Stranger in a Strange Land: Christopher Hitchens’ Visit to Texas

One of life’s small pleasures these days is stumbling upon previously unseen video content of the late great Christopher Hitchens, usually in the form of C-SPAN interviews, obscure television specials, or public debates (though I must have seen most of the latter). Typically, when I find a new gem, I hesitate before watching it. Hitch passed away in 2011, and so discovering content of his that I’ve not yet seen is a bit like drinking from a vintage cask of wine: I only have so many glasses to enjoy before it’s dry.

But tonight, I found a video that I couldn’t resist gulping down immediately. In 2004, Hitchens served as the host for a one-hour television special called “Texas: America Supersized”, originally airing on something called the Trio network (1994-2006). The special is narrated, written, and presented by Hitchens, who travels across the immense state—in heavy duty pick-up truck—trying to discover what Texas values are, where they came from, and, with a “Texas posse” in the White House, whether they might be fated to become American values.

It’s a bit striking to see Hitchens act as a neutral television host, and more than striking to see him try on cowboy boots and straddle a horse. This is a different Hitchens than we’re used to. Non-confrontational, overly polite, observational, and noticeably devoid of opinion. There are strains of criticism jetted in, but always in the words of interviewees, including filmmaker Richard Linklater, novelist Larry McMurty, and author Molly Ivins. In one scene, Hitchens sits nervously in a chair listening to a clear nut-case with an assault rifle sputter on about communists in Washington and the second amendment. I suppose the assault rifle may have impeded a rebuke in any case, but it’s jarring to see Hitchens sit still in the presence of people he disagrees with. One almost wishes there was a follow-up special where he could share his uncensored opinions, which may have been too rude, or erudite, for Trio’s intended audience.

I must say, though, that Hitchens and his producers did a fantastic job covering the essential aspects of Texas life, the oddities that make it unique, and all in just under an hour. I moved to the state four years ago and this documentary would have made a terrific welcome video. Hitch covers business, wild-catting, ranching, the rodeo, the pledge(s) of allegiance, the smallness of the Alamo and the bigness of the Capitol, and, most importantly, football. He even covers the sprawling, endless maze of Texas suburbs—driving through a residential cul-de-sac in Plano (just north of Dallas), where, if you can image it, he looks more out of place than on horseback. Hitchens interviews the old and the new guard, from Boone Pickens to former Senator Florence Shapiro to the Castro brothers. He spends time with Larry McMurty at his bookshop in the Texas panhandle, letting him get out the gibes at W in the most mild-mannered voice you’ll ever hear (quite similar to John Updike, actually): “Yankee patrician”, “oligarch with a dictatorial temperament”, “worst president in my lifetime”, etc. At the beginning of the special, the three distinct strains of Texas culture are summed up nicely (by Molly Ivins, not Hitch) as religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo.

On the whole, nothing in this documentary rang false about Texas. I grinned throughout the whole thing, reliving my culture shock, vicariously, through Hitch. I couldn’t be more delighted to have found it.

So, save the video for a rainy day, or go grab a six pack of Lone Star and enjoy.