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.
It has a predecessor, Things That Matter, which Krauthammer published in 2013. This new one, he 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, of course. 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.
Daniel Krauthammer, in his introduction to the new collection, 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.
In his career, Krauthammer wrote a lot about foreign affairs, 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 over and over. 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.”
Like Norman Podhoretz, he believes that George W. Bush will be like Truman: scorned during his presidency and immediately after, and appreciated later. 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.
In deterrence, he is a great believer. That’s why 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. In early 2017, he made an eye-catching statement: “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.”
These are fighting words, of course — a tinderbox. But Krauthammer did not shrink from a fight, when the topic mattered. He was princely in manners, but no violet.
He could write on affairs foreign and domestic — even extraterrestrial. (Krauthammer had an abiding interest in space.) He 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.
All politics and no play makes Jack, or Charles, a dull boy. This book has columns about chess, which Krauthammer played well. (One of his opponents — also a good player — was Natan Sharansky.) It also has a column or two about baseball, which he loved (along with his fellow conservative columnist at the 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.
So, The Point of It All includes Krauthammer’s enthusiasms. That is the title of another great collection, by the way: by Bernard Levin, published in 1983. Enthusiasms has chapters on cities, walking, Shakespeare, music, etc. (The book is dedicated to Arianna Huffington, then Stassinopoulos.)
In The Point of It All, there is 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.
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 couldn’t 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.”
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 any, 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: “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.
When Krauthammer was in college, he read Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty. Along with Mill, this gave him a philosophical or political foundation. In 1997, when Berlin died, 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?” In addition to being a stellar book, it is a service: a portable, continuing Charles.