Charles Krauthammer, probably America’s finest center-right columnist, dies

June 22, 2018


[Note by Tom Gross]

There were many admirers of Charles Krauthammer on this list, and even his detractors often found his insights fascinating.

Krauthammer, who died yesterday evening, was a subscriber to this list for over a decade and on at least one occasion cited and linked to my Middle East dispatches in his Washington Post column. And I was gratified that he emailed me to say that he was “honored” that I so often ran his pieces on this list.

I attach two pieces below, the first a tribute by Peter Wehner in today’s New York Times.

The second is the obituary in today’s Washington Post, of which Krauthammer was the paper’s star columnist.

The Post’s obit is perhaps a little too tough on Krauthammer, who was much more nuanced than they make him sound, although the Post’s obit does include a prescient quote by my father:

The essayist and critic John Gross, writing in the New York Times, once called Krauthammer a skilled “controversialist” and “master of the crisp and compact formulation” whose greatest strength was his “ability to seize on the giveaway quotation or the exquisitely revealing chink in his opponent’s armor.”


To cite one example of Krauthammer’s often nuanced views, as Wehner does, is what he wrote in 1985 on the abortion debate:

There is not the slightest recognition on either side that abortion might be at the limits of our empirical and moral knowledge. The problem starts with an awesome mystery: the transformation of two soulless cells into a living human being. That leads to an insoluble empirical question: How and exactly when does that occur? On that, in turn, hangs the moral issue: What are the claims of the entity undergoing that transformation?

How can we expect such a question to yield answers that are not tentative and indeterminate? So difficult a moral question should command humility, or at least a little old-fashioned tolerance.


Also noteworthy is what Ben Shapiro writes today in the Daily Wire:

Krauthammer wasn’t a news junkie. He was a thought junkie. The headlines of the day simply mattered less to him than the philosophies and worldviews that could be only faintly spotted through the murky waters of daily politics. That’s why Krauthammer seemed to be so clear – he was speaking and writing from a deeper place. It’s also why he was so prescient: the waves of politics varied, but the bottom of the ocean was stable.

Krauthammer is also credited with codifying Ronald Reagan’s thoughts into what Krauthammer first called the Reagan Doctrine in a Time Magazine essay in 1985.

And he did the same for the Bush Doctrine in 2001.

And in 2009, what came to be known by some as the Obama Doctrine.

Krauthammer held a low opinion of Donald Trump.

It says something about the extreme partisanship of the age in which we now live that during their prime time shows yesterday evening, neither CNN nor MSNBC mentioned his passing.



The Example of Charles Krauthammer
By Peter Wehner
New York Times
June 22, 2018

I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle when I arrived in Washington, D.C., to work as an intern in 1983. I was in search of an intellectual role model. I soon found one in Charles Krauthammer, who was writing for The New Republic and Time. In 1985, he became a columnist for The Washington Post. Years later, he became a close friend and eventually — he would wince at this — something of a heroic figure to me. His character turned out to be even more impressive than his mind.

On June 8, Charles announced that his doctors had informed him that he had only a few weeks to live, the result of an aggressive, rapidly spreading cancer. “This is the final verdict,” he wrote in a note to his readers. “My fight is over.” He died on Thursday.

It is a shattering loss. Charles, who received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, was not only an elegant writer; he also had a beautiful mind: precise, logical, subtle and blessedly free of cant. He loathed trendiness and the fads that sometimes sweep over the culture.

Like any good columnist, Charles had deep convictions — on the uniqueness and greatness of America, his devotion to democratic pluralism, and his support for Israel and Zionism; on the wonder and joys of physics, chess and baseball, especially his beloved Washington Nationals. (We once exchanged thoughts on an upcoming Super Bowl, but he couldn’t help concluding this way: “Of course, the whole damn game is just a prelude to the beginning of spring training. We must keep things in perspective.”)

