Hitchensian nastiness

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2003

Christopher Hitchens has a review of Robert Dallek’s John F. Kennedy biography in the Times Literary Supplement. Hitchens doesn’t exactly hold back from laying into the Kennedy cult, and I would have expected him to be highly critical of Kennedy’s record in office. I have to say, though, that I found the manner of Hitchens’s revelling in Kennedy’s physical ailments somewhat arresting. I won’t go through the whole catalogue here, but Hitchens’s judgement is this:

bq. Obviously, a good deal of “spin” is required to make an Achilles out of such a poxed and suppurating Philoctetes. The difference was supplied by family money in heaping measure, by the canny emphasis on a war record, and by serious attention to the flattery and suborning of the media.

And when I read the following, I was somewhat shocked:

bq. But the furthest that Dallek will go [in agreeing with the Hitchens view that Kennedy’s ailments made him unfit to be President] here is to admit – following Seymour Hersh’s earlier book The Dark Side of Camelot – that Kennedy’s back-brace held him upright in the open car in Dallas, unable to duck the second and devastating bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald. This is almost the only connection between the President’s health and his fitness that is allowable in these pages, and I presume that it is its relative blamelessness which allows the concession.

“Relative blamelessness”? I’m not sure where the “relative” comes into play here. It must mean something like “somewhat blameworthy, but not as blameworthy as some of Kennedy’s other disabilities.” It is, at any rate, a poisonous phrase which would certainly attract Hitchens’s disapprobation in other, all too easily imagined, contexts.

UPDATE: The link above has now become non-functional. The curious had better consult the print edition.



nameless 08.27.03 at 7:47 pm

“and I presume that it is its relative blamelessness which allows the concession.”

Yeah, Kennedy has only a small amount of blame for being assassinated. Apparently most of the blame belongs to the assassin. I guess Reagan’s age was likewise “relatively blameless” for being shot by John Hinckley Jr. Hitchens is such a jerk.

In any case, Hitchens misses Dallek’s point about the possible role of the back brace:

“The first bullet that found its mark passed through his neck and it would have toppled him over … it would have knocked him over if it weren’t for the back brace,” Dallek explains. “But it held him upright. And so the second bullet that found the back of his head killed him. So it’s ironic that the brace, which was there to help his back, contributed to his death.”


Dallek doesn’t say that Kennedy was “unable to duck” – for goodness sakes, the man had already been shot through the neck. Hitchens really is nasty. Why does he spend so much time attacking people like Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, JFK? There is some pathology in that guy.


Robert Schwartz 08.27.03 at 7:49 pm

What I really want to know is: if JFK was that sick and that drugged up how did he get the reputation of stud-puppet and horn-dog? I mean if I were that sick and that high, I wouldn’t be chasing 19 year old girls.

As for Hitchens, I thought he let ’em off easy. This is a more realistic view of that clan.


Joe Grossberg 08.27.03 at 9:11 pm

No, I think Hitchens is just being a consistent dickhead. He previously speculated Reagan had full-blown Alzheimer’s by 1982, appropriately enough, in an article that calls on George W. Bush’s critics to go for the cheap shots instead of avoiding them.


gek 08.27.03 at 11:16 pm

“Relative blamelessness”. Perhaps he means its blamelessness relative to the bullet and to Oswald. That’s how I read it, anyway.


Eve 08.28.03 at 3:20 pm

I don’t understand Chris’s construal of ‘relative blamelessness’. I take it to mean ‘blameless relative to the other complaints’, and hence to be silent on


