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Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens reflects on the inauguration of Barack Obama

Thursday, January 22, 2009
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HH: We begin with Vanity Fair columnist, Christopher Hitchens, whose perhaps most interesting byline for today’s discussion is that he is a biographer of Jefferson, one of the short and great biographies of Jefferson out there. In that capacity, Christopher Hitchens, and welcome back, what do you think Mr. Jefferson would have made of yesterday’s events?

CH: Oh, Mr. Jefferson would, if he could see America now, would I think be most amazed by the fact that I was watching it from the roof of the Canadian Embassy.

HH: (laughing) True.

CH: …which is the best vantage point in the city, I might add, and fantastic, I should also add out of courtesy, more than courtesy, tremendous hospitality of the Canadian Ambassador and his staff to an enormous crowd of guests. The best place you could be either ground level or roof level – beaver tails, et cetera. Jefferson would not have believed that there would still be a British North America, that the Union flag over the United Kingdom would in effect, the writ of the British monarchy would still run that far. He would wonder whether the youth of America had lost all sense of honor that this could happen. Other things I think would have amazed him, too, but not as much as that – interracial, as it’s sometimes called, marriage, black-white marriage I think would rather astound him. In fact, the whole state of American womanhood would amaze him.

HH: The march of science would not.

CH: No, the march of science would not be the victory of Hamiltonianism, I mean in its capitalist form, I think he was resigned to. He didn’t like it, but I think he realized it was coming. He’d bargained for it with Hamilton.

HH: And the bankruptcy of big finance, I’m sure he might have even celebrated.

CH: That wouldn’t have startled him in the least. I think he would have also been a bit depressed that Cuba wasn’t yet a state of the American Union.

HH: But what about the idea that not only were they no longer slaves, but in fact black men in America could take the oath of office which he had once held?

CH: Well, Jefferson was maybe not a racist, but he was a racialist. In other words, he thought that there probably were absolutely unbreakable differences, unbreakable down differences. He didn’t think black Africans were a different species, but he thought they were not quite as good a kind of human, just as he thought of American Indians, as we call them, that they were fully the equal of whites, and just needed to get rid of their witch doctors and learn some agriculture and some industry. He thought that the way, the terrible, most awful thing I think he said in notes on the state of Virginia was that black people seem to take to slavery so stoically.

HH: Now what’s surprising about that…

CH: He said there must be something wrong with them, that they would endure what was done to them.

HH: What was so surprising about that, I wrote a column yesterday called The Completion. Jefferson, of course, is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, with this ringing rhetoric about all men are Created equal, and yesterday, at the completion of that rather radical thought, he just didn’t believe it then.

CH: Well, he said, listen, even if there is a rooted inequality, a definable inequality, it wouldn’t justify cruel treatment, let alone slavery. He was very firm on that point. And his polemics against slavery, and his certainty that it would indeed pass away, are all you need. No one every wrote any better about it. John Brown didn’t write any better, William Garrison didn’t write any better. It’s just that for Jefferson, as with Mr. Lincoln, his most distinguished successor in some ways, and on this point, the crucial thing was the strength of the Union. And anything that had to be done or needed to be done was to be suborned to that. So the Louisiana Purchase, and the extension of slavery into the new territories, didn’t give Jefferson any qualms, even though people like Thomas Paine and other friends of his begged him, please let’s start again. Let’s start again without slavery. Let’s bring some nice, thrifty, industrious German settlers and immigrants into the new territories, and no more chattel, no more human chattel. He wouldn’t listen, because he was in such hot competition for the sugar market with rival powers. It really does have all the lineaments of a tragedy.

HH: Putting aside history for a moment, yesterday you’re obviously, it’s a big party, not only at the Canadian Embassy, it goes on all night, so there’s lots of diversion. But what did you make of yesterday’s spectacle, and of the address itself?

CH: Spectacle first, and I include in the spectacle all the run up to it, the concert on the Mall, or the weekend and so on. Our little city had perhaps as many as 1.8 million visitors. As far as has been reported, not one arrest.

HH: Oh, interesting.

