Magazine | November 23, 2009, Issue

Critic-in-Chief

Obama’s hour is also Charles Krauthammer’s

Editors Note: To mark the passing of Charles Krauthammer, who died on June 21 at 68, we are re-running this piece from the November 23, 2009, issue of  National Review.

Charles Krauthammer has been one of America’s most important opinion journalists for about 25 years now. Since 1984, he has written a weekly column for the Washington Post, and that column is syndicated. From the early ’80s until a few years ago, he had a column in Time. For almost 20 years, he has appeared each week on the television show Inside Washington. He has authored major statements concerning foreign policy: for example, “The Reagan Doctrine” (1985) and “Democratic Realism” (2004). Early on, he won the National Magazine Award and then the Pulitzer Prize (in commentary). In 2006, the Financial Times called him no less than the most influential commentator in America.

So, Charles Krauthammer has not exactly been a wallflower or nonentity. But since January 20, 2009, his fame, reach, and popularity has burgeoned. That is because he has been a brilliant critic of President Obama: a persistent, fearless, profound critic of Obama. Indeed, many conservatives, and some liberals as well, consider him the critic-in-chief. He has been on Obama’s case constantly, for his errors and follies in policy both foreign and domestic. In a column last month, he said that the “commander-in-chief, young Hamlet, frets, demurs, agonizes.” Krauthammer was speaking of the Afghan War. Only in August, Obama had declared Afghanistan to be “a war of necessity.” Now the president seemed very much unsure. Krauthammer concluded his column, “Does anything he says remain operative beyond the fading of the audience applause?”

Krauthammer also has a big television presence, a tremendous platform: appearing almost every night on Fox News, specifically Special Report with Bret Baier, where he gives commentary. Fox has rattled the president and his administration, as they have not bothered disguising. Krauthammer is a key part of what you may call the Fox resistance to Obama. There is precedent for the intellectual as television star: Malcolm Muggeridge in Britain, William F. Buckley Jr. in America. But the precedents are few.

“So, did you ever expect to be a TV star?” That was an opening question from National Review in a recent interview. “I never expected to be doing any of this,” said Krauthammer: not the writing, not the influencing, not any of it. “My life was going to be something completely different.” Krauthammer occupies a large office in Washington, D.C. Around the office are at least two chess boards, reminding a visitor that Krauthammer is a chess whiz. He has been known to play with another such whiz, Natan Sharansky, the Israeli politician and former resident of the Soviet Gulag. Sharansky used to play chess in his head, during his (brutal) years as a prisoner. Krauthammer likes to joke with him that he, Sharansky, has an unfair advantage: He got to work on his chess for nine years in the Gulag, while others, elsewhere, had to go out and make a living.

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.

Initially, he wanted to be a scientist: “I love physics, that was really where my heart was.” But when he was 16, he figured that he would never reach the level “where the imagination comes into play. I was never going to be that good. And I didn’t want to be second-rate in a field where only great minds matter.” As a friend of his said to him, “Do you really want to end up testing steel for General Motors?” Krauthammer entered McGill University, the renowned institution in Montreal. He was torn between medicine and political philosophy. In time, he became an M.D., a psychiatrist. But “I never wanted to be a doctor. I was from a family of doctors, and it was expected.” At McGill, he concentrated, not on a science, but on political theory and economics. Then he applied to four medical schools, and was accepted by all of them. He chose Harvard, deferring. Off he went to Oxford, to study political philosophy as a Commonwealth Scholar. His main teacher there was John Plamenatz, author of Man and Society. But, by the end of the first year, he had had his fill. “It was all abstraction,” he says, “bearing no relation to the real world.”

Off he went to Harvard Medical School, for a different kind of life. He reasoned that psychiatry was the right field for him, standing halfway between science and humanism. “It turned out to be the worst of both worlds,” says Krauthammer, having “the precision of philosophy and the human quality of mathematics.” He did a three-year residency at Massachusetts General, serving as chief resident the final year. But he promptly gave up psychiatry, with no regrets. You may wonder whether he ever applies his psychiatric knowledge to his analysis of politics. He has been known to joke, “As a professional, I diagnose Senator X with . . .” — but the real answer is no. “Psychiatry has no application to politics,” he says, “and anyone who pretends it does is a fraud.” Psycho-history, such as that practiced by the late Erik Erikson, author of Young Man Luther (as in Martin), is particularly obnoxious to him.

