All Vanity, No Fair
July 19, 2004 -- HARTFORD (apj.us) -- It is a truth universally acknowledged that the last people to know they're drunks are the drunks themselves and/or their circle of enablers. This has been proven to me repeatedly in my life and even more so since my piece, "Dry Drunk," appeared on this site on Sept. 24, 2002. In that piece, I offered my perspective, as someone intimate with the damage alcohol can do, on something that seemed so obvious to me that I couldn't believe no one else noticed. That is, that GW Bush, who claims to have stopped drinking at age 40 after at least 20 years of chronic and heavy alcoholic imbibing, was behaving like what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a "dry drunk."
The impetus for my remarks was not to be a moral scold or saloon-invading proselityzer. It was an observation I made in a column addressed to fellow Americans. I offered it as food for thought about the planet's most powerful man when he seemed hellbent on starting World War III. Boiled down to its essence, my argument was that the one-time alcohol drunk (I gave Bush the benefit of the doubt that he'd stopped drinking) was now drunk on power. And, even if I were proven wrong, I felt that this at least deserved some reflection.
Since the time I wrote that, and updated it for In These Times (the 7th most read article ever on their Web site), I have received hundreds of responses. Many are from recovering alcoholics who've told me that they'd noticed the same dry drunk behaviors by GWBush and were surprised his drinking history had been so cavalierly ignored by the press. Others were people who'd seen similar behaviors in their loved ones. Of course, there were still others who choose to look the other way, enabling the damage to our body politic to go unchecked and untreated.
The latest person to toss the goblet at my feet is Christopher Hitchens, the increasingly inscrutable British expatriate who you might recall, in a fit of pique over liberals' inability to fall in line behind GWBush and Dick Cheney, left The Nation last year to peddle his polemical wares exclusively to Vanity Fair.
In the latest issue of that magazine, Hitchens has dubbed my thesis about George W. Bush being a dry drunk -- a thesis I've since expanded into a booklength manuscript with Katherine Van Wormer, Ph.D., and Michael O'McCarthy -- "sheer piffle." He has also attempted to belittle Dr. Van Wormer, a renowned authority on alcoholism and its treatment, author of texts and scholarly articles on alcoholic counseling, and frequent guest on news programs. Fumbling and fulminating at our perceived gall for pointing out something so clear to us, Hitchens resorts to mocking the university where Dr. Van Wormer teaches and suggests that I am the dry drunk.
What is not clear to us is the point of Hitchens' column. It is the prose equivalent of a sailor on shore leave, lurching from one idea to the next, presenting each with fancy window dressing and pyrotechnics, sound and fury signifying nothing. As I read it, I thought of the ten-minute monologue delivered by Spalding Gray in the middle of the film Drunks, the most chilling example of spot-on denial I've ever seen. When Hitchens refers to AA as "a quasi cult" filled with "church basement babble," I immediately thought of Gray's performance. I also got the sense that Hitchens has never attended an AA meeting, though doing so would be instructive in more ways than one.
Not content to address the serious issues of Mr. Bush's behavior that we addressed in our initial "articles" (as Hitchens calls them, though mine appeared, and was clearly labeled, "commentary"), he launches into almost comical intellectual contortions that do everything BUT acknowledge the truth about Bush, his drinking and what it might mean to all the rest of us. To Hitchens, it's all about politics, it's all a game of ideological tit for tat. Since he's a war hawk now and Bush is his war hero, he finds that it's fair game to shock and awe the opposition.
However, to continue this martial metaphor, his column was the Mother Of All Bombs.
He opens with two lengthy excerpts about morning-after hangovers by Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe. He then tries to distinguish between "physical and metaphysical hangovers." No doubt in anticipation of criticism, Hitchens admits right up front that he himself, as was once said of Mr. Bojangles, "drinks a bit." (If Hitchens tried this bit of physical-metaphysical tomfoolery at an AA meeting he'd be laughed out of the room).
It's interesting that he chooses to cite Kingsley Amis as an arbiter on the subject of booze, a man who destroyed his marriage and tore his family apart with his drinking, a writer who made his love of alcohol the subject of three books (On Drink, How's Your Glass? and Every Day Drinking) and discolored every piece of fiction he wrote with the fruity whiff of bourbon. All Hitchens would have to do is ask his former friend Martin Amis about the jolly good fun he and his family had when he was a lad and his dad was in his cups. It's as if Hitchens is saying that because Kingsley Amis was a clever fellow and a creative artist, his drinking was justified, if not heroic.