But convictions on some matters never meant certainty on all matters. He was comfortable with what he called “inescapable ambiguity” on complicated moral matters. For Charles, abortion was such an issue. My views on abortion are more conservative than his were, but I have long kept in mind what he wrote in 1985:

“There is not the slightest recognition on either side that abortion might be at the limits of our empirical and moral knowledge. The problem starts with an awesome mystery: the transformation of two soulless cells into a living human being. That leads to an insoluble empirical question: How and exactly when does that occur? On that, in turn, hangs the moral issue: What are the claims of the entity undergoing that transformation?

“How can we expect such a question to yield answers that are not tentative and indeterminate? So difficult a moral question should command humility, or at least a little old-fashioned tolerance.”

This is a model of concision, precision and illumination.

In an age when political commentary is getting shallower and more vituperative, we will especially miss Charles’s style of writing — calm, carefully constructed arguments based on propositions and evidence, tinged with a cutting wit and wry humor but never malice.

There’s another quality of his that we will miss: intellectual independence. Charles started out his political career as a centrist Democrat yet ended up as a conservative and a fixture on Fox News. But he situated himself in a particular school within conservatism, one that is temperamentally moderate, deeply suspicious of ideology, aware of the complexity of human society, and empirical in the sense that he was constantly testing what he was saying against what was actually happening in the world and the effect it had. Charles had no interest in being a member of a political team; his goal was to better understand reality.

Political tribalism is rotting American politics; it needs more people who reject partisan zeal and can speak honestly about their own side’s blind spots and defects. Charles, alert to the maladies of the American right, was a fierce critic of Pat Buchanan in the early 1990s, when Mr. Buchanan was bringing conservative audiences to their feet with a nascent version of the ugliness and divisiveness that has come to characterize the Republican Party under President Trump. This helps explain why it was no surprise that Charles has been a harsh critic of Mr. Trump, who is an anathema to everything Charles prized. (In October 2015 Charles, in reacting to Mr. Trump’s claim that “I’m a great Christian,” told me, “Hell, I’m a better Christian than Donald Trump.” Charles, a Jew who referred to himself as a “complicated agnostic,” was right.)

“To me, loyalty to one party has never been a decision of fundamental importance,” the 20th-century political thinker Raymond Aron said. “According to the circumstances I am in agreement or disagreement with the action of a given movement or a given party.” Aron added, “Perhaps such an attitude is contrary to the morality (or immorality) of political action; it is not contrary to the obligations of the writer.” As a writer, Charles embodied the Aron ethic.

His intellect was not the most impressive thing about him; nor was his skill as a writer. His integrity was. He was a person of dignity, equanimity and personal grace. No man is a hero to his valet, the old saying goes. Charles had no valets, but he did have research assistants, many of them over the years. They speak about him with reverence.

Rich Lowry, whom I first met when he was a research assistant for Charles, describes him as “a profoundly humane man, courageous and kind, witty and thoughtful, principled and wise. A truly great soul.” David Hodges, another former research assistant, wrote: “To say that I loved working for him is an understatement. I not only loved the work, but I loved the man.”

One of the gifts in my life has been to be on the receiving end of Charles’s generosity of spirit. When I was a young writer he encouraged me, and he never stopped doing so. I benefited enormously from his wisdom along the way, and tried to share it with others, including when I worked in the White House. I invited him to the White House lecture series I hosted and organized meetings that he and other journalists, intellectuals and historians attended with President George W. Bush. Yet he always called things as he saw them. When he wrote in 2005 that the nomination of the Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, to the Supreme Court should be withdrawn, it was the kill shot for that nomination.

Charles, Bill Bennett, Charles Murray and I began to meet for lunch at a local restaurant every few months starting in the mid-1990s, and we have continued to do so, on and off, ever since. Mr. Murray once referred to these lunches as one of the little jewels that adorns life.