In his first year of medical school, Krauthammer suffered an injury, leaving him paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. He was hospitalized for a year, but graduated with his class. All he has accomplished, he has accomplished under exceedingly difficult circumstances, barely comprehensible by able-bodied people. And he never speaks of it.

Krauthammer has undergone some philosophical changes, although not the most dramatic ones. Early in his life, he was a social democrat, hawkish on foreign policy, “liberal” (in the modern American sense) on domestic policy. When he was a senior in college, he became editor of the McGill Daily. He was 19 years old, having begun college at 16. He took the leadership of the paper from Maoists — bona fide Maoists — and said that he wanted to open up the paper to all points of view (something the Maoists were not permitting, to put it mildly). His opening editorial is a ringing affirmation of pluralism. In McGill’s environment, that made him practically right-wing. The present-day Krauthammer says, “I have not had the great journey from Trotsky. If I was ever a Trotskyite, it was probably for a weekend, and I had such a good time I don’t remember.” 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.

In America, the politician he most admired was Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, the Democrat and Cold Warrior from Washington State. He handed out leaflets for Jackson during the 1976 presidential primaries — handed them out right in Mass General. When it came time for the first Jackson Memorial Lecture, the family asked Krauthammer to give it. (“The Unipolar Moment,” 1990.) In 1978, post–Mass General, Krauthammer went to work in the Carter administration, taking a role in mental-health research. During the 1980 campaign, he found himself on the speechwriting team of Vice President Mondale. “I loved him,” he says, and this fondness persists, at a personal level. As for Candidate Reagan, “I thought he was a bit scary. I didn’t take him seriously, intellectually — I got him wrong. I thought he was going to be too radical, not on the foreign stuff, but on the domestic.”

After the defeat of Carter-Mondale, Krauthammer joined the staff of The New Republic. In fact, he started on Inauguration Day, when Reagan and Bush were being sworn in, and the American hostages in Iran were being released. While at The New Republic, he wrote sterling essays of tough-minded liberalism. People of various stripes felt they had to read them, and wanted to read them. By 1984, he was not so Democratic — he did not vote in the election that year. He would have voted for Reagan, in a very tight race: if he had had some theoretical decisive vote. But he stayed home from the polls out of respect for Mondale, now the Democratic nominee. What had caused the shift in Krauthammer’s political thinking? According to him, it was more a shift in the Democrats: They were completely irresponsible out of power. For instance, they promoted a nuclear freeze, and they opposed almost everything that contributed to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. There was more, however — more than foreign policy in Krauthammer’s shifting. Like a good many others, he read Losing Ground, the book by Charles Murray about the effects of a welfare state on the poor. “I have a little bit of a science background,” he says with understatement, “and I’m open to empirical evidence.” Murray provided that evidence, convulsively. It is one thing if welfare is failing to help the poor, another if it is outright hurting them.

Krauthammer says that he never had a wisp of guilt or sheepishness about leaving the Democrats for the Republicans — never felt he was consorting with a lower class of people, never tried to hide or fudge his views. On the contrary, he was “rather proud” to vote Republican, thinking that they had done a good job. And he managed his transition without losing any friends on the left.

What sort of conservative is he? He will not reject the label “neocon,” if you try to pin it on him. But he is well aware that the word has come to mean something not especially complimentary: “war-mongering Jew,” in essence. “Neocon” is a codeword, he says, that allows people to say anti-Semitic things that otherwise would be difficult to say, in public. One thing he likes to do in debate, when called a “neocon,” is say, “What’s a neocon?” That tends to flummox an opponent. Still, he will not reject the label, noting that it can indicate a way of looking at the world. 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.

Readers may want to know Krauthammer’s position on abortion — it is slightly complicated. The first thing to say is that he is for legal abortion. But other things follow. “Life begins at conception,” he says, “there is no doubt about that.” That is simply “a biological truth.” But “personhood,” in his view, is something else: a social construct and a legal category. And society has to determine, in some fashion, when the fetus is imbued with this “personhood.” “I would outlaw all third-trimester abortions,” continues Krauthammer. “I’ve seen abortions, as a medical student, and they are quite horrible. I detest them at any level, and I would outlaw them in the third trimester. That really is a human being, that really is murder — and partial-birth abortion is barbarism.” In the middle stage of pregnancy, abortion is a “grave moral sin,” Krauthammer believes, and “you should not do it lightly” and “you should feel bad about it.” But he would not outlaw abortions at this stage. And he has no qualms whatever about abortion in the early stage.

