The first night of the “Rapid Response Panel,” the convocation of acid-tongued pundits that held forth each night last week at Arianna Huffington’s Shadow Convention, got off to a rocky start. The pundits‘ job was to comment on what was going on at the Democratic Convention, but instead they were immediately caught up in events happening at their own. Due to a bomb scare, Patriotic Hall had to be evacuated and Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and Jonathan Kozol were forced to kick things off on the back of the truck parked outside the building as riot police moved slowly down Figueroa Street. The 74-year-old Vidal entertained the crowd with some of his favorite Ronald Reagan jokes, but his eyes darted nervously as the riot police crept closer. Seventy-four isn’t the age to tangle with tear gas and truncheons.

Dressed like a disreputable academic in corduroy jacket and jeans, Hitchens didn‘t look nervous at all. He looked like he’d had a few drinks. His eyes were bloodshot, his gut expansive, and his hand trembled as he raised a cigarette to his lips. But he was ready for a fight. A microphone in his hands, a crowd before him and simian riot police within view — you could tell he just loved this. His voice wafted over the crowd as sonorously as ever. “You‘re on the front lines, you’re counted in,” he commended us. “This year as never before we‘ve seen an election where there was no choice in the choice. Everything was prepackaged, everything was bought, everything was paid for . . . From the first primary all the way through the bogus conventions, the whole thing has been prearranged.”

By the time people were finally allowed back in the building, Vidal had slipped away and Hitchens and Kozol had been joined on stage by comedian Emily Levine, moderator Michael McKean, and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a job position that earned Ornstein some hearty boos. But he soon made the crowd laugh. “My favorite line from the speech so far,” he said, “was when Clinton said, ’My fellow Americans, this is a big erection!‘”

The idea behind the Rapid Response Panel was that it would react to a live telecast of the Democratic Convention being shown on two giant screens. But thanks to the bomb scare, by the time everyone had assembled on stage, Hillary had already finished and Clinton was halfway through his long goodbye. Hitchens, the left’s chief Clinton-loather, visibly seethed as his nemesis flung cliche after cliche at the adoring crowd inside Staples Center and ended his peroration with a line from a cheesy pop song.

At the first opportunity, Hitchens informed us that the new paperback edition of No One Left To Lie To, his book about Clinton, was on sale in the basement with a new appendix detailing the various rape charges against the commander-in-chief. Several times he pronounced himself heartily sick of the president‘s “fat, bloated face” — the face “of a rapist, a war criminal and a psychopathic liar” — seemingly unaware that the president went on a diet several years ago and that the camera inside Patriotic Hall had his own increasingly bloated face (pouring with sweat, moreover) in a tight and prolonged close-up. “If you can look in Juanita Broderick’s face and say that the chances of her telling the truth are [no better than] Clinton‘s telling the truth, I don’t know where you‘ve been for the last few years,” he concluded. Some people cheered; others were annoyed. “You’re making the right look good!” someone yelled out shortly after Hitchens had instructed one audience member to “Read the book, asshole” (Hitchens‘ book, that is).

Norm Ornstein took exception to Hitchens’ view of Clinton. He had met Clinton in small settings and liked him a great deal, he said. “Good for you. That‘s nice to hear. I’m personally thrilled to hear that,” Hitchens sneered. But the real point of contention between Hitchens, other panel members and much of the audience was whether the New Democrats were any different from the Republicans, or worth casting a vote for at all. A lot of people in attendance seemed far too worried about Bush appointing right-wing justices to the Supreme Court to risk a vote for Nader. For them, the Democratic Party, bought and paid for though it might be, still represented something.

The same issue came up on Tuesday night when another radical Englishman (okay, Irishman) and fellow Nation columnist, Alexander Cockburn, took part in the Rapid Response Panel discussion along with McKean (moderating again), Al Franken, Paul Krassner, Tommy Smothers, and Matt Cooper of Time. On the screen above the stage was Ted Kennedy, beamed in live from Staples Center, so corpulent he looked as if he was about to explode. “These Kennedy people, they wheel them on year after year. It‘s a fraud from start to finish,” Cockburn said, dismissing the entire clan with a languid wave of his wrist.

Like Hitchens, the blond, bespectacled Cockburn looked every inch the academic, if sober and less scruffy. When McKean introduced the panelists at the start of the evening, it was Cockburn who got by far the largest cheer from the crowd. But once he started speaking, speaker and audience seemed to drift apart. “That’s completely ignorant!” hissed the person sitting next to me when, in a discussion of George Wallace‘s third-party candidacy back in the ’60s, Cockburn defended Wallace‘s commitment to workers. Facing off against the more mainstream (and funnier) Al Franken, Cockburn ridiculed Al Gore’s reputation as an environmentalist and rejected out of hand any notion that eight years of Democratic rule might have had a beneficial effect on lower-class Americans. “If you voted for Clinton in ‘96 to protect yourself from Dole, you got Dole anyway,” he said. Franken looked startled. Evidently, the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot is accustomed to slightly less radical company.

To be fair, Cockburn wasn’t the only panelist occasionally to run afoul of the audience. Franken did too. “Fifty percent of college students couldn‘t tell you what decade the Civil War was in,” he announced at one point, deploring the state of contemporary education.

“BULLSHIT!” an irate college-age audience member yelled out.

“Okay, 25 percent,” Franken replied agreeably.

“Last night was sort of a freak show, but tonight was very interesting,” McKean said out on the street after Tuesday night’s panel. “I love having a non-national up there, they‘re always the biggest firebrands. You had Hitchens last night, Cockburn tonight . . . ”

“You should have had them on the same night, then you would have really had a fight,” I suggested, alluding to the fact that the two firebrands have argued bitterly over everything from George Orwell to Monica Lewinsky.

“But then you’ve got The Nation,” McKean pointed out.

“A very divided nation,” I said.

“Yeah,” McKean agreed. “But at least they‘re on facing pages in the magazine.” Then, mimicking a schoolmaster, he joked, ’Boys, cut it out in there! Settle down!‘“

Thursday night, Hitchens was back onstage looking slightly less out of it as he held forth as fluently as ever and swigged happily from a bottle of beer. If Clinton is the real Teflon president, Hitchens is the Teflon pundit. He can drink enough to put 10 ordinary pundits in a coma (while out-talking all of them), support the House managers in their effort to impeach the president, testify against his friend Sidney Blumenthal and be excommunicated by large portions of the left, and still, there he is — making life on the left look fun.

Later that night, Hitchens popped up on a program hosted by Brian Williams on MSNBC. The TV hacks — Williams, Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle and Lawrence O’Donnell — were dressed in the usual suits. Hitchens, in the same corduroy jacket and an open-necked blue denim shirt, was cast in the role of court jester, there to make the serious and powerful laugh. Which he did. With relish, he assailed ”the appalling mawkishness“ of Gore‘s speech. ”If you are a mammal, will you cry?“ he asked rhetorically. ”Here are the Malones with their baby. Will you weep? Special Olympics meets Gorgeous Mosaic. Enough, really, to make a cat barf.“

When Matthews (who almost cried with laughter over the cat remark) suggested later in the program that a lot of Americans might identify more with the problems of the Malones than with a ”wise-ass Brit,“ Hitchens nonchalantly shrugged off the charge. ”The wise-ass Brit loses every time,“ he conceded. ”But I don’t care. I‘m not running for anything.“

And that, of course, is his great advantage. Presidents, even Teflon ones, only get eight years. But pundits can go on forever.

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