(Editor's Note: As the end of 2013 approaches, the Washington Examiner is shining a spotlight on its top stories of the year. Today, it's senior political columnist Timothy P. Carney's story on the legendary life and career of Charles Krauthammer. This story first ran on Oct. 24 and can be found in its original form here.)
Republican disarray and infighting ate up most conservative commentary in the first few weeks of October. What was Ted Cruz thinking? Will John Boehner show some backbone? Can anyone lead this party?
But the Right's most prominent commentator kept his eye trained on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “For all the hyped indignation over GOP anarchism,” Charles Krauthammer's Oct. 10 Washington Post column began, “there has been remarkable media reticence about the president's intransigence.”
Krauthammer isn't a Ted Cruz cheerleader — he's knocked Cruz and his allies as the “Kamikaze Brigade.” Krauthammer also isn't above intra-Republican fighting — he spearheaded the 2002 campaign to oust Trent Lott from the Senate majority leader job after Lott's offhand praise for Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign.
Krauthammer just believes that President Obama deserves more scrutiny and criticism than he’s getting — that Obama’s leftward pull on the country poses real danger. And nobody is in a better position to provide that criticism than Krauthammer.
Krauthammer, 63, sits atop one of the highest perches in the news media. Every night on Fox News' Special Report, he is the star of Bret Baier's political panel. Every Friday, his column appears in the Washington Post and scores of other papers (he won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for commentary). Among commentators on the Right, he is rivaled only by his friend George F. Will, an even more widely syndicated columnist and a recent addition to the Fox News team.This month, Krauthammer published his first book: a collection of his essays, columns, articles, and speeches, titled Things That Matter.
Read his writings, and you’ll see a man whose conservatism echoes the late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott more than Ted Cruz: conservatism as a disposition rather than an ideology.
Krauthammer believes society needs clearly drawn moral lines (he argues for them on stem cell research). He believes in universal ideas of justice and freedom, but he warns that our efforts to secure them sometimes backfire (thus a foreign policy realism that tempers his fierce hawkishness). He makes no bones about his rightward slant, but he praises “virtues of ideological moderation.”
|In explaining any puzzling Washington phenomenon, always choose stupidity over conspiracy, incompetence over cunning. Anything else gives them too much credit.|
This conservative moderation explains why Krauthammer would be afraid to take his eye off Obama. His training and experience as a psychiatrist underlies Krauthammer’s worries about Obama’s lack of humility.
Things That Matter opens with a 15-page introduction that is mostly autobiography. Krauthammer explains how he moved from being a Walter Mondale speechwriter to being a public conservative (“I was young once” is the short version). He tells how he got into writing: When he was at McGill University in Montreal, the student government ousted the undergraduate paper’s editor in chief for the crime of “mindless, humorless Maoism” and appointed Krauthammer editor.
Krauthammer discusses his time at Harvard Medical School and his career as a psychiatrist. Why did he leave that profession behind? “It was basically a matter of scale,” he told me in an interview in his office. “In medicine you help individuals. But then the whole world is going to pieces, and you sort of ask yourself, ‘Shouldn’t I be involved in that?’ And I have things to say, I think.”
With reluctance, Krauthammer agreed with my suggestion that his writing was his effort to make the world a better place -- though he would never put it that way. Instead, he cited a Tom Stoppard character, Brodie from the play “The Real Thing,” who said the reason to spend your life putting words in order is “if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
Krauthammer's introduction also discusses the books that shaped his thought (John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and Charles Murray's Losing Ground, notably), the experiences that changed his mind and the events that built his career.
But Krauthammer’s introduction doesn’t mention the accident that nearly killed him 40 years ago and left him largely paralyzed for life, in a wheelchair.
|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.|
Krauthammer doesn’t think it matters. “It wasn’t that I consciously left it out,” he told me. “I was writing about what influenced me.” The accident occurred in 1972, his first year of medical school.
Krauthammer dove into a swimming pool and hit his head on the bottom, breaking his spine. He almost never talks about his disability. He never talks about the daily struggles it creates — and he rarely finds it relevant.
For instance, how does he speak in grammatically correct and well-formed sentences on Fox and when speaking off the cuff? Was this skill born from his decades-long practice of dictating the first draft of his column into a tape recorder? (And yes, he still uses a literal tape recorder, with cassettes.)
As it happens, Krauthammer learned to speak so precisely at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he spent three years as a resident in psychiatry in the late 1970s. Every patient leaving the hospital needed a discharge summary. “For psychiatric patients, it is endless. ... And we had to dictate it into a house phone.”
“After three years,” he told me, “I could dictate a two-to-three-thousand-word discharge summary without any notes from beginning to end. It’s a very efficient thing.”
He has another, more surprising reason, for preferring dictation.
“I have a horror of the blank page. I simply cannot write on a blank page or screen. Because once I do, I start to fix it, and I never get past the first sentence.”
Krauthammer appears on Fox News' Special Report every night. (Photo courtesy Fox News)
How did he manage this fear while running the college paper before he acquired his dictation skills? By turning off the lights. “I would write my editorials using a manual typewriter in pitch-black darkness. ... I would produce the whole thing without having seen the text.”
So what would seem to the average writer a burden — needing to dictate his first drafts — is to Krauthammer the natural way to do things, regardless of his accident.
Even when Krauthammer’s condition pertains to the argument at hand, he avoids the issue.
Early in 2009, Obama scrapped former President George W. Bush’s restrictions on research using embryos. The White House invited Krauthammer to attend a ceremony marking this announcement. “I assume,” Krauthammer wrote, “this was because I have long argued in these columns and during my five years on the President’s Council on Bioethics that, contrary to the Bush policy, federal funding should be extended to research on embryonic stem cell lines derived from discarded embryos in fertility clinics.”
But Obama was removing all limits on embryo research, not just on discarded embryos. Krauthammer attacked this more harshly than he had criticized Bush’s limits. He charged Obama with “moral abdication” and wrote: “I ... do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix.”
Disgusted at Obama’s rhetoric, Krauthammer evocatively wrote that Obama’s speech “would have made me walk out.”
When I asked him if his injury affects his views, he responded: “In terms of what I think or what I do? No.”
He has separated his own lot from his view of what is best.
|I love to hear the president whine about Fox News and talk radio. I think we ought to be proud of the fact that we annoy him so much.|
As he explained in Time magazine in 2004, “I have not walked in 32 years. I would be delighted to do so again. But not at any price. I think it is more important to bequeath to my son a world that retains a moral compass.” (He and his wife Robyn married in 1974; their son Daniel is a writer in Los Angeles.)
Krauthammer, who was born in New York City and spent summers on Long Island, moved to Canada with his family when he was 5, giving him an outsider’s appreciation of America. In Krauthammer’s eyes, Obama isn’t simply another leftward pull in the tug-of-war of American politics. He sees Obama standing almost outside the normal boundaries of American politics.
Krauthammer lived through the late ’60s tumult in academia and was alarmed by Obama’s radical ties. “His association with Reverend Wright was the beginning of my worries about him,” Krauthammer said in our interview. “You don’t go to a church for 22 years, consider the man your mentor, are married by him and have him baptize your children unless you have tremendous respect for him.”
Still, Krauthammer says it made him proud that America could elect a black president. That fuzzy feeling wore off at Obama