Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics, by Charles Krauthammer (Crown Forum, 400 pp., $28)
Since its publication last October, Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Matter has been a runaway bestseller. As of this writing, it has spent 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, where it currently sits at No. 2. Krauthammer has become a ubiquitous presence — more widely quoted than ever, on the Obama administration’s abuse of power, the failures of Obamacare, and the decline of the U.S.’s standing in the world at a time of upheaval. Fox News, the network on which he practices punditry, saw fit to run an hour-long TV special devoted to the man, his personal story, and his thoughts (a distant third, to be sure) in conjunction with the book’s publication.
The astonishing popularity of what is, after all, a book of warmed-over newspaper columns has ratified the position of the cerebral Mr. Krauthammer as the most influential conservative columnist of our time. In this he succeeds the equally brilliant but far more acerbic George Will, who explained, defended, and even embodied the Reaganite conservative ethos of the 1980s. Krauthammer has earned this status by writing op-eds that are consistently incisive, thoughtful, and intellectually forceful, for 30 years, at the Washington Post, Time, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard.
Newspaper columns aren’t as critical to the national political debate as they were before the deluge of opinion on social media, radio, and TV. So Krauthammer is now best known for his nightly Fox News commentary on issues of the day. His views have weight with millions of ordinary conservative viewers, and with political elites, because he has exceptionally good judgment about the nature and importance of issues.
Still, he is an improbable TV star. He is smarter, more measured, and less partisan than most TV pundits. He doesn’t seem to need the attention as badly as most. He’s not so telegenic. And, of course, there is the now familiar fact of Krauthammer’s paralysis. This might have been judged off-putting, at a network that is exceptionally obsessed with the appearance of its commentators. But as it happens, Fox News’s millions of right-of-center viewers have embraced Krauthammer and made him a star; and they have now put his book near the top of the national bestseller list. For all that liberals denigrate Fox, it says something impressive that conservative America’s most respected columnist is a Jewish intellectual who began his career as a liberal psychiatrist.
Not surprisingly, the introductory personal essay explaining how he got where he is, how his thinking has evolved, and what he values most in life, has been the focus of most critical discussion of Things That Matter.
Though the book contains many fascinating essays on his personal passions — science, chess, dogs, and some remarkable non-political figures — Krauthammer argues that we have no choice but to pay attention to politics foremost, grubby as it is, because politics inevitably shapes our world. “You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away.” He alludes to Germany, 1933. But it applies here, everywhere, always.
Raised in Montreal, Krauthammer was a Canadian-style social democrat in college, but always a staunch anti-Communist — even as an undergraduate in the radical 1960s. After college, he headed to Oxford for graduate studies in political philosophy, where he encountered John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the “foundational document of classical liberalism.” Though Mill’s embrace of individual liberty and a small state resonated with Krauthammer, he came to view philosophy as too self-indulgent. Shortly before his second year, he called Harvard Medical School, to which he had been previously accepted, to ask for admission. Days later, he enrolled. In time Krauthammer became a psychiatrist, though he typically chose a program more biologically than therapeutically oriented.
Seven years later, in 1978, his residency ending, he went to Washington, D.C., as assistant to a senior Harvard professor to direct planning in psychiatric research for the Carter administration. Over the next two years, from that position, he published a few freelance articles in The New Republic, then required reading among D.C. elites. Those pieces led to a stint in 1980 as a speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale. The Carter-Mondale defeat allowed Krauthammer to complete his transition to full-time journalism. He started work at TNR on the day in January 1981 that Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, and the pendulum began to swing back toward political sanity.
In short order he joined other “neo-conservatives” in following Reagan’s path from the Democratic party to the GOP, from being a social democrat to supporting a “restrained, free-market government,” individualism, and civil society. By 1983 he was also writing a Time magazine column, in which, incidentally, he coined the phrase “the Reagan Doctrine,” about the administration’s foreign policy. In 1985 he began his Washington Post column, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize a mere two years later.
