Charles Krauthammer made people understand their own thoughts. It was Charles who collated the various strands of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and codified them as the Reagan Doctrine in a Time Magazine essay in 1985. He did the same with the Bush Doctrine 16 years later—and his codification played a role in how Bush himself came to formulate his approach to the world following 9/11. And in 2009, Charles codified the Obama Doctrine as well, although not by that name, in a speech he turned into one of the great articles of our time, “Decline Is a Choice.” I was there when he delivered that speech and rushed up to him to ask that he allow me to publish it in COMMENTARY, but I was too late; he had already promised it to The Weekly Standard.
I couldn’t really object because, 14 years earlier, I had been part of the trio (with Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes) who had recruited him to come write for the Standard. I don’t think I was the reason he did so and I’m not sure I conducted myself in a way that helped our case. I was not then and am not now easily intimidated, but I always found Charles particularly intimidating. The early going at the Standard did little to ease that sense of intimidation. At early editorial meetings, he seemed particularly eager to challenge my ideas for articles and to make me defend them; he had come to know me primarily as the brother of his wife Robbie’s best friend Rachel and as the brother-in-law of his close friend Elliott and had no independent reason to think I had any particular business running a magazine or serving as his editor, which I would do.
You didn’t edit Charles, though. He edited himself. Over and over again. His work would come in from an assistant and be revised continually until the moment of publication. Expressions of frustration about the late hour nearing the time we had to send pieces off to the printer were greeted on the phone with stony silence. Any complaint to one of his assistants (Rich Lowry was one) generated what seemed to a kind of silent terror that crackled through the cables. He was civil, but not necessarily pleasant, in these moments.
Charles existed so apart from his quadraplegic disability in the minds and experiences of those of us who knew him—because of his willed insistence that it be so, a willed insistence that was all the more powerful because it was unspoken—that any anger I might have felt at the imposition of his writerly arrogance seemed entirely permissible … until the moment that I remembered. I would remember he could not put pen to paper. I would remember he wrote by dictating. I would remember it was a goddamned astonishing fact of facts that he could do any of this, let alone do it with such easy brilliance. Think of it. He read widely and paid attention to everything—a man who had some difficulty turning a page. He wrote weekly, this man who could not write.
How did he? He told me once that when he did rounds as a resident at Mass General, the hospital had a primitive voice-control system in which he and his colleagues would phone in their notes on patients. The system would start when they began speaking, but if they paused or said um or got lost in their thoughts, it would shut down and hang up on them. And so they would have to do it again. Charles, of course, couldn’t take notes. He had to dictate off the top of his head. Because this weirdly technical aspect of his medical training taught him how, he became a fluent dictater of words, and the only person I ever knew who could make one of those early computer voice thingies called Dragon work to his advantage.
Anyway, Charles liked the Standard, and he like the work we did, and when I left editing there, he wrote me the nicest letter I have ever received. It was not a necessary gesture. I didn’t expect it and he was in no way obliged to write it, but write it he did. It was the first act of pure kindness he had ever shown me, and it began a friendship—a very distant friendship, but a friendship nonetheless—that would last two decades. Over time he would share bits and pieces of the way he was compelled to live. He told me that the year Ford came out with the van he was able to drive was the greatest liberation of his life. He did love driving that van—and drove it with frightening flourish.
He had been one of the first people I met when I came to Washington looking for a possible job at the tail end of college. Martin Peretz, the editor of The New Republic and the man who had helped turn Charles from a Mondale speechwriter into a magazine writer, had invited me to lunch with the two of them at the Palm. I had been reading him for a while, and had no idea he was wheelchair-bound. The only note taken of it was that Marty occasionally offered to help Charles with his straw, or to cut a piece of gristle off the steak that had already been sliced thin for him.
A grandee of Washington at the time—I don’t remember who, maybe Lee Hamilton or the head of Brookings or some such—stopped by the table to complain about Israel. That day the Jewish state had annexed the Golan Heights, an act that was taken to be very bad by the conventional wisdom of Washington grandees then and now.
“Please tell me even you have no defense for this,” the grandee told Marty Peretz.
“Well, I’m no fan of Begin, and I’m sure he could have done this better,” Marty said, “but there are good strategic reasons for such a move, of course.”
And Charles said, “Israel does what Israel has to do, just like the United States.”
As I said, he made people understand their own thoughts. Every week. For decades. That day, for the first time, he made me understand mine. After hundreds of other such occasions, reading him in print and listening to him during his tenure as the most unexpected of TV stars, I can say I’m not sure anyone in my lifetime has ever done that better. It is a key role of the intellectual explicator, which is what Charles was nonpareil—to help you understand what you think.
He was the most extraordinary person I have ever known, and I have been blessed to know many. We roasted Charles a few years ago at our annual fundraiser. Of course, no one could think of a bad thing to say about him. He said bad things about us. They were hilarious, because that’s the other thing he was—funny. Very, very, very funny. We’ll release video of it over the coming days.
There is more to say—about Charles as a Jew, about Charles as a brilliant social commentator, and about Charles as a medical miracle. For that he was. He was a quadriplegic who lived to the age of 68—and died not of complications from his condition but from cancer. He told Bill and Fred and me back in 1995 that he did not know how much longer he had to live and he needed to earn as much as he could to ensure Robbie and his son Daniel were provided for if the end came unexpectedly. He lived for 23 years after that. He wrote a book that sold a million copies. People flocked to him at personal appearances as though he were a Beatle.
Has anyone ever done more with the life God handed him, or played a bad hand as astoundingly as Charles did?
He did not believe in God, but if there is a God and there is a heaven, I hope Charles is playing basketball right now and cracking wise with the wisest of men, for he was among the greatest-souled of men. Baruch Dayan Emet. And may Robbie and Danny be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.