Why `Hitch The Snitch' Betrayed A Trusting Friend

"Okay," I said, giving him a chance to rationalize his snitching, which all informants have to do when they start out. - J. Wambaugh, "Blue Night"

MANY people go through life rehearsing a role they feel the fates have in store for them, and I've long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss. And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Hitchens has made the big time.

At the end of last week, amid the embers of the impeachment trial, he trotted along to Congress and swore out an affidavit that he and his "associate" (i.e., wife Carol Blue) had lunch with White House aide Sidney Blumenthal last March 19 and that Blumenthal had described Monica Lewinsky as a stalker.

Since Blumenthal had just claimed in his deposition to the House impeachment managers that he had no idea how the White House stalker stories had started, Hitchens' affidavit is about as flat a statement as anyone could want that Blumenthal has committed perjury, thus exposing himself to a sentence of up to five years in prison. At the very least, Hitchens has probably cost Blumenthal about $100,000 in fresh legal expenses on top of the $200,000 tab he's already facing. Some friend.

And we are indeed talking about friendship here. They've been pals for years, and Hitchens has not been shy about trumpeting the fact. Last spring, when it looked as though Blumenthal was going to be subpoenaed by independent counsel Ken Starr for his media

contacts, Hitchens blared his readiness to stand shoulder to shoulder with his comrade: ". . . together we have soldiered against the neoconservative ratbags," Hitchens wrote in The Nation last spring. "Our life a deux has been, and remains an open book. Do your worst. Nothing will prevent me from gnawing a future bone at his table or, I trust, him from gnawing in return."

This was in an edition of The Nation dated March 30, 1998, a fact that means - given The Nation's schedule - that Hitchens wrote these fervently loyal lines shortly before the lunch (Hitchens now says he thinks it occurred on March 17) whose conversational menu Hitchens would be sharing with these same neoconservative, right-wing ratbags 10 months later.

His friends have known for years that the surest way to get a secret into mass circulation is to tell it to Hitchens, swearing him to silence. He's a compulsive tattler and gossip, and this brings me to Hitchens' snitch psychology and the psychic preparation that launched him into the affidavit against his friend Blumenthal.

Over the past couple of years, the matter of George Orwell's snitching has been a public issue. Orwell, in the dawning days of the Cold War and not long before his death, compiled a snitch list of Commies and fellow travelers and turned it over to Cynthia Kirwan, a woman for whom he'd had the hots and who worked for the British secret police.

Orwell is Hitchens' idol, and he lost no time in defending Orwell's snitch list in Vanity Fair and The Nation. Finally, I wrote a Nation column giving the anti-Orwell point of view, taking the line that the list was mostly idle gossip, patently racist and anti-Semitic, part and parcel of McCarthyism. Bottom line, I wrote, snitching to the secret police wouldn't do. Hitchens seemed genuinely surprised by my basic position that snitching is a dirty business, to be shunned by all decent people.

Then, last week, he snitched on Sidney, betraying both a friendship and a journalistic confidence. Why did he do it? To Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," Hitchens said he simply couldn't let the Clinton White House get away with denials that it had been in the business of slandering women dangerous to them, like Monica or Kathleen Willey.

There was a moment of genuine Hitchens. Only Hitchens could publicly declare Blumenthal to have lied to Congress and then with his next breath affirm in a voice quivering with all the gallantry of courageous friendship that "I would rather be held in contempt of court" than to testify in any separate court action brought against Blumenthal.

Even now, he seems only vaguely to understand what he has done to his erstwhile pal Blumenthal. Indeed, he still insists on calling Sidney his friend, adding that he has done Sid a big favor and saved him from his worst self, and that anyway the Clinton White House bears the responsibility for making him, Hitchens, behave the way he has.

Perhaps more zealously than most, Hitchens has always liked to have it both ways, identifying himself as a man of the left while in fact being, as was his hero Orwell, particularly toward the end of his life, a man of the right.

"I dare say I'll be cut and shunned," he told The Washington Post, and I had the sense of a halo being tried for size, with Hitchens measuring himself for martyrdom as the only leftist who can truly think through the moral consequences of Clintonism and take appropriate action.

I think Hitchens has done something very despicable. It wasn't so long ago that he was confiding to a Nation colleague, in solemn tones, that for him the most disgusting aspect of the White House's overall disgusting behavior was "what they have done to my friend Sidney." He's probably still saying it. Christopher always could cobble up a moral posture out of the most unpromising material.

Alexander Cockburn's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.