Impromptus

About Charles K.

Charles Krauthammer, from the cover of The Point of It All (Crown Forum)
The (continuing) greatness of Krauthammer

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger wrote about Charles Krauthammer and his posthumous collection in the February 25 issue of National Review. Below, he expands that piece, in the style of his Impromptus column.

Charles Krauthammer wrote steadily for almost 40 years — but he was not a book-writer. He wrote essays, columns, speeches, etc. This is true of other top-rate and influential writers as well. Isaiah Berlin, for one. Irving Kristol, for another. Krauthammer was a good friend of the latter’s. And appreciations of both men — Berlin and Kristol — appear in a new Krauthammer collection.

• In 2009, I had a long talk with Charles and wrote about him, here. Have a sentence from that piece: “Sometime in his student career, he read Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, and that, along with John Stuart Mill, gave him something like a foundation.”

Here is another sentence, or a few more:

The late Irving Kristol, father of neoconservatism, famously gave “two cheers for capitalism.” How about Krauthammer? He admires Kristol no end, and has much in common with him. But he will go as high as “2.8 cheers” — impressive for someone who once supported LBJ’s Great Society.

• The just-published collection has a predecessor, Things That Matter. It was published in 2013. The new one, Krauthammer compiled with his son, Daniel. It’s called “The Point of It All.” I think of a title from Amos Elon: “The Pity of It All.” This is a sadder title, to be sure. (The subtitle of that book is “A Portrait of Jews in Germany, 1743–1933.”)

The Point of It All is very wide-ranging, a true Krauthammer sampler. This is Krauthammer in full, or very nearly so. It is a book that says, “This is what he believed. This is who he was.” As such, it is invaluable.

• A major topic of this book is politics, as you would expect. Krauthammer lived and worked in Washington, D.C., his entire career. He hammered the government, as everyone does, but he did not despise it, or politics. On the contrary. Listen to him on Meg Greenfield, his editor at the Washington Post: “She had great respect for what Washington does: weigh deep and often ancient arguments and try from that to fashion action. She had respect for the difficulty of this Sisyphean task and for the fallibility of the men and women engaged in it.”

He could have said the same of himself, too.

• Something I wrote above reminded me of pronunciation. It was the word “hammered.” At the outset of a podcast I once did with Charles, I said, “How do you pronounce your last name? ‘Krauthahmer’ or ‘Krauthammer’” (to rhyme with “glamor”)? He said the latter: like hammering a nail.

• A word — a further word — about D.C. politics, or the broad world of Washington. One day, Dick Cheney hosted a bunch of conservative journalists at his home, the official vice-presidential residence. When he noticed Charles — I don’t think Cheney knew he would be there — he bowed slightly and said, “I’m honored.”

• In his introduction to The Point of It All, Daniel Krauthammer writes that “the core political focus of this book is on the nature and the future of liberal democracy and limited government.” His father called liberal democracy “the most free, most humane, most decent political system ever invented by man.” It has foes on all sides, needless to say. Last year, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader, declared, “The era of liberal democracy is over.” Is it? There are always new chapters to be written, dark and light.

• Over the years, Krauthammer wrote a lot about foreign policy, and this collection reflects that. “Putin’s irredentist grievances go very deep,” he wrote in 2014. “Obama seems unable to fathom them.” Three years later, he was worrying about the Right and its “attraction to Putinism.”

• About the Middle East, he wrote regularly, always keeping an eye on it. One day, he had a column about Israel — another one. I sent him a note, saying, “Charles, I find that I can barely write about the Arab–Israeli conflict anymore, so weary am I from doing it, year after year, decade after decade. I’m glad you’re not weary — or that you push through it, to say the necessary, again.” He replied, “I know exactly of your weariness. My reluctance to write about it once again is enormous. It’s only a sense of duty — and the shocking realization of how few are prepared to say the obvious truth anymore — that makes me do it.”

• Norman Podhoretz believes that George W. Bush will turn out like Truman: scorned during his presidency and immediately after, and appreciated later. Krauthammer believes the same thing, as you will see in this collection. About Barack Obama, he writes almost bitterly (which is rare for him) — because Obama, in Krauthammer’s estimation, inherited victory in Iraq (agonizingly achieved) and threw it away.

