Outspoken and outrageous: Christopher Hitchens

Steve Kroft profiles the columnist, author and public figure, for whom nothing seems to be off-limits

Christopher Hitchens is an Anglo-American author, journalist, commentator, critic, contrarian and provocateur. He is considered one of the most influential writers of politics, literature, and popular culture wherever the English language is spoken or read. He is also ranked among its leading essayists and conversationalists and considered one of the world's leading public intellectuals.

But don't let the word intellectual scare you off: you may be infuriated with some of his opinions, but it's not likely you'll be bored. He is an engaging, boozy, bare-knuckled writer who is now waging his biggest fight against stage IV cancer, and as he likes to point out, there is no stage V. But he is still writing for an audience that spans generations and national boundaries.

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That broad appeal was never more apparent than one night early last summer when Hitchens was interviewed by his friend Salman Rushdie before a highbrow New York audience, and then later appeared on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" - both appearances to promote his new memoir, Hitch 22.

When Stewart asked how Hitchens was doing, the writer said, "It's a bit early to say."

The audience may have assumed that Hitchens was making a joke about his well-known penchant for staying out late and drinking. In fact, unbeknownst to anyone, he had checked himself out of a hospital earlier that day after having been told that he most likely was suffering from metastasized esophageal cancer.

"I'm a member of a cancer elite. I rather look down on people with lesser cancers," Hitchens told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft.

Asked if people have survived it, Hitchens said, "Oh, yeah. It can be survived. But the statistics are five percent, in other words, which are not the odds I would have picked."

When we began our conversations with him a few months after he had been diagnosed, he had already cancelled his book tour and begun an intensive protocol of chemotherapy, which had robbed him of much of his energy and all but a few strands of his hair. Now, most of his research and rumination were focused on his own mortality.

"What is your life like right now? I mean in terms of what you're able to do and how you feel physically?" Kroft asked.

"I was very afraid it would stop me writing. And I was really petrified with fear about that because I thought that would, among other things, diminish my will to live because being a writer's what I am rather than what I do," Hitchens said.

It would be impossible here to adequately summarize his output, since it includes 25 books and countless articles, reviews and commentaries pounded out over four decades through a haze of cigarette smoke and filtered through kettles of Johnny Walker Black.

Suffice it to say, he writes with confidence, conviction, certainty, and an air of self satisfaction - using his wits and words as weapons to eviscerate egos and slaughter sacred cows. He has labeled Henry Kissinger a "war criminal," Bill Clinton a "rapist" and a "conman," and the British royal family "a blight upon the reputation of England."

"I mean, you do go over the top occasionally," Kroft pointed out.

"I'm in no position to deny it, but I'm wondering if you had...I'd do better if you said where you thought that was," Hitchens said.

In one instance, he called Mother Teresa a "fanatical, Albanian dwarf."

"Lying, thieving Albanian dwarf," Hitchens told Kroft. "That was, I admit, an exercise in seeing how far I could go."

"But why did you want to do it?" Kroft asked.

"It was about celebrity culture," Hitchens said. "Now, Mother Teresa started with a reputation of being a saint, and so therefore, everything she did had to be reported as saintly. Thus, the fact that she took money from the Duvalier family dictatorship in Haiti, who must've oppressed the poor more than any other dynasty in history, somehow wasn't a fact. 'Cause it couldn't be true, because a saint wouldn't do that."

"What about Princess Diana?" Kroft asked. "I'm trying to remember what you said about Princess Diana. ...You compared her to a landmine."

"Well, there's a horrible joke about a landmine, yes," Hitchens acknowledged. "She was in Angola on her landmine campaign, and there was a hushed, reverent BBC commentator. And he said, 'The thing about mine fields is that they're very easy to lay, but they're very difficult and dangerous, and even expensive to get rid of' - the perfect description of Prince Charles's first wife."

Hitchens wrote it and told Kroft it was printed.

Hitchens was born 61 years ago into what he calls the gray middle class austerity of postwar England. His father was a naval officer, and his mother was the first real splash of color in an otherwise drab existence. She told him the only unforgivable sin was to be boring, and he has rarely committed it. She aspired for him to go to Oxford and become a proper English gentleman - and one of those wishes came true.

Produced by L. Franklin Devine

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