Of Israel, Krauthammer has long been a leading student, defender, and explainer. Asked the bald question of whether Israel will survive, he says, “If it doesn’t, I think it will mark the beginning of the terminal decay of Western civilization.” He notes that he is not a believer. But he quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” It is interesting, if only as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not. Krauthammer points to Spain, after 1492. “And we don’t even have to look at Germany, though that’s an obvious example.” Krauthammer believes that Israel needs two things to survive: the will to live, and the support of the United States. He believes that Israel has demonstrated a very great will to live, especially in its defeat of the “second intifada.” And he has “great faith in the goodness of America,” a goodness that will not let Israel go to the dogs. Europe could do all sorts of things to bedevil and imperil Israel: impose economic sanctions, prosecute Israeli soldiers, etc. But the key is America. And “if we ever reach a point where we become indifferent to Israel, that will mark a great turn in the soul of our country.”

Many Jews, particularly American ones, are nervous or scornful about the support that American evangelicals have shown for Israel. They say that this support is double-edged, or bad news, or embarrassing. Krauthammer will have none of it. “I embrace their support unequivocally and with gratitude. And when I speak to Jewish groups, whether it’s on the agenda or not, I make a point of scolding them. I say, ‘You may not want to hear this, and you may not have me back, but I’m going to tell you something: It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world. And here we have 50 million Americans who willingly and enthusiastically support us. You’re going to throw them away, for what? Because of your prejudice.’ Oh, I give ’em hell.”

Krauthammer admires George W. Bush “for his political courage. He made a lot of mistakes, operationally and tactically, and that I don’t admire. But I do admire his courage.” First, Bush launched the Iraq War, though it entailed many risks. “He was at the height of his popularity, Afghanistan was a total success at the time, he could have glided for the next six years.” But he went into Iraq “because he thought he had to do it. Now, we can argue about whether it was worth the costs, but he was willing to sacrifice his presidency.” Moreover, Bush implemented the surge, and stuck with it — over the objections of pretty much everybody, including many of his own party in Congress. And what does Krauthammer make of Obama, broadly speaking? Is the president a liberal, a radical, what? “I think he’s a social democrat in his concrete governing ambitions. He wants to make us more like Europe. That is what I discern from what he says and does. What he is inside, I have no idea, and we will never know.”

He enjoys appearing on television, does this chess-playing intellectual, liking the “immediacy” of it. And he has a quip about “the genius of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes” at Fox News: “They found a niche audience in television broadcasting: half the American people.” The administration, along with many liberals and some conservatives, complains that Fox is not a real news network, just a partisan outlet. Krauthammer points to the show that features him, Special Report. The way you judge a news program, he says, is by a subject you know well. For example, if you witness a traffic accident, and later see three accounts of it, you know what is good reporting and what is not. Krauthammer knows the Middle East extremely well, having studied it almost daily for decades; and he knows international affairs in general. When he watches Fox, he says, he knows he is getting accurate and thorough depictions of what is happening. With other networks, not so much — especially where the Middle East is concerned. Of course, Fox has opinion shows too, and “they are more or less wild.” Whether you like them is “a matter of taste.” But the news show for which he is a commentator, “I am proud to be on.”

Whether in writing or on the air, Krauthammer dissects President Obama and his administration with a rare combination of precision and abandon. His column often crackles, and its author seems full of energy. “It’s a good time to be thinking,” he says, and “I’m glad to be around for these days.” Every columnist writes a “soft” column now and then — a column about sports, or fashion, or maybe a beloved former teacher. All summer long, Krauthammer was wanting to write a column about the Washington Nationals, the baseball team. But he never had the opportunity, because “Obama keeps coming at me like a fire hose.” The president is always giving a conservative columnist something to warn about, correct, or condemn. It helps Krauthammer that he has no fear whatsoever when he writes: no fear of being called a racist, a right-winger, or other terrible things. He has the freedom to say what he thinks, consequences be damned. In this, he is like Thomas Sowell, to name one other columnist (columnist-intellectual). And he knows that his words give comfort and heart — plus ammunition — to those bewildered or dismayed by the present period, and unable to express themselves as a Krauthammer can.

In a recent exchange, a Washington conservative said that Krauthammer reminded him of something Edward R. Murrow said about Churchill: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” A great many are doing this, of course, from Rush Limbaugh, with a mass audience, to skillful bloggers with hardly any audience at all. But no one is doing it better than Krauthammer, whose hour is now.

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