CH: Far as…no arrest has so far been reported. I remember thinking as I was really, really squeezed on the Metro, it’s the only way to move around yesterday, I don’t think today there’ll be a punch thrown or a purse snatched, and I don’t think that there was. One poor lady did fall because of the appalling congestion, an elderly lady in front of a train on the Metro, which bore up heroically, as did everyone else involved in transportation. The security was appalling and stupid, but security in Washington is appalling and stupid every day, and it seems that we’ve resigned ourselves to that. I haven’t, but most people have, to being pushed around in that idiotic manner that doesn’t make us any safer. One of the better points made in the address was to move to that, that you can’t trade, as Benjamin Franklin acknowledged as the author of this quotation, but I think the author, quite rightly pointed out, you can’t trade freedom for security. And if you try, you’ll probably lose both. I thought that was a good point in the speech. I thought there was far too much ‘we prefer unity to division, we prefer peace to war, we prefer,’ you know how it goes. It’s uplift.

HH: Let me play you my favorite paragraph, and get your reaction to it.

BHO: We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

HH: Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Not only very well phrased, but I thought at the time extremely well, sorry, very well said, also. There was a ringing, defiant tone of conviction to that. And he went on to say of some of the regimes in outlying regions that have wanted to try conclusions with the United States that this kind of tyranny and resort to violence was condemned by history, put, to be exact, I think he said put them on the wrong side of history, something that President Bush himself used to say, as had President Reagan. I thought it was very well-uttered, and very convincingly said as well. And I happen to know that the speech was 90% written by the President himself, that there’s this young man, I’m never quite sure how to pronounce his name, I think it’s Favreau?

HH: Yup. 27.

CH: He’s supposed to be very, very good, but he got back his first draft with about 80-90% red ink redone by the President, who gave the speech indeed as if it was his own idea. Listen, quite a lot of boilerplate, but the tough bits were very tough, and were I thought unimprovably expressed.

HH: Agreed. Let me ask and close by asking you, I don’t think you can really remember much about the last coronation England had. It’s been a very long time.

CH: I was, I think, four.

HH: Right, and so just generally…

CH: I do remember it, in point. In fact, it was the first time I was ever taken to a cinema or saw a TV screen.

HH: Oh, well generally, don’t you think we’re better off than the country of your birth because we get to have these sort of civic ceremonies every now and then? You have to wait for your monarch to die to sort of pass on the sort of head of statedom?

CH: And at the moment where Her Majesty, the Queen’s heart ceases to beat, her rather odd son, who spent all his life in a sense being trained waiting for his mother to die, not much of a life, will become the head of the armed forces, the head of the state, and the head of the Church of England. Can anything more absurd be imagined? Whereas yesterday, when I noticed the exact moment where the clocks moved to 12 Noon, and the Chief Justice hadn’t quite got around to starting the oath, well, he’s president now and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. And a real frisson went through me at that point, I have to say. It’s happened again. The United States has had a dignified and peaceful transition, and the most impressive title you can have, and I’ll start, I’ll go back to where you began with me, John Adams wanted the chief executive to be called His Serene Majestical, I can’t remember, Eminence. He had a very long proposal for this. Thomas Jefferson said no, Mr. President will do. There is, to this day, there’s never been a title in the world that has more dignity and more majesty than that.

HH: And with one minute left, Christopher Hitchens, what do you hope, not what do you hope, what do you expect out of this new president?

CH: Well, a little noticed part of his speech came very early on. He got it out of the way, I thought, slightly too soon. But he referred to the collective responsibility. I mean, he may have even said collective guilt. Anyway, collective failures, something of this kind, the word was collective, but everyone’s been involved in the collapse of the credit of our currency, in some ways of our political institutions, of our financial institutions, of our standing in the world. This is not something that can merely be blamed on the fish rotting from the head, as was once said. It’s a matter for everyone to put their shoulder to the wheel. I thought we could have had perhaps a bit more on that point, and on that thought. Perhaps he’ll be able to develop it in the rest of your show.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, a great pleasure as always from Vanity Fair, and biographer of Jefferson.

End of interview.

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