Missing Charles Krauthammer

A posthumous collection edited by his son Daniel clarifies the great columnist’s legacy to American, and to Jewish, discourse.


Observation
April 17 2019
About the author

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.


When Charles Krauthammer died in June of last year, a great many people who’d never met him felt that they’d lost . . . well, perhaps not quite a friend, since his public manner (I didn’t have the good fortune to know him) was precise and a bit formal. It might be closer to the mark to say that Krauthammer was more like a trusted counselor, the man to whom you went in the hope of making sense of an increasingly crazy world.

For me as a working journalist, Krauthammer was a newspaper columnist first and foremost, one of the last, if providentially also the best, of a dying breed—newspapers themselves having by now long since embarked on a downhill slide. For 32 years, he wrote a column about public affairs that appeared each week on the op-ed page of the Washington Post, was syndicated to more than 400 newspapers and other publications, and was closely read in Washington and throughout America, not only for the sake of its unfailing acuity but as a trusty barometer of conservative opinion. Not since the salad days of William F. Buckley, Jr., has any other columnist been so generally regarded as the voice of the right—a voice all the more persuasive coming from one who in his (much) younger days at the New Republic had identified himself as a liberal Democrat in the Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson mold.

By 2005, Krauthammer had also started appearing as a panelist on Fox News Channel’s Special Report. It was in this latter capacity that he would come to be even better known, especially to millennials, few of whom look to op-ed pages for perspective on the events of the day. It was a sign of the times when National Review Online started releasing a daily transcript of what “Dr. Krauthammer” (as NRO scrupulously referred to him) had said on TV the night before. By the time his final illness forced him into an untimely retirement, that was how most people found out what he thought—and what he thought obviously mattered to countless readers and viewers, myself among them.

Not that, in general, the opinions of this master of common sense were likely to be startling. We read him, rather, because it was his genius to recognize what in a saner world would have been obvious, and (just as important) to express it with shining clarity. If, conversely, there was any lack of clarity in your own thinking, he made the rough places plain. Take, for example, the opening of a 1985 column about the American civil religion:

Let us begin, on Thanksgiving, by giving thanks that we are not French. I say this with no malice. I mean it this way: we both had glorious, liberating revolutions, but ours was not cursed by excessive rationalism, nor by its twin, hatred of religion.

What could be more lucid, or more to the point?

As this same passage also shows, Krauthammer was a consummate summarizer, and it is always a joy to see how crisply he makes his points. “Apart from the Founders, the only great president we have had in good times is Theodore Roosevelt,” he wrote in an obituary tribute to Ronald Reagan—to which the only possible response was to smile and say to oneself, I wish I’d thought of that.

These, needless to repeat, are the gifts of a natural-born newspaper columnist, which may be why, when I learned of Krauthammer’s death last June, it occurred to me that, mutatis very much mutandis, he had been the Walter Lippmann of our time: a comparison, to be sure, that may say more about the fast-changing world of journalism than it does about his own writings. Still, Lippmann’s columns were at one time read no less widely than Krauthammer’s in the corridors of power—possibly even more so, since he had less competition—although he had long since ceased to wield any influence by the time he finally retired in 1967. Today he is all but forgotten, a journalistic dinosaur whose breed is extinct.

Not so Krauthammer. He was part of the conversation up to the day that he filed his last column, and neither his influence nor his popularity had diminished in the slightest. Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics, a 400-page volume of columns drawn from the whole of his career, rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists when it came out in late 2013 and stayed there long enough to sell over a million copies in hardcover alone.

 

Now Daniel Krauthammer, Charles’s son, has edited The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors, a posthumous anthology of his father’s writings that serves as a pendant to Things That Matter. As Daniel explains in his introduction:

There were many more columns and essays of his that he wanted the world to see. Pieces that had not fit with the thematic organization of Things That Matter, pieces he had written in the time since, and pieces that, frankly, he had felt were too personal to include the first time around. These columns and essays needed a home.

