m thinking Jefferson always must have disappointed you. He collapsed at every turn…Citizen Ginette. We’re talking about a little inside baseball here.

CH: Yes.

HH: But he really did never hold the field against stiff opposition.

CH: No, that is true, and he was rather tactical. He would often tend to withdraw a bit like DeGaulle used to do, you know, to his family estate, and say oh, well, if the people don’t want me, why should I go on sacrificing myself for them, that kind of rather unattractively self-pitying turns, that of course, concealed a huge ambition, but often ducks having fights on principle. In other words, one of the best things he does, namely send the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines to fight the Islamic dictatorships in North Africa who were taking Americans as slaves…and obviously, something he’d been wanting to do for years, and did as soon as he was president. He was only able to do it because he and his allies hadn’t been able to stop Adams building that fleet.

HH: Let’s turn from that Jefferson to another president with Jefferson in his name, William Jefferson Clinton, much subject of commentary this week. He’s back. What did you make of his effort to…

CH: He’s always back.

HH: (laughing) Well, that’s true. How can you miss him when he won’t go away is the name of the song. But what do you make of his attempt to shelf ABC’s mini-series?

CH: Well, I think it’s absolutely contemptible, I have to say. I mean, I was so lucky enough to see that series all at one go about two weeks ago. I had a friend who showed it to me, and I thought that allowance made for dramatic license and so forth, it was really pretty good, and really pretty fair. And when you consider that half the Democratic Senatorial leadership went to the opening in Washington of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which is a mere tissue of lies and fabrications, there isn’t a word of truth or an attempt at truth in it, and endorsed it, and had into a box at the Democratic National Convention where he sat next to Jimmy Carter, another ex-president who won’t quit, where they send, when it was pointed out, that every single frame of Moore’s film is false, they just said well, you know, it’s a good piece of rollicking agit prop. Well, once they’ve said that, they have to shut up when ABC does a serious attempt at a reconstruction. You know, it’s very lenient, in many ways, on the Clinton era, that documentary is.

HH: Yes, it is.

CH: The scene about George Tenet on the day, on September 11th, cuts out the most incriminating line that he uttered, which I can tell you, if you like. I may have told it to you before.

HH: No.

CH: Well, it’s in Woodward’s book, and we know that Tenet talked to Woodward, and we know that as a result, he got very favorable treatment, so it’s not an anti-Tenet book. And indeed, Tenet has the privilege of being quoted directly. And he’s having breakfast on September 11th with former Senator David Boren, who had been his big patron on the Intelligence Committee. This is in the film, too. They’re talking about this and that, and the lads run in suddenly, very alarmed. It’s obvious that the head of Central Intelligence isn’t late for his next meeting. Something terrible’s happened. They turn on the TV, and this is in the documentary, too, and you know what Tenet’s first sentence is? First words are?

HH: No, I don’t recall.

CH: First words are from the CIA in the post-9/11 era? I hope it’s not those guys in the flight schools in Minnesota. That’s what he said. Now you should obviously hope that he would think that, because if it was those guys, as it was, it means he should have been impeached, because he knew they were there, and he didn’t do anything about it. So it’s actually the negligence of that period, is a lot worse than most Americans know. And if they had known, I think they would have prevented the president from giving George Tenet later on the medal of freedom, and demanded instead that he either be impeached, or fired, or prosecuted for criminal negligence.

HH: How about the portrayals of Berger and Albright, which have drawn the greatest amount of scrutiny because of the dramatic license in the case of Berger, and…

CH: Well, I can’t tell you that Sandy Berger actually hung up the phone on that operation in the way that it’s represented. But we know that they did…Madeleine Albright did tip off the Pakistanis, or her department did, that the missiles were coming, which allowed them to tip off the targets of the missiles. So that’s rather vitiating the point of the operation. And we know that Berger, and many others, were very keen to treat these things as a law and order problem, and when any action was required, to make sure that it was as minimal and inoffensive as it could be. And for all I know, that’s what Mr. Berger was stuffing into his underwear in the National Archives before the 9/11 Commission could get to it. We don’t…or I can’t say I do know exactly what he was doing when he did that. Something else, by the way, that was unpunished and unprosecuted.

