Path Not Taken

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The iconoclastic Christopher Hitchens has been in the news, both because of his new autobiography, “Hitch-22,” and because he was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Since he is famed as an atheist, a debate has even erupted over whether people should pray for him.
Although I have not followed Hitchens’ career closely, I admire him. That admiration began shortly after I met him in 1981.

I was a new “associate economics editor” at BusinessWeek magazine. The editor-in-chief had a fixation on industrial policy, the idea that the government can pump up the economy by selecting winners and subsidizing them. So one of my early assignments was to attend a conference on industrial policy sponsored by the Wharton School. It was a great experience (sharing a cab ride with Peter Drucker was a highlight), and I came up with a couple of suitable news items.

Christopher Hitchens was there, too, checking out the latest foibles of capitalism for The Nation. He and I attended a press conference given by Reginald Jones, the chairman of General Electric. In the course of his comments, Jones discussed a transaction that GE was involved in, observing that the other company had tried to “jew us down” on the price.

I could not believe my ears. It violated every standard I had been taught from childhood. Although I was aware of the expression, I had never heard it stated, at least never publicly and certainly not by a titan of corporate America. Jones’s stature, which had been modest before, sank precipitously. I was horrified but also embarrassed — for him, for his erstwhile impressive General Electric, and for American business in general.

But nothing was said about it at the press conference. And I didn’t mention it in my writing. Mentally, I treated it as an awful mistake and pretended it had never happened. Christopher Hitchens, however, rose to the challenge.

In his article in The Nation, he coolly considered the expression at some length, as well as the significance of its use by a leading business executive in a public forum. Speaking as a visiting Brit, he mused that he had thought this kind of talk was frowned upon in America, but unfortunately, perhaps it was not.

I saw then that Christopher Hitchens and I, while both journalists, were moving in different directions — I, treading the beaten path; he, the trailbuster. And so it has been!

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