Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics
By Charles Krauthammer
Crown Forum, 400 pages
Young people often ask Charles Krauthammer how they can become a syndicated columnist. He’s given the same answer for 30 years: “First, go to medical school.”
It worked for him. Krauthammer was 21 years old when he left Oxford, where he was studying John Stuart Mill, for Harvard Medical School. Why the move? Medicine appealed to him then in a way politics could not.
“Medicine promised not only moral certainty (is anything as unarguably good as healing?), but intellectual certainty, a hardness to the truth, something not found in the universe of politics,” he wrote in the introduction to his first collection, Cutting Edges (1985), now out of print.
Krauthammer practiced medicine for three years, rising to the position of chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General, before leaving for Washington in 1978. A mentor had accepted a job in the Carter administration and asked him to come along. Like so many who move to the capital assuming their stay will be brief, Krauthammer never left.
His work at the National Institute of Mental Health led to an offer from the speechwriting office of Vice President Walter Mondale. He accepted. He began contributing freelance articles to the New Republic. When Carter lost to Reagan, Krauthammer joined the magazine full time. He soon became its star writer.
In 1983, he began a monthly column for Time magazine that ran until 2007. He won a National Magazine Award in 1984. The weekly column he began writing for the Washington Post in 1985 eventually would be syndicated in 350 newspapers. In 1987 he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. For decades, he has been a panelist on the syndicated public-affairs roundtable Inside Washington.
But Krauthammer is probably most well known for his appearances on Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier, where since 2009, on an almost nightly basis, he has mercilessly critiqued the Obama administration. The Fox perch turned Krauthammer into a national figure. His admirers treat his opinions as something approaching holy writ, and his presence is a continuing irritant to the president and his allies. To Politico, Krauthammer is “Barack Obama’s biggest critic.” To National Review, he is the “leader of the opposition.”
Late in his 50s, television brought Krauthammer a new level of fame. It has brought him influence. And it has brought the rest of us a new book. For fans of his television commentary, Krauthammer’s first collection in more than 20 years is a priceless introduction to the columnist’s writing. And for those who have thrilled at the sight of a Krauthammer byline for decades, Things That Matter is a window into the master polemicist’s habits of mind, heart, and technique.
What is most remarkable about the columns and essays collected in Things That Matter is their consistency. The earliest piece, “The Tirana Index,” was published at the end of 1982; the most recent, an autobiographical introduction written specifically for this volume, was drafted in June 2013. And yet the writer’s skill, his range of interests and knowledge, his sense of humor, his point of view, and his critical method are coherent throughout.
Readers who rely on Krauthammer for perspective on current events may be surprised at the catholicity of his pursuits. He writes equally well on baseball, physics, medicine, Modern art, artificial intelligence, religion, history, and mathematics. He is perhaps the only writer alive today who can make a chess match seem as exciting and dramatic as the Super Bowl. His appreciations of his late brother Marcel and late mentor Hermann Lisco are lyrical and affecting. And all his work, whether the topic is cursing or border collies or the fate of Israel, is laced with wit.
That mordant sensibility is one of the chief attractions of Krauthammer’s writing. One reads his articles and essays in expectation of the pithy, sarcastic phrase or rhetorical question that will illustrate his point and demolish single-handedly a cliché or enthusiasm. Here he is in 1996, criticizing the fad of “natural childbirth”: “The original eighteenth-century industrial saboteurs sought to destroy the satanic textile mills by throwing their wooden shoes (sabos) into the machines. They didn’t throw their children.”
Here he is in 2007 on “the double tragedy of a stolen death”:
When former congressman—and distinguished priest and liberal luminary—Robert Drinan died earlier this year, the Washington Post published a special appreciation. It ran together with a tribute to another notable who died just one day later: Barbaro. The horse got top billing.
And here he is in 2004 on the American instinct to look inward, to view the international arena with ambivalence: “What could we possibly need anywhere else? We don’t like exotic climates. We don’t like exotic languages—lots of declensions and moods. We don’t even know what a mood is.” Even punctuation is not safe from Krauthammer’s sense of irony. Commas? “They are a pestilence,” he writes. “They must be stopped.”