While Krauthammer père drew up the initial plan for The Point of It All and chose many of the pieces that went into it, it is Daniel who has given shape to the book, and who is substantially responsible for the fact that it is more personal in tone than Things That Matter. Krauthammer was not given to self-revelation in print—it is remarkable how many people, before they encountered him in person, did not know that he was confined to a wheelchair—and Daniel admits that the final, shortest chapter of The Point of It All, “Speaking in the First Person,” is “the one section that I know my father would not have included if he were still alive.”

He was, however, wise to go his own way, for these latter pieces help to give the new collection its distinctive flavor, as does the poignant memoir by Daniel himself that brings The Point of It All to a close, a eulogy of his father that is redolent with filial love. “People just wanted to be around him,” he writes. What Daniel says about his father makes me long to have been one of the many people who had that privilege.

To read The Point of It All is to be forcibly reminded as well of another, especially salient difference between Krauthammer and Walter Lippmann: Lippmann was all too clearly ashamed of his Jewish heritage and never wrote or spoke of it, going so far as to remain completely silent about the Holocaust in his postwar columns and to have described Hitler in 1933 as “the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people,” a statement that has yet to lose its power to shock.

Krauthammer, on the other hand, was proudly Jewish, and Things That Matter included a generous selection of his many columns on the Jewish condition and on the meaning of Israel and Zionism for the historical consciousness, and the destiny, of the Jewish people. Likewise The Point of It All, in which he writes about Judaism itself with a sense of deep personal identification that would have sent Lippmann running for cover:

I grew up in a home much like [Joseph] Lieberman’s. We too did not use electrical devices on the Sabbath. As a result, when we sat down to the last Sabbath meal toward the end of the day, we relied for illumination on light from the windows. As the day waned, the light began to die. When it came time for the Hebrew recitation (three times) of the 23rd Psalm, there was so little light that I could no longer read. I had to follow the words of my father as he chanted the Psalm softly with eyes closed. Thus did its every phrase and cadence become forever inscribed in my memory. To this day, whenever I hear the 23rd Psalm, I am filled with the most profound memories of father and family, of tranquility and grace in gentle gathering darkness.

It was undoubtedly this same twinned Jewish spirit, of belongingness and of stewardship, that motivated his founding and championship, together with his wife Robyn, of Pro Musica Hebraica. Devoted to the recovery and performance of lost, neglected, or extinguished works of art music by 20th-century Jewish composers, the organization for years produced two concerts annually at the Kennedy Center in Washington and other venues, in the process making a significant contribution to public awareness of the Jewish gift to modern music.

 

To be sure, it was not Krauthammer’s custom to write so intimately (and beautifully) about himself as in his reminiscence of childhood Sabbaths. Most of the pieces included in the new volume are, like Lippmann’s “Today and Tomorrow” columns, reflections on the passing political scene that simultaneously endeavor to take a long view of current events. Which is not to say that he couldn’t write at greater length—a 2005 Commentary essay on “The Neoconservative Convergence” is a particularly notable case in point, as is a brooding 1998 essay for the Weekly Standard reprinted in Things That Matter under the title of “Zionism and the Fate of the Jews.” But, with occasional exceptions, he was less and less inclined to do so as he grew older, just as he never got around to giving us any of the full-length books that he might have written (among which a memoir of his youth was surely the great missed opportunity).

Read in bulk and in book form instead of week by week in the Washington Post (or in later years also in Time), Krauthammer’s columns, each a perfect three-page morsel, reveal him to have been a short hitter par excellence. Such pieces, composed to seize the passing moment, must of necessity have a fleeting shelf life. Nevertheless, might it be possible that the best of both his columns and his longer pieces will someday be read by smartphone-wielding youngsters who have never held a newspaper in their hands, in the same way that we continue to marvel, for example, at the full-length essays that H.L. Mencken wrought out of his own newspaper columns (the latter of which he dismissed as “journalism pure and simple—dead almost before the ink which printed it was dry”)?