We talked about politics, of course, but we also discussed political philosophy, sports, religion, tales from our youth and family. (In a city where prominent figures often speak about their devotion to family rather than demonstrate it, Charles was the real deal.) We all benefited from the back and forth, from the refinement to our own ways of thinking. We asked one another a lot of questions along the lines of, “What do you think about X?” but mostly we benefited from the easy friendship and laughter.

A word about courage. It’s a quality Charles revered. He praised it in others and never once applied it to himself. He should have.

When he was 22, enrolled as a student in medical school, he hit his head at the bottom of a pool, broke his neck and injured his spinal chord. Charles used a wheelchair and had only partial use of his arms and hands. The fact that he graduated from medical school is itself remarkable. (After he broke his neck he spent 14 months in the hospital recovering.) He rarely spoke about his accident, and when he did, he did so in a relaxed, matter-of-fact manner, minimizing its impact. He once described his accident to me as “my one bad break,” adding, “Overall, I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand.” He was without an ounce of self-pity.

“All it means is whatever I do is a little bit harder and probably a little bit slower,” is how he’s put it. “And that’s basically it. Everybody has their cross to bear — everybody.” He went on to say: “It’s very easy to be characterized by the externalities in your life. I dislike people focusing on it. I made a vow when I was injured that it would never be what would characterize my life.” It never did, but it did reveal something quite admirable about him.

It is telling that the news of his terminal illness rocked the world of so many people, including those who didn’t personally know Charles. It has brought grief to me, because one of the people I most admired in life — for whom I have great affection and to whom I have looked for decades to help make sense of the world around us — has left it.

John F. Kennedy said, “The Greeks defined happiness as the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.” Charles Krauthammer lived a happy life.



Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and provocateur, dies at 68
By Adam Bernstein
The Washington Post
June 21, 2018 06:53 PM

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Charles Krauthammer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and intellectual provocateur who championed the muscular foreign policy of neoconservatism that helped lay the ideological groundwork for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died June 21 at 68.

The cause was cancer of the small intestine, said his son, Daniel Krauthammer. He declined to provide further information.

“I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking,” he wrote in a June 8 farewell note. “I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny. I leave this life with no regrets.”

A star of page and screen, Dr. Krauthammer (pronounced KRAUT-hammer) was one of the highest-profile commentators of his generation. In addition to his syndicated weekly column in The Washington Post, which garnered him a Pulitzer in 1987, he was a marquee essayist for magazines across the political spectrum, including Time, the New Republic, the Weekly Standard and the National Interest foreign policy journal. He also was a near-ubiquitous presence on cable news, particularly Fox.

By any measure, Krauthammer cut a singular profile in Washington’s journalistic and policymaking circles. He graduated in 1975 from Harvard Medical School - on time, despite a diving accident that left him a paraplegic - and practiced psychiatry before a restless curiosity led him to switch paths. Instead of diagnosing patients, he would analyze the body politic.

Jacob Heilbrunn, author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons” and editor of the National Interest, said in an interview that Krauthammer “crystallized conservative thought and exerted influence by setting the terms of public debate at key moments in the nation’s political life.”

Known for acerbic, unsparing prose and hawkishness on U.S. and Israeli security matters, Krauthammer long directed his moral indignation at the “liberal monopoly” on the news cycle. He was festooned with honors by right-leaning groups and sought after by Republican policymakers. Vice President Dick Cheney once praised him for his “superior intellect.”

To the left, Krauthammer was a bogeyman, most notably on the matter of President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and the ultimately catastrophic efforts to democratize the Middle East.

On Israeli-Palestinian relations, he acknowledged suffering on both sides but firmly defended the Jewish state in what he saw as its existential battle for survival. “Israel’s crime is not its policies but its insistence on living,” he wrote in a 2008 Post column. He declared international law worthless and quipped that Islamist militants are seldom “impressed by U.N. resolutions.”

His prolific work extended far beyond politics and foreign affairs to touch on complex social problems that he had first encountered in his medical practice. He wrote poignantly - and at times caustically - about societal treatment of the mentally ill. Many patients, released from psychiatric facilities at the urging of civil libertarians, were set adrift on the “very mean streets” because of a fantasy of “a Rockwellian community ready to welcome its eccentrics,” he wrote in Time in 1985.

