The crowd gathered on Lexington Avenue awaiting the chance to see Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway's debate of the occupation of Iraq wrapped around the block, and kept growing by the minute. As I stood in line, still hundreds of yards from the auditorium's entrance, I spied Hitchens and an armada of young staffers from the neoconservative cultural journal, the New Criterion, seeding the crowd with leaflets exposing Galloway in bold print as "The Toad to Damascus," an apologist for "his new fascist playmate Bashar al-Assad." The crudely composed leaflets, which seemed to have been adapted from notes Hitchens scribbled on a cocktail napkin, set the tone for a sleazy, pointless debate which ultimately had more to do with its two bilious Brit stars than its purported topic.
In fact, Hitchens and Galloway's verbal slime-fest wasn't much of a debate at all. It was more like a competition for who could do the most possible damage to his own cause. Galloway tried his best, declaring, "You may think that those airplanes in this city on 9/11 came out of a clear, blue sky. I believe they emerged out of a swamp of hatred created by us." True or not, Galloway had severely miscalculated. He was in New York City, after all, and even anti-war audience members began to boo.
Galloway bulldozed ahead at full-steam, seemingly determined to personify the terrorist-sympathizing, loony leftist lifted from the neoconservative imagination. "How dare you slander the Iraqi resistance?" he asked Hitchens with his trademark stentorian tenor. The Iraqi "resistance?" Did Galloway mean the assorted Ba'athist and al-Qaeda vampires drowning Iraq in a pool of their own countrymen's blood? Or was he referring to a previously unknown band of oppressed peasants led by a cadre of revolutionary intellectuals in a quixotic struggle against Yankee imperialism? He didn't say.
While "Gorgeous" George displayed all the political acuity of Curious George, he was not to be outdone by Hitchens, who defended not only the Bush administration's policy in the Middle East, but its hapless response to Hurricane Katrina. "For people to start pumping out propaganda saying those were black people who were killed in New Orleans is shameful," Hitchens exclaimed with indignation. "Those bodies haven't even been identified." (If only the press had been more contrarian!) He added, "Only the Governor could have given the orders" to send help. For this, Galloway dubbed Hitchens, "The court jester" of the "Bourbon Bushes."
To my surprise, Hitchens commanded a small but raucous contingent of cheerleaders. Christopher Isham, a senior producer for ABC News, whom I sat beside throughout the debate, was among them. Isham, who worked hand-in-glove with the late Peter Jennings and leads ABC News' investigative unit, applauded vigorously when Hitchens first appeared on stage and throughout his opening statement, which consisted of a spirited -- though mostly unintelligible -- defense of the invasion of Iraq. Isham laughed with glee as Hitchens red-baited the booing crowd, telling them, "Albania's been overthrown, comrades." When Galloway made his opening remarks, however, punctuating them by describing Hitchens as "something unique in natural history: the first natural metamorphosis from a butterfly to a slug," Isham groaned in disgust.
Later, while I scoured the auditorium in search of the liberal media, a reporter who said he was from the Observer in London remarked to me, "I think Hitchens' positions are genuine. I don't think he strikes poses." Another member of the press who didn't identify himself observed, "The people who really hate Hitchens are the ones on the far-right."
Galloway and Hitchens could have slimed each other all night, it seemed. I was eager to get home and decontaminate myself, so I was grateful when Galloway finally announced, "I think we've had enough hate for the evening." He had a bus tour with Jane Fonda to get to, after all, and the hour was getting late. By the time Hitchens got around to his closing statement, more than a few audience members seemed ready to leap onstage and tear him limb-from-limb. "It takes a bit more than that, ladies and gentleman, to shut me up," he declared above sustained booing.
After the debate, Hitchens found himself seated at a table, surrounded by a small crowd of fawning, young white males -- "contrarians" -- while he signed his latest polemic. He had wrestled a nemesis through the sewer, pissed off a few of his former fans, and now he was selling a book or two. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it was Hitchens' happiest hour.