HH: Did you read the Looming Tower yet by Lawrence Wright?

CH: No, I haven’t. I read the chunk of it that was in the New Yorker, and I read his early, brilliant early essay on the man who was the unarguable hero of the film, the ABC film…

HH: Yes.

CH: John O’Neill, who if we have an American hero in this, is the man, and who should much, much better known than he is. And for that reason alone, I hope that ABC shows the whole thing again.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, Bill Clinton was caught up at the Clinton Library in Arkansas before the Path To 9/11 showed, and he said all I want is for people to tell the truth. No little irony in that, is there?

CH: Well, I don’t know if it counts, even, as an irony. I don’t think he hears himself when he says that. I don’t think he sees what’s funny.

HH: So he’s unaware of the contradiction, you think?

CH: I had a good reason to call my book No One Left To Lie To. This is a man whom lying comes so easily that I think one’s entitled naturally to say, one is entitled to say it’s pathological. The definition of a pathological liar is someone who lies when it won’t do him any good, lies for its own sake, not even for self interest. And that’s what we found out about Mr. Clinton when, well, when he was governor, when he was candidate, when he was president, and when he was re-elected as president. Some people couldn’t get enough of it. Some of us wanted less, but…

HH: Let’s look forward.

CH: Yes.

HH: The Path To 9/11 did, I think, one great service in trying to dramatically portray the nature of the enemy, the fanaticism, the maniacal hatred, and the ruthlessness. And the Looming Tower does the same, although its geneology goes back to Sayeed Katub, and goes forward to where we are today. Does this country yet understand the enemy?

CH: No, I don’t think so at all. I think that you can hear it said on all sides…here’s my favorite example, and it’s the most common one, often by quite thoughtful people. There wouldn’t be terrorism in Iraq if we were not there. Now what that…I know the 10% of truth or validity that’s in that argument. But it’s so false, that one hardly knows how to begin attacking it. Either people say that we are the cause of the blowing up of mosques by Muslims. Now this is not true, just not true. And the indiscriminate murder of Muslims by Muslims. This is not the fault of the United States. This is part of a long-planned attack by Wahabi and Salafi extremists, first on the Muslim world to bring it under control, and to repress any hint of dissent from their form of orthodoxy. And then to use that as a platform from which to attack us, and attack us, meanwhile, to try to cower people even more. That’s what is the root of it. And the people you hear…I hear it every single day, or read it every single day, or both, that the reverse is the case. This is masochism. And it’s also obviously an unwillingness to face the truth, because if it’s true, as I believe it is, that that’s the case, then obviously, we can’t go on with our comfortable lives in quite the same way. We have to be girded for war that will go on for a very long time.

HH: And that’s been the message the president has tried to give three, four times in the last week. Did you watch his address on the 5th anniversary of 9/11?

CH: I’m sorry to say I usually excuse myself.

HH: Have you seen or heard any of his addresses on this subject, especially on the intelligence gathering?

CH: Well, I excuse myself when they’re given, and I have to go back and look at them in any case, just in case. But I mean, except for the speech he gave this time four years ago at the United Nations about Iraq, which I thought was an extremely good speech…

HH: What’s going on there?

CH: I live in Washington. If it isn’t this (sirens), it’s helicopters.

HH: Okay.

CH: I mean…no, not black ones, just ordinary ones. We get a lot of noise in central D.C, especially around this time of year. Yeah, I thought that was an excellent speech. But mostly I found from the one he gave on day one, the terrible one written by Karen Hughes, and delivered much too late in the day on September 11th, I found that he just doesn’t do it for me, and I understand why he doesn’t do it for others. That’s why I have to keep doing this, because people…the president can’t make a case. And those of us who have to volunteer to defend the war are left with everything to do, because partly of what he says, partly of what he doesn’t say, partly what he leaves out.

HH: I would refer you to Wednesday’s speech.