Humor is only one trait of Krauthammer’s point of view, of his attitude toward the world around him. That attitude might be described as inquisitive, skeptical, analytical, and empirical. He is curious about most things. He is reluctant to embrace fads, whether in politics, culture, or society. He must subject the latest craze to critical analysis before offering judgment. He favors inductive reasoning based on the facts on the ground over deductive reasoning from first principles.
“I’m open to empirical evidence,” he writes. For example: “The results of the 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.” That data persuaded him to change his view of the welfare state.
Krauthammer’s lodestar is John Stuart Mill, his key text Mills’s On Liberty (1859). The teaching of Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), who argued for democratic pluralism and individual freedom, remains the bedrock of Krauthammer’s political thought. Neither Mill nor Berlin was conservative. And neither, for a long time, was Krauthammer.
But the categories of liberal and conservative have a way of shifting. “As I became convinced of the practical and theoretical defects of the social-democratic tendencies of my youth,” he writes, “it was but a short distance to a philosophy of restrained, free-market governance that gave more space and place to the individual and to the civil society that stands between citizen and state.”
Ultimately, the freedom to choose “one’s own Millian ‘ends of life’” depends on one’s ability to defend oneself. This is a fact that many liberals, on the left and right, have often forgotten. Krauthammer has not. Since the beginning of his career, he has argued against isolationism and for an active foreign policy in which American power is the ultimate guarantor of international order.
“An alliance of free nations, as the locus and trustee of Western values, is a value in itself,” he wrote in 1985. And later in the same essay: “The internationalist may decide not to intervene in particular areas for prudential reasons, but not out of indifference.” That is not so different, not so different at all, from his argument for “democratic realism” almost 20 years later.
The attentive reader doesn’t profit only from Krauthammer’s tone, viewpoint, and conclusions, however. He also profits from the method by which Krauthammer reaches those conclusions. That method is clinical. The world presents the resident psychiatrist with cases. His career is one long grand rounds, with analysands from Jane Fonda to Barack Obama. He proceeds through description, diagnosis, and prescription. First he appraises the object of analysis. Then he reaches a diagnosis by asking questions and making distinctions. Any close reading of Krauthammer’s work, for example, will reveal his tendency to ask rhetorical questions and to differentiate cases. Why is one of his favorite words, because it forces him to provide reasons.
Another of Krauthammer’s favorite words is not. Something is not X, you will often see him writing, but Y. The words distinction, differentiate, and distinguish all appear frequently in this book. “I suspect some of the habits of thought I absorbed in medicine have influenced my writing,” Krauthammer wrote in the introduction to Cutting Edges. He suspected correctly. This ability to diagnose, to make such fine distinctions, is at the heart of Krauthammer’s method. Making distinctions is not just a practical or a professional activity. It is a moral one.
“The trouble with blurring moral distinctions, even for the best of causes, is that it can become a habit” he wrote in 1984. “It is a habit we can ill afford, since the modern tolerance for such distinctions is already in decline. Some serious ideas are used so promiscuously in the service of so many causes that they have lost all their power.”
Liberals are too quick to dismiss difference. “To gloss over contradictory interests, incompatible ideologies, and opposing cultures as sources of conflict is more than anti-political,” he writes in Things That Matter. “It is dangerous. Those who have long held a mirror to the world and seen only themselves are apt to be shocked and panicked when the mirror is removed, as inevitably it must be.”
The ability to distinguish between schools of foreign policy, between types of embryonic research, between allies and enemies, between costs and benefits, between logic and illogic, has great consequences for human freedom, dignity, and security. That, above all, is why Krauthammer turned from medicine to politics at the age of 30. “Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything—high and low and, most especially, high—lives or dies by politics,” he writes. “You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.”
The work is essential. It is also endless: The cosmos is large, bewildering, amusing, awesome, and frequently terrifying. Study of Krauthammer’s books, of his thought and method, may one day lead others to make the rounds. For now, though, we are fortunate. The doctor is in.