It seems odd, if not completely bizarre, to speak of a journalist possessing moral authority, but that’s what Charles Krauthammer had, both in relation to his friends and to many of the millions who devoured his columns weekly and watched him discourse nightly on Fox News. How he reached this implausible station in life, and what the rest of us lost with his death at 68 last year, is made clear by a new collection of his newspaper columns and occasional writings, The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors, edited posthumously by his son Daniel.
It’s a sequel of sorts to an earlier collection of Krauthammer’s journalism called Things That Matter. By the time Krauthammer released that book, in 2015, collections of journalism, especially op-eds from magazines and newspapers, were increasingly rare, offered by book publishers only to the top-tier of face-famous columnists as a kind of status reward. No one, not even the publishers, expected them to find an audience large enough to make real money. Within a year of publication, Things That Matter had sold more than a million copies in various formats, which, however you do the math, translates into real money indeed. The book’s astonishing success was partly the result of incessant flogging on the part of Krauthammer and his loyal sidekicks at Fox, whose viewers are avid buyers of books if they are produced by the celebrities of the cable box.
But I like to think the sales were inspired by something more than a celebrity-crush pandemic. Krauthammer’s stuff was always worth reading, and often repaid rereading. He was even worth watching on TV, something that can be said of only a very few writers, who are trained to leave their best stuff on the page. His plain style was without affect, easily accessible, and often slyly funny. He had a vast range of enthusiasms beyond everyday politics. Crucially, he limited himself to one column a week, avoiding the temptation to go off half-cocked just because a deadline loomed. Also, he was immune to the usual charges of dilettantism and gasbaggery. Having received a medical degree and having served as head resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Krauthammer spent his early adulthood in a genuine profession, requiring deep knowledge and prolonged study. Lots of journalists arrive at their trade after a process of elimination, life having foreclosed in serial fashion one reputable occupation after another. Intellectually, Krauthammer had been around.
There was also the crippling spinal-cord injury, suffered in his early twenties. His triumph over it was plain, indisputable evidence of a singular courage and determination. The cumulative effect all this had on his audience was profound. Fellow scribblers, especially on the right, revered him, but so did the civilians who read him, watched him, and flocked to hear him speak. I was there on a couple such occasions when the crowds who had paid to see him rose en masse as he appeared from the wings; many of them wept, perhaps because they were realizing for the first time that their man had achieved what he had achieved while bound to a wheelchair.
Please don’t get the wrong idea: This wasn’t Aimee Semple McPherson descending in her silver bough from the rafters of the Four Square Gospel Church. He respected his readers too much to let them tumble into hero worship; he knew to quickly defuse it with wit and self-deprecation. I use the phrase “moral authority” to distinguish Krauthammer’s stature from something as silly and fleeting as hero worship. Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard caught an instance of it after he appeared with Krauthammer at a panel in Colorado. This was in June 2017, two months before cancer forced him from public life. A rift was opening between Krauthammer and many of his admirers. Krauthammer was resolutely, if not uniformly, critical of Trump, whose seduction of rank-and-file Republicans was soon to be complete.
A member of the audience used a metaphor to question Krauthammer’s criticism of Trump: What if an unknown player—presumably Trump—was sent to bat in the last inning of the seventh game of the World Series and won it for the Washington Nationals (Krauthammer’s team) with a grand slam? “Would anybody care what his batting average is?”
It would be, Krauthammer agreed, “a wonderful, splendid thing.” And then: “What if the ball hits the light tower, sparks an electrical fire, burns down the stadium, and thousands die?” Even the Trump-friendly crowd, Warren records, burst into laughter and applause. When it died down, Krauthammer added, “Everything has risks.”
The new book gives ample proof that Krauthammer had moved beyond skepticism to contempt for the man who was transforming his party. When Trump won the nomination in August 2016, Krauthammer wrote: “I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about ten years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value—indeed exists—only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.” Trump, in rebuttal, called Krauthammer “a dummy who is on too many Fox shows.”
“Everything has risks.” Nothing comes without a cost, including Trump’s undoubted political successes: the tax cuts, the judicial appointments, the regulatory rollbacks, perhaps the rewriting of trade agreements on more favorable terms. It’s the refusal of pro-Trump Republicans to consider the costs of Trump’s behavior as president that frustrates their Trump-skeptical adversaries. (The frustrations that Trump’s Republican admirers have with his mulish detractors are a subject for another day.)
What does it mean in the long term when the nation’s conservative party becomes stamped with a style of governing that consists of casual lies, exaggerations, childish and personal and public attacks on subordinates and political opponents, hush money to old lovers, disregard for simple propriety and good manners? What does it cost when the lies and the other trademarks of Trumpism are deployed in service of the traditional Republican principles of small government and individual liberty? Sooner or later, those ideals must lose their appeal in the minds of the voting public, owing to their association with a leader two-thirds of them cannot abide. How long before the Trumpian means discredit the conservative ends?
There’s no consequence to me asking such questions. I can’t help but wonder, though, what would have happened if Charles Krauthammer had been here to ask them (much more elegantly) over the last 18 months. Nobody knows how many minds he would have turned from the Trump temptation. At least his stature would have opened enough space for anti-Trump arguments to be considered as arguments rather than rejected out of hand as expressions of class resentment or personal pique. Maybe even the most faithful Fox viewers would have been willing to grapple with them, coming as they did from the man who once said, “You’re betraying your whole life if you don’t say what you think—and you don’t say it honestly and bluntly.”