“In the name of a liberty that illness does not allow them to enjoy,” he concluded, “we have condemned the homeless mentally ill to die with their rights on.”

After mass shootings, Krauthammer argued, Democratic leaders made “totally sincere, totally knee-jerk and totally pointless” calls for stricter gun-safety laws instead of addressing what he regarded as the more relevant underlying issue: the failure of families and the state to ensure effective psychiatric intervention for those who need it.

“In the liberal remake of ‘Casablanca,’ “ he wrote in The Post in 2013 after the Washington Navy Yard killings, “the police captain comes upon the scene of the shooting and orders his men to ‘round up the usual weapons.’ “

The essayist and critic John Gross, writing in the New York Times, once called Krauthammer a skilled “controversialist” and “master of the crisp and compact formulation” whose greatest strength was his “ability to seize on the giveaway quotation or the exquisitely revealing chink in his opponent’s armor.”

Krauthammer said his politics were shaped by growing up in the post-Holocaust years with Jewish parents who had escaped Nazi Europe. He grew up attuned to the “tragic element in history,” he once told a C-Span interviewer. “It tempers your optimism and your idealism. And it gives you a vision of the world which I think is more restrained, conservative, if you like. You don’t expect that much out of human nature. And you are prepared for the worst.”

He initially defined himself as a liberal Cold Warrior, a Democrat who embraced anti-communist as well as New Deal and Great Society programs that aided the most vulnerable. His support for the robust use of American military power gradually left him alienated from the Democratic Party, however, and he found ideological succor in neoconservatism, identifying with writer Irving Kristol’s definition of its adherents as onetime liberals who have been “mugged by reality.”

In the 1980s, Krauthammer coined the term “Reagan doctrine” to describe “overt and unashamed American support for anti-Communist revolution” in the form of proxy wars from Nicaragua to Angola. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he was credited with popularizing the phrase “unipolar moment” in commentaries that advocated solidifying American hegemony in an era when no other power came close to matching the United States in might.

His arguments found favor with the growing tide of neoconservatives in the GOP and saw their most intense expression during the first term of the Bush administration, when the president sought not only to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Sept 11. 2001, terrorist attacks but also more broadly to foster American-style democracy in the Middle East by toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, the Bush White House tried to gain international support by accusing Hussein of hiding weapons of mass destruction. Despite shaky evidence for the claim, Krauthammer was foremost among pundits who took up the president’s cause, excoriating anyone who opposed it or hesitated, from the Swedish weapons inspector Hans Blix to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The U.S.-led invasion, which Krauthammer billed at the outset as a “Three Week War,” has dragged on ever since, caused more than 4,000 U.S. deaths and more than 100,000 Iraqi casualties amid a grinding insurgency, and left the United States mired in a failed state with hostile neighbors. No nuclear weapons were found.

Harold Meyerson, then a Post columnist writing in the liberal American Prospect magazine in 2005, dubbed Krauthammer “the most insistent and hectoring” of the public intellectuals who sold the war to the public by subordinating “the facts on the ground to their own ideological preferences and those of their allies within the administration.”

Krauthammer later downplayed the American abuse and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as an aberration in “the most humane occupation in history.” He favored torture of terrorism suspects, assailing the “moral preening and the phony arguments” of those - including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who endured torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam - supporting a 2005 bill that prohibited under all circumstances the inhumane treatment of prisoners.

The noted political scientist and author Francis Fukuyama, a longtime admirer, began to accuse Krauthammer of blind triumphalism. They exchanged long, blistering, sometimes personal critiques in the pages of the National Interest that, in part, led Fukuyama to distance himself from the neocon movement.