• Krauthammer is a great explainer of, and believer in, deterrence. This is clear in his writings about NATO, for example. You have to commit to Article 5, he says. (This is the plank of the North Atlantic Treaty that says an attack on one is an attack on all.) If you don’t, you have undermined deterrence — and thus invited aggression, the very thing you want to prevent.

In 2017, he made a controversial statement, and utterly characteristic:

Some claim that putting America first is a reassertion of American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it is the antithesis. It makes America no different from all the other countries that define themselves by a particularist blood-and-soil nationalism. What made America exceptional, unique in the world, was defining its own national interest beyond its narrow economic and security needs to encompass the safety and prosperity of a vast array of allies.

Them’s fighting words — but Krauthammer did not shrink from a fight, when the topic mattered. He was princely in manners, but no violet.

• He could write on matters foreign and domestic. Even extraterrestrial. (Krauthammer had an abiding interest in space. It was one of his few interests I did not share. Chess was another.) Krauthammer was besotted with America, and pushed assimilation, hard. He wanted the New World to be different from the Old. “Without ever having thought it through,” he lamented, “we are engaged in unmaking the American union and encouraging the very tribalism that is the bane of the modern world.”

He did not write those words in recent years, but rather in 1990.

• I’m reminded of something. Let me give you a little biography (his). The below is from that 2009 piece I wrote about him:

Krauthammer was born in 1950, in New York City. But, when he was six, his family moved to Montreal, where he grew up. He later realized that he could not stay in Quebec, to make his career. The reason was this: He thought he would like to have a role in public life — maybe something in government. And, to be blunt about it, Quebec was no place for a Jew with that kind of ambition. Its political culture was more like that of Europe than like that of English Canada or America. A Jew was always an outsider, or even an “alien” element. Besides which, Quebec’s politics were consumed with one issue: separatism, independence. To Krauthammer, this was “one of the most trivial issues on the planet,” and certainly not one to spend a life or career on. Krauthammer retains a deep general admiration for Canada, whatever its flaws and annoyances.

• More on Krauthammer’s versatility. In 2015, he had a column I did not quite expect. It was on food fads, and it was a delight. (Informative too.) I wrote to thank him for it. He said, “I had great fun writing it.” He added that he did not have space to address the question of salt: Experts had decided that you could actually consume more of it, no problem.

• All politics and no play makes Jack, or Charles, a dull boy. The Point of It All has columns about chess — a game that Krauthammer played well. (One of his opponents was Natan Sharansky, another good player.) In addition, the book has a column or two about baseball, which Krauthammer loved (as does his fellow conservative columnist at the Washington Post, George Will).

One night, I was doing a Q&A with Krauthammer in front of an audience. I noted that baseball diamonds were being grassed over for soccer. “Tell me,” I said. “Is soccer evil?” “Yes,” Charles answered — with perfect dryness. Then he expounded. Not the least of his traits was humor, part of the pleasure he took in life, and caused others to share.

The collection includes a terrific column on fandom — the phenomenon of being a sports fan. He is writing about baseball in particular when he says, “… what possible stake do grown men have in the fortunes of 25 perfect strangers, vagabond mercenaries paid obscene sums to play a game for half the year?”

Yeah, I know.

So, Krauthammer has his enthusiasms. One of the best collections I know is called, in fact, “Enthusiasms.” It is by Bernard Levin, the British journalist, and it was published in 1983. The book has chapters on cities, walking, Shakespeare, music, and more.

Would you like to know whom the book is dedicated to? Arianna Stassinopoulos, now Huffington. (I asked her once, “How does it feel to be the dedicatee of such a great book?” It felt good.)

• In 1993, Krauthammer addressed the graduating class of McGill University (his alma mater). That address is included in the new collection. It is wonderful. It gives three pieces of advice:

No. 1: “Don’t lose your head. I’m speaking here of intellectual fashion …”

No. 2: “Look outward. By that I mean: Don’t look inward too much.”

