City Lights: Looking back on an interview with Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens would have been a darn good high school teacher.

That was one of my first memories after hearing that the prolific author and columnist had died Thursday at the age of 62. A leftist for years, then an adamant supporter of the War on Terror, Hitchens probably shocked and offended people of every imaginable political persuasion — plus every imaginable religion, considering that he titled a book "God is not Great" and condemned Mother Teresa as a fraud.

But I remember his less incendiary side as well. I covered it in 2005 when I was the education reporter for the Daily Pilot.

That year, the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation invited Hitchens to be the final speaker in its distinguished lecturer series. As part of the engagement, he was scheduled to address a roomful of high school students.

Having read Hitchens' work, not to mention accounts of his personal habits, for years, I didn't know what to expect. Would he show up drunk or engage in a heated argument with left-leaning (or God-fearing) students in the front row? I brought a thick notepad and waited to see what kind of a story it would be.

As it turned out, there were no fireworks that morning. Hitchens spoke for an hour and came off more like a refined professor than a social agitator. It's not that he was excessively formal; at one point, he talked about patronizing an Afghan bar after the overthrow of the Taliban and praised alcohol sales as proof of the country's reemerging democracy.

Still, the impression I came away with was one of a polite, generous man who gamely took students' questions and even worked in a plug for libraries. As the son of a naval officer, he said, he grew up in a house without many books, and he credited his local libraries with playing a vital role in his education.

When the lecture ended, I got a few minutes to talk with Hitchens on his way out. I thanked him for a piece he had written lambasting Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," which I also found ridiculous. He suggested some other articles for me to read and shared his views about recent presidential candidates John Kerry ("He never even should have been a senator") and John Edwards ("He's in politics for the right reasons") before he excused himself to catch his ride.

For years, Hitchens was one of the handful of writers who I read compulsively whenever a new byline appeared. I looked forward to his Monday column in Slate the way some people look forward to "Monday Night Football" — even when I disagreed with him, which came with the territory.

But while publications around the world are remembering Hitchens the hellraiser, I remember Hitchens the gentleman. Well, mostly.

In the last few days, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il died while Dec. 25 drew a step closer. I love the holidays, but as I hang my stocking this year, I'll smile thinking of that Hitchens column where he compared celebrating Christmas to spending a month in North Korea.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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