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Columnist's Departure Talk of the Nation


The left's propensity to treat changes in opinion as apostasy always has lent its fallings-out more than a whiff of rancor.

Thus, while both Christopher Hitchens--who this week abruptly quit as the Nation's Washington columnist--and the magazine's New York-based editors are at pains to paint their parting as civilized, if not amicable, the sudden split has left both sides bruised.

According to Nation staff members, who asked not to be named, the magazine's editors were particularly upset that they first learned of Hitchens' resignation when they read the "Minority Report" column he submitted for the forthcoming issue.

In that piece, which will be published in the Nation being mailed to subscribers this week, Hitchens writes that it would be "false to continue the association" and concludes, "When I began work for the Nation over two decades ago, Victor Navasky [then editor, now publisher] described the magazine as a debating ground between liberals and radicals, which was, I thought, well judged. In the past few weeks, though, I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in the argument, and is becoming the voice and echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden."

Hitchens, who was traveling and unavailable for comment, has been increasingly at odds with the Nation and its readers since Sept. 11. The English-born columnist has taken a hard line in support of the Bush administration's war on terror and repeatedly has written about the Saudi-supported Wahabi sect's role in fostering Islamic fundamentalism throughout the world. He has argued unequivocally that militant Islam is a totalitarian creed that must be opposed intellectually and militarily wherever it exists. In recent months, Hitchens also has supported the administration's indictment of Saddam Hussein's malevolence, though he remains cautious about military action.

Those positions have put him intellectually and emotionally at odds with his Nation colleagues, who have been deeply skeptical of the Bush administration's initiatives on all fronts and, particularly, about their implications for domestic civil liberties. Though he, too, is a firm civil libertarian, Hitchens' close associates said this week that he had become "deeply dispirited" about the hostility to his columns expressed by readers in the Nation's letters columns.

"Hitch is exhausted," said one person with whom he discussed his decision. "He's got other places to publish here in the United States--Vanity Fair, the New York Review of Books and the Atlantic. It all got to be too much and, since the Nation had become such a source of grief, he just said, 'Who needs it?' "

Navasky, too, was unavailable for comment, but colleagues with whom he spoke said he was wounded by Hitchens' decision. It was Navasky who invited the writer to the United States more than two decades ago and who suggested that the young Englishman become the Nation's first Washington-based columnist since I.F. Stone. Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, were married in the living room of Navasky's apartment.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the Nation's editor, said she regretted Hitchens' resignation. "We have enjoyed publishing someone who has always had the freedom to write what they wanted and to challenge many of our readers' assumptions," she said.

Others at the Nation feel that Hitchens' columns had become not just a challenge but an affront to the magazine's views. According to staff members, suspicion of what they viewed as the writer's rightward drift began some years ago, when he first expressed reservations about abortion. His relentless rhetorical pursuit of Bill Clinton--whose impeachment he supported--raised further doubts, which grew exponentially after Sept. 11. Those staff members were said to be relieved that Hitchens no longer would be identified as a Nation columnist during his frequent appearances on television.

Suffice it to say, the last word on this split has yet to be heard.

Booker Prize Short List

Though it is only open to writers from Commonwealth nations, Britain's Booker Prize is avidly followed by readers of serious fiction throughout the world. In part, that's because of its sizable cash component--a little more than $75,000 for this year's winner--and in part, because the BBC's live broadcast of its award gives the ceremony something of the Oscars' cachet.

"Most Booker winners already have American publishers," said one prominent New York agent, "but winning usually gets a book a bigger U.S. printing. Where it really helps is with the film sales. Studios seem to like Brit writers almost as much as English actors. It's the class factor."

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