No. 3: “Save the best. Conserving what’s best in the past is, well, conservative advice. It was the advice of G. K. Chesterton, who defined tradition as the democracy of the dead. Tradition is the ultimate democracy because it extends the franchise to generations past and benefits from their hard-earned wisdom.”

Yup.

• The Point of It All has one new piece — a longish, important one, never before published. Written in the summer of 2017, just before the author had to stop writing, it’s called “The Authoritarian Temptation.” The title is an echo of Jean-François Revel’s book of 1976: The Totalitarian Temptation. “The slide back away from liberal democracy is well underway,” Krauthammer writes. He cites Turkey, Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, others. (Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, has taken to speaking of “Authoritarian International,” a term that plays on the old “Communist International,” or “Comintern.”) People are fed up with “parliamentary dysfunction,” writes Krauthammer, and are gravitating to “strongman rule.”

This piece may be construed as a warning, a word to the wise from a wise man, who had absorbed history and was attuned to the world around him.

• In 2009, he wrote, “Longevity for a columnist is a simple proposition: Once you start, you don’t stop. You do it until you die or can no longer put a sentence together.” He never stopped being able to put a sentence together. His writing was as good as his thinking (an amazing equality). After an extended illness, he died in June 2018.

• He started writing in the early 1980s. I was in college — and read him in all his venues: The New Republic, Time, and the Post. He had a great impact on me. I never stopped reading him. When he wrote something, we conservatives could wave it around and say, “See? See? This is what we mean, and beautifully expressed.” We could do that with our other biggies too, including Buckley, Podhoretz, Will, and Sowell.

• I’ll tell you a story you might like. In 1995, President Clinton gave a speech that vexed me (more than most of his speeches did). I was hoping that Krauthammer would respond, in his Friday column. I waited for that day. And when it arrived, I bought the Washington Post, and, lo, Krauthammer had.

I had to drive to work — but I didn’t want to wait till I got there to read the column. I read it on the way, at stoplights and maybe a little in between.

Immediately, I wrote Krauthammer a letter to thank him for his column. (I did not know him, personally, at the time, incidentally.) I told him how I had read it. “Thank you,” he answered. “But next time: stoplights only, please.”

• Now, let me tell you a secret. I didn’t want to read the new collection. I was asked to review it. I felt Krauthammer’d out. But when I started reading, I could not put the book down. I had read all the pieces when they were first published — or most of them — but I wanted to reread them. It was wonderful to be in the author’s company again. And I thought, “Yes. This is what I believe. This is the conservatism that I embraced all those years ago, and believed to be true.”

Reading Charles, I had the sensation of reading an old conservatism, even if it is recently “old.” You could even call it a paleoconservatism.

• I once quoted to him something that Bill Buckley said about Paul Johnson (in his introduction to an anthology, The Quotable Paul Johnson): Johnson is so routinely excellent, it’s possible to take him for granted. But one shouldn’t. Krauthammer is routinely excellent too — and not to be taken for granted.

• A young writer — or an old one, or any in between — can find a good example in Krauthammer. Here he is in a 2013 interview: “You’re betraying your whole life if you don’t say what you think — and you don’t say it honestly and bluntly.” Here he is in a 2017 email (to me): “I must admit that when I write these days I have the feeling that everything I say is so perfectly obvious that there’s no need to write it. Except that these days, that’s all the more reason to write it.”

Writing the obvious is an underappreciated act — because the obvious is not apparent to all, ever.

• Back to Isaiah Berlin, and the Four Essays on Liberty. Krauthammer read them when he was in college. And when Berlin died in 1997, Krauthammer wrote, “Four Essays is available everywhere. Buy it. Make your children read it before they go to college. . . . And keep one copy at home.” I say the same of The Point of It All.

I intend to refer to it for many years to come — going to the index and asking, “What did Charles have to say about this? Anything?” (The answer will probably be yes.) Journalism is ephemeral, by nature. “It’s fish wrap by Friday,” goes an old saying. Rick Brookhiser once pointed out to me that the very word “day” is in journalism (jour). It’s meant to last a day.

This makes me all the more grateful for, and delighted with, The Point of It All. It is Charles bundled up — a permanent, portable Charles. In addition to being a stellar book, it is a great service.

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