He also cites Ulysses S. Grant as an example of a drunk who was president (or vice versa), thus implying that, dry or wet, Bush has the justifying precedent to be a drunk too if he wants to be. But this comparison won't wash, at least not historically. Though U.S. Grant was one of our greatest field generals (sober), he was among the worst presidents the nation has ever had, and his administration was riddled with corruption reminiscent of the present day.
Better yet, Hitchens insists that Bush couldn't possibly be that bad of a drunk (as if there are gradations) because on the morning that he decided to quit drinking, he went for a jog. "If he could even think about going for a fricking jog," writes Hitchens, anticipating a hearty laugh line, "my guess would be that he hadn't actually had all that much to drink." Ba da bing.
Before this article appeared, I was emailed a query from a "fact checker" at Vanity Fair. The only thing he wanted to know was whether I had ever personally met George W. Bush. Having no idea what article was in the works, I replied that I had not.
Now, I realize that a) the question was irrelevant, a sort of mock attempt at fact checking; and b) I should have answered, "No, I haven't met Bush personally, but I know him. I have been around people like him all my life. I know a drunk when I see one."
In the interest of fairness to Hitchens (but not Bush), I once respected him. I conducted an interview with him in February 2001 for the Hartford Advocate that was cordial, even friendly, and it revealed a fully engaged writer who enjoyed the slings and arrows of what he called "the public sphere." We shared a love of George Orwell and I saw some of what I admire in Orwell in Hitchens of that time -- the willingness to take chances and be deemed wrong in public, the willingness to talk truth to power (as in the lengthy case he made against Henry Kissinger as a war criminal for Harper's) and the ability, as he put it, "to confront the people with whom they are normally in agreement, their tribe or their cohorts," as he famously did in his incendiary takes with Bill Clinton (which led to the bestselling screed No One Left to Lie To).
An opportunity arose three months later to meet Hitchens in person, at a book event in bucolic Litchfield County, where he'd proclaimed his desire to cross paths with his then-nemesis, Henry Kissinger. He and Hank had been invited to the same literary event, but Kissinger, upon learning that Hitchens would be there (so he says), pulled out, telling the organizers that "he had house guests" at his spread in nearby Kent.
At the time, I wrote a fairly flattering profile of Hitchens for Gadfly Online (see the original piece, "Hunting Henry"). But it was at that event that I began to see cracks in Hitchens' armor. While he was never unprovocative, his only motivating fuel seemed to be anger, if not barely concealed rage, and his pedal was pressed firmly to the metal at all times. I could tell that to be around Hitchens for longer than an hour would be utterly exhausting. Each of his bombastic bromides were accompanied with that sort of pugnacious jaw-jutting body language that suggests there's no room to argue the merits of what he said. It was universally acknowledged, as it were, to be perfectly and accurately and brilliantly stated, so why even bother hearing out the little people in the peanut gallery.
Since Hitchens has made a career of heated words, I thought little of it at the time, other than how tense everything around him seemed. One thing I clearly noticed, however, was how Hitchens became righteously affronted when anyone dared point out flaws in his arguments. Later, outside the shop, Hitchens held court to a semi-circle of admirers, delivering more salvos between swigs from a goblet and prodigious inhalations from an ever present cigarette. Shirt-tail out, stains on his wrinkled shirt and sport jacket, hair askew, the man presented quite a public persona.
Among his other wide-ranging comments that day, Hitchens remarked on the ascent of George W. Bush, for whom he had no kind words: "They keep saying the election was a 'peaceful transition of power' but they are just brushing your patriotic G spot. Why do they keep telling us this? They want to ventriloquize you. If it were a peaceful transition of power, it ought not need these constant reminders. What a terrible thing if such a thing as a peaceful transition of power can be profaned."
Mr. Hitchens, as we all know, is singing an entirely different tune in 2004. It's sad to see someone whom Gore Vidal once dubbed an "heir apparent" consorting with such patent frauds as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, being championed by Rush Limbaugh and climbing into political bed with the likes of Eva Braun Coulter and loopy Peggy Noonan. All in the service of this little man in the White House.
I remember Hitchens' parting words to me that May day. The name Bill Clinton had come up among a group of rich, fawning Republicans clamoring around him. Hitchens grandiosely allowed that he was planning to cross paths with Bill Clinton at a literary event in Europe later in the summer. He gleefully anticipated some sort of confrontation with the former president.
"I'm not through with Mr. Clinton," he pronounced ominously.
Funny, we have yet to hear a thing about that grand confrontation.
And, at the moment, "Mister Clinton" -- a man whose own family has seen its share of damage done by the bottle -- is fricking jogging laps around Mister Hitchens.
Alan Bisbort is a columnist for the Hartford Advocate. His most recent publication, due out in October, is Books That Shook The World (Pomegranate).
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