Eve Garrard 08.28.03 at 3:40 pm

Sorry about the premature posting above. I don’t understand Chris’s construal of ‘relative blamelessness’. I take it to mean ‘blameless in comparison to the other complaints’, and hence to be silent about whether the backbrace condition was blameworthy at all – ie relatively blameless is compatible with not blameworthy at all. (The desired comparison couldn’t have been effected by just saying ‘blameless’.)If Hitchens is comparing wearing the backbrace with the other conditions, then presumably he’s thinking of the VD etc., and since allocating blame for illnesses is a tricky business, then he’s open to some criticism. But it seems much more likely that Hitchens is assessing Kennedy for blameworthiness in choosing to occupy the presidency while suffering from, and being treated for, these various medical conditions. The backbrace might seem fairly low on that list, and hence relatively blameless, compared to the conditions for which he took uppers and downers etc etc. On this construal, Hitchens is saying that there’s no (or little) blame to Kennedy for occupying the presidency while needing a backbrace, since that couldn’t be expected to impair his competence, but there is blame in occupying the presidency while undergoing other treatments which he must have known would affect his ability to run the country competently. I don’t know enough about Kennedy and his ailments to assess this claim, but it doens’t seem inherently objectionable, does it?


chris 08.28.03 at 4:17 pm

I’m afraid my linguistic intuitions are unshaken, Eve, though I’d probably defer to Brian (our resident CT linguistics person) if he disagreed. If I said of persons X and Y that they were guilty as hell and then of Z that she was “relatively blameless”, I think the conversational implicature would be that Z could be largely, though not completely, exonerated.


Brian Weatherson 08.28.03 at 4:55 pm

I’m with Chris. ‘Relatively blameless’ is logically compatible with _blame free_, but if that’s what you mean it’s a very odd, and rather inappropriate, way to put it. Compare

bq. There were many mistakes by world leaders that led to World War I. Alongside their mistakes, I’m relatively blameless for _that_ disaster.

The important point here is that words matter. If you mean _blameless_, say ‘blameless’. If you add an extra word in, that sends a message that the simple word wouldn’t have been good enough for what you wanted to convey. What work could ‘relative’ do in Hitchens’s prose except qualify somewhat the position that the back brace was, simply, _blameless_? Presumably nothing, so we read it as a qualifier, even if that’s not literally what it means.


Eve 08.28.03 at 6:11 pm

Well, maybe I wouldn’t go to the stake for that linguistic intuition. But still, isn’t the sting of Chris’s criticism of Hitchens drawn by understanding him as blaming Kennedy, not for his illnesses, but for his decision to hold the presidency while hopped up to the eyebrows with the drugs used to treat those illnesses?


chris 08.28.03 at 9:04 pm

Yes, Hitchens does make that criticism, though it isn’t clear to me that the facts support that judgement. Was Kennedy more irresponsible than a serious depressive who regularly self-medicated with large quantities of booze was for leading Britain in WW2?

But I’m afraid that the Hitchens writes with the aim of making Kennedy a figure of disgust for us on account of his physical symptoms and seems to relish doing so in a way that strikes me as sadistic. That Hitchens indulges his impulse so to do is not to his credit.


Eve 08.29.03 at 7:19 am

But Churchill succeeded, spectacularly, and that’s why his drinking doesn’t matter. If he’d failed, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to mention his depression and alcohol problems in criticism. Kennedy’s record isn’t as impressive as Churchill’s, so questioning his judgement with respect to his drug intake is similarly legitimate.

As for Hitchens relishing the physical debilities, I don’t see it myself. But admittedly this kind of thing is common – look at the way in which those who are hostile to Bush relish the claims that he’s stupid, which if true is no more his fault than Kennedy’s physical ailments.


Chris 08.29.03 at 7:40 am

But if Hitchens’s point is that Kennedy was in a state where he shouldn’t have taken the opportunity to succeed or fail at being President in the first place, it is hard to see why he wouldn’t also have to concede that Churchill was in a state where he shouldn’t have taken the opportunity to succeed or fail at being PM.


Eve 08.29.03 at 10:03 am

I suppose what’s operative here is moral luck – for some risks, taking them is justified if they come off, not if they don’t. I take it that Hitchens thinks that Kennedy’s risk-taking really didn’t come off. Churchill, on the other hand – we all have reason to be glad he took the risk.


Chris 08.29.03 at 10:25 am

Kennedy certainly was unlucky….


Robert Schwartz 08.29.03 at 11:13 pm

“Kennedy certainly was unlucky….”

Luck is the residue of design —
Branch Rickey

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