Krauthammer at times took a corrosive tone toward Bush’s Democratic successor. He called President Barack Obama “a man of first-class intellect and first-class temperament” but took jabs at his “highly suspect” character, citing his friendships with his “race-baiting” pastor Jeremiah Wright and the “unrepentant terrorist” Bill Ayers.

Krauthammer, who sounded the clarion call of an existential struggle with “Arab-Islamic totalitarianism,” said Obama’s “passion” was for “protecting Islam from any possible association with ‘violent extremism’ “ and painted him as a welfare-state expanding extremist “given to apologies and appeasement” on the world stage.

Yet Krauthammer, who was named by Bush to the President’s Council on Bioethics, was never completely a partisan warrior. He differed from many cultural conservatives by favoring legalized abortion and stem-cell research and abhorred the idea of “intelligent design,” calling it “a fraud,” “today’s tarted-up version of creationism.”

He scolded the tea party, a loud minority within the GOP that tried to force its way legislatively with government shutdowns, as the “suicide caucus.” It was one thing to be a “blocking element” in the minority, he said, but their tactics were no way to govern.

Krauthammer was apoplectic about the rise and election of President Donald Trump, calling him a “moral disgrace” for his initial refusal to fully condemn a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and a walking “systemic stress test.”

“He had great lucidity of thought and was an extremely pungent polemicist,” Heilbrunn said of Krauthammer. “Those traits manifested themselves once more in his searing denunciations of Donald Trump as a phony. They showed that Krauthammer wasn’t simply a reflexive, unthinking conservative who was peddling the party line. He had real discernment and independence. At bottom, he was an intellectual, not just a journalist, with real literary flair and style and insight.”

Irving Charles Krauthammer was born in Manhattan on March 13, 1950, and at 5 settled in Montreal with his father and mother, Jewish refugees from Europe.

In Canada, the elder Krauthammer prospered as a real estate executive. Charles, the younger of two sons, graduated first in his class at Montreal’s McGill University in 1970 with a degree in political science and economics. He then spent a year studying political theory at the University of Oxford.

Amid the ferment of student revolution on college campuses, he grew disillusioned with politics and abruptly switched course to pursue medicine. That discipline, he later wrote, “promised not only moral certainty, but intellectual certainty, a hardness to truth, something not to be found in the universe of politics.”

Physically robust in his youth, Krauthammer was a gifted sailor, skier and swimmer. The summer after his first year at medical school, he was diving from a springboard into an outdoor swimming pool in Boston when he struck his head on the concrete bottom and his spinal cord snapped. He had been studying neurology that week and said he “knew exactly what happened the second it happened.”

He spent 14 months in intensive physical therapy while also being tutored so he could complete medical school with his class. What pained him most, he told The Post, was the fear that people might evaluate him by different standards because he was in a wheelchair, with limited use of his hands.

“If I can just muddle through life, they’ll say it was a great achievement,” he said. “That would be the greatest defeat in my life - if I allowed that. I decided if I could make people judge me by the old standard, that would be a triumph and that’s what I try to do. It seemed to me the only way to live.”

The Post reported that he reached a settlement with the pool builders for about $1 million. He became chief resident of the psychiatric consultation service at Massachusetts General Hospital and an official at the federal Health and Human Services Department in Washington.

After a brief stint as a speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale, he joined the staff of the New Republic in 1981, received a National Magazine Award in 1984 and joined The Post the next year. His books included two essay collections, “Cutting Edges: Making Sense of the Eighties” (1985) and “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics” (2013). He spent decades as a panelist on the syndicated public affairs talk show “Inside Washington.”

Outside of his political thinking, he was chairman of Pro Musica Hebraica, a group that revives largely forgotten Jewish classical music on the concert stage.

In 1974, he married the former Robyn Trethewey, an artist, whom he met at Oxford. In addition to his wife, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and their son, of San Francisco, survivors include his mother, of Rockville, Maryland.

“History is shaped by its battle of ideas, and I wanted to be in the arena,” Krauthammer once said, “not because I want to fight, but because some things need to be said. And some things need to be defended.”


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