Time alone will tell, though I certainly hope so.

 

Krauthammer’s first book, published in 1985, was also a collection of columns and magazine pieces, this one called Cutting Edges: Making Sense of the Eighties. In reviewing it at the time for the conservative magazine the American Spectator, I described him as “the kind of liberal you can do business with, the kind who is still well within the consensus and not lost in the lunatic fringe, the kind who agrees with you on most of the eternal verities.”

He didn’t change much in the years that followed. Rather, it was liberalism that came unglued, so much so that by the time of his death, no one would have thought to call Krauthammer anything other than a conservative (save for anti-Semites, who go out of their way to affix “neo-“ to “conservative” whenever they use that perfectly good word to describe a Jew). In a better-regulated world, he would have been pigeonholed as a centrist.

But that the center itself has not held is today the grossest of understatements. And as for conservatism, it, too, has been transformed almost beyond recognition, in this case by the rise of Donald Trump, whose political triumph definitively smashed up the postwar conservative consensus forged by Buckley and his colleagues at National Review, reinforced, updated, and propelled forward in the 1970s by the neoconservative intellectuals around Commentary, and solidified by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Illness forced Krauthammer to quit the scene just as all this was starting to become evident, but he was certainly able to attend to the changing climate of political opinion long enough to know that he didn’t like what he saw. That recognition was partly what inspired the single previously unpublished piece of his included in The Point of It All, an uncharacteristically discursive essay (fourteen pages) titled “The Authoritarian Temptation” that was one of the last things he wrote. A quarter-century after the end of the cold war, which he had welcomed as “an event of biblical proportions,” everything had changed for the worse:

The great dawn turns out to have been a mirage; the great hope, an act of self-delusion. The slide back away from liberal democracy is well under way. . . . It’s not just that we have failed to achieve the messianic future. It’s that even the democratic present is under widespread assault.

While Krauthammer does all that he can in this essay to muster hope, “The Authoritarian Temptation” ends not with a call to arms but with a grim question: “We have traveled far in the last 25 years. In precisely the wrong direction. . . . How does the End of History end?”

It’s an apt question, and particularly apt for Krauthammer, who like Buckley before him had a special knack for viewing the present moment through the clarifying lens of the work of other, older minds. In Krauthammer’s case, the predecessor whose perspective may lie chiefly behind his question “How does the End of History end?” is the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, to whom he paid tribute in a 1997 Washington Post column that can be found in the first chapter of The Point of It All.

“Not too many people,” he wrote there, “can point to a specific day when they sat down with a book and got up cured of the stupidities of youth.” For the nineteen-year-old Charles Krauthammer, that book was Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, which taught him that “single issues, fixed ideas, single-minded ideologies are dangerous, the royal road to arrogance and inhumanity.” Instead, he embraced Berlin’s distinctive brand of political pluralism, which he saw as an antidote to the “romantic neo-Marxism” that remains the deadliest intellectual disease of youth.

Therein, I think, lay one of Krauthammer’s chief contributions to conservative discourse—and, if I may make bold to suggest, to Jewish discourse as well—at the turn of the 21st century: he imported Berlin’s academic vision of pluralism into the hectic arena of daily journalism. Moreover, he did so in a way that made sense to his contemporaries, more than a few of whom might otherwise have found that vision suspiciously squishy.

And therein, too, lies the tragedy of his death, for he left us just as we stand in greatest need of commentators like him—and of a medium through which their thoughts on the passing scene can be disseminated on a regular basis to the largest possible audience. I wouldn’t care to bet that we’ll be lucky enough to get either one of those irreplaceable commodities. At the very least, however, those of us who remember the ones we used to have will never need to be reminded of just how very much they mattered.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Charles Krauthammer, Politics & Current Affairs