His anti-Communism was constant, he writes: “On foreign policy, as the cliché goes, I didn’t leave the Democratic party. It left me.” On domestic policy, he changed. Why? “I’m open to empirical evidence. The results of Great Society experiments started coming in and began showing that, for all its good intentions, the War on Poverty was causing irreparable damage to the very communities it was designed to help.” This explanation forces a reader to consider why so many political writers seem not to be open to empirical evidence.
In one of the collection’s most personal, touching, even tear-inducing essays, Krauthammer eulogizes a fascinating man named Hermann Lisco. Dr. Lisco left Berlin in 1936 with a newly earned medical degree, to teach at Johns Hopkins. From there he was recruited to join the Manhattan Project, studying the effects of plutonium on the human body. He wound up as a professor at Harvard Medical School. In the course of recording Lisco’s many acts of brilliance and thoughtfulness, Krauthammer slips in a short mention of the diving accident that left him fully paralyzed, at the end of his first year in med school. When Lisco asked what he could do to help, Krauthammer, bandaged and in traction in a hospital bed, announced that he wished to stay in school and graduate with his class. Without ever discussing the extraordinary efforts needed by teachers and staff, Lisco made it happen, even to the point of designing extra-long medical tools. Understandably, Krauthammer omits any mention of what he personally went through, or how hard he must have struggled to overcome his physical limits those years in medical school and as a resident. It is hardly necessary to note the personal strength and character required for that feat.
Perhaps my favorite essay in the book is “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” written in 1989. It distills the then-new revisionist scholarly view that the French Revolution was a disaster for human freedom, not the liberating event generations had been taught about. The much quieter American Revolution led to revolutionary amounts of individual liberty. The “murderous revolutionary regime” that followed the French Revolution became the model for expansions of state power, even to our own time. “The line from the Bastille to the gulag [the Cold War had not yet ended] is not straight, but the connection is unmistakable.” Which is to say that socialism, Communist brutality, and other outrages against freedom were the real long-term result of that revolution.
That essay is followed by a more recent one, on President Obama’s astonishing “You didn’t build that” speech — which illustrates the socialist view of the primacy of the state in all human endeavor. Besides dismissing the argument as bunk, Krauthammer does a nice job explaining the role of civil society, mediating between the state and individuals. Too many liberals cannot see that state and society are not, and should not be, the same thing.
Krauthammer is not an old-school conservative. And, as a Jew, he does not rely on Catholic and/or Evangelical Christian doctrine on those matters — abortion, stem-cell research, etc. — where Christianity offers absolute moral instruction. He is pro-science. And he is, in the largest sense, pro-life. So essays on these subjects, some longer and more nuanced, make compelling, secular arguments that cut through the high-minded rationalizations for accepting as normal activities that will inevitably lead to callousness toward human life.
Finally, Krauthammer has written at length, in Commentary and elsewhere, about Israel, its treatment in the media, and other Jewish issues. Because I tend to agree with him, I will say that they are smart, sensitive, and worth reading. What is notable about their inclusion in this book is the presumption that they are of interest to the huge majority of his readers who are not Jewish. That suggests great confidence in the current philo-Semitism of American conservatives.
As the columns in this book remind us, Krauthammer is a master of the op-ed form. He packs much thought into prose that looks effortless. Op-eds are an art form, shaped by space constraints. Too long for assertions, too short for extended arguments, the best ones rely on the author’s ability to make a serious case, with an illustration or two, while alluding to more of the surrounding debate than he has room to spell out. In turn, this requires a readership knowledgeable enough to comprehend the said and the unsaid. Krauthammer is lucky to have the Washington Post’s uniquely politically savvy readers as his audience. New York Times readers are rarely exposed to serious conservative thinking, and have trouble comprehending even the most straightforward conservative position.
Wonderful as the short-form newspaper column is in addressing issues on the fly, it is disappointing that Krauthammer has not yet given us a book-length discussion of one of the recurring political matters on which he has coherent, in-depth views. That is something to look forward to.
– Lisa Schiffren is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.