CH: It was…however, I did read some of it, and I was pleased to see that this time, he didn’t say it’s an attack on America, and if you’re not with America, you’re with the terrorists, and so on, all of that nonsense. He did say that it is an attack on civilization, this jihadism. It’s not just us.

HH: And in Wednesday last, he also made an argument about intelligence gathering, and the nature of the enemy, and how vastly flung it is. And I thought that was a very persuasive, if somewhat overdue. Now I do want to bring up one criticism I have, and get your reaction, which is that in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition, he told Paul Gigot that he personally approved the visa to Khatami to come to the United States, because he wanted to hear what he had to say. I think that’s a mistake. I think that undercuts the argument we’re making against Iran. Your reaction?

CH: Oh, no. I mean, I was rather impressed to find he’d done that. I’m in favor of having the broadest possible, and the widest possible contacts with Iran. Iranian people are not as imprisoned and ignorant as say the Iraqis were, where you know, it was death to possess a satellite dish in Iraq until recently. And it can be now, if you come up against the wrong gang of jihadists, but it’s not illegal anymore.

HH: Of course.

CH: In Iran, there’s a huge audience for dialogue with the United States, and any form it takes is better than none, in my opinion. I don’t say anything in defense of Khatami himself, but I thought that he was rather reduced as a figure by his tour, as he was bound to be.

HH: He appeared at the University of Virginia, and against the criticism, the student editors of the student newspaper there said what better place than Mr. Jefferson’s university. Your reaction to that?

CH: That’s a bit facile, I must say, and I gather, too, that at the National Cathedral, he wasn’t made to answer any very awkward questions. I’m not for having people…and then treating him too politely. I think if he comes here, he has to be exposed to the full range of American opinion, and also to the opinions of the many, many Iranians who have to live in this country because of the regime that he represents.

HH: I think he should have to sit with Keith Olbermann. Are you familiar with Keith Olbermann?

CH: I’ve been on his show a couple of times. I don’t watch it.

HH: What do you make of him? He’s gone around the bend. He’s gone nutter.

CH: I’m not a consumer. I don’t watch it.

HH: All right.

CH: I once or twice went on. He was fair enough to me, not great, and not very searching questions, I wouldn’t say.

HH: No, he’s gone around the bend. Let me ask you. Let’s close by talking about Richard Armitage and Robert Novak. Novak’s column addresses Richard Armitage. He’s now been named in the Valerie Plame lawsuit, I was reading earlier today. Is he getting his just desserts? Or is he getting a nice Beltway light rinse, as you would describe?

CH: Well, he was getting, Armitage, if you mean…

HH: Yes.

CH: He was getting a light rinse until Novak’s piece today, which says that even his apology is deceptive, that he’s still muddying the waters. He’s still not admitting the extent to which he really was the source, and how early that was, and how cowardly he was in the meantime. I mean, the person who should be suing him is Judy Miller.

HH: Now the collapse of this whole case, what’s it do to the left which had worked themselves into such a fervor? Obviously, they’re unaware of it. But what ought it to tell us about them?

CH: Well, I mean, I tried to warn everyone who fell for this ridiculous hoax, that it was obviously a priori wrong from the very start. If…even if the administration had wanted to do this, which it didn’t, it wouldn’t have chosen Novak as the person to leak to. He’s against the war, he’s pro-CIA, he’s anti-Israel, and all of this, and he wouldn’t be doing their bidding. You had to know straight off that it was wrong.

HH: I know, but going to the character of the left, or at least in the blogosphere…

CH: Well, look, these are people who believe that there was nothing to worry about in Niger, even though there were repeated visits by senior Iraqis to that country, and by A.Q. Khan at the same time. That doesn’t worry them. These are people who say at quite high level in the Democratic Party that Mr. Zarqawi in Iraq is our fault. These are people who want to know whether it’s true that Osama bin Laden is some, as Michael Scheuer of the CIA says, you know, is a noble Arab defending Muslim land. As Maureen Dowd said the other day, where do you want me to start with this illusion?

HH: I don’t know, but you’ve got a good start going. Christopher Hitchens, thanks.

End of interview.

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