I loved Hitchens' books in the 1980s -- the prose was lithe and jaunty, and they had the best indices since The Stuffed Owl. The entry for Margaret Thatcher contained a long list of sub-entries including, if I recall correctly, "ignition of hair of." His reportage from the Middle East or Central American was often brilliant, and I think this is what will last of his work. Kevin Drum identifies the flaws with his recent polemics pretty well:
As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn't unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.
He began going off the rails, if you ask me, in the 90s. I never understood Hitchens' obsession with the Clintons. I could understand his dislike of/lack of respect for them, but it always seemed to me that Hitchens' ire was ludicrously disproportionate to their sins. And then came his intemperate reaction to 9/11 and thrusting advocacy of the Iraq war. The two temptations of the public intellectual: a desire to be near to power (which is different from a desire to wield influence), and a fascination with vicarious violence. We usually associate this sort of moral blindness with Continental intellectuals, but, it turns out, Englishman can catch this virus too. Of course, Hitchens could also be pathetically self-aggrandizing in print, especially after he became rich and famous, but I find that pretty forgivable. For the last decade, though, he was trying much too hard to be a new Orwell, but latched onto the wrong cause.
What Hitchens did, pretty brilliantly, was find a niche in the USA in the 1980s. This is my theory, at least: he came to the US and realized that political and public discourse in that country tended to the bland, superficial, and pious. Too many mainstream American commentators were simply afraid of giving offense to various groups deemed out-of-bounds, and wrapped their opinions in layers of mealy-mouthed gauze. The American tradition of journalistic 'objectivity' and horse-race coverage contributed to this insipid discourse. When American commentators did take up a cause, they tended to straight-ahead "Not in My America!" moral outrage, not deft subversion.
Hitchens quickly realized that he towered over most of his American counterparts intellectually, and was also, unlike them, willing to call a spade a spade: Ronald Reagan was an intermittently delusional moron, Margaret Thatcher was a bigoted fake, Jerry Falwell and his ilk sinister frauds (and their followers pathetic dupes), Henry Kissinger a war criminal. Hitchens mercilessly, joyfully skewered his targets, blending 1/4 genuine outrage with 3/4 gleeful, unabashed, often-snobbish delight. This was what American intellectuals, with a few possible exceptions, could never master. Sure, they could attack Ronald Reagan, but the attacks were ploddingly earnest howls of outrage. Hitchens attacked Ronald Reagan and had lots of fun doing it, and the fun was infectious. This sort of gleeful, rambunctious, I-don't -just-not-care-if-you're-offended-I'd-be-insulted-if-you-weren't tone is something really only the English can get away with. Yet millions of Americans find it fascinating, as I did back in the 1980s. And to me, there's something bracingly honest about political discourse in the UK to this day.
When he was in this mode, and especially when he was combining it with reportage, Hitchens was at his best, and that was fiendishly good. That's what I'll remember him for. And the fact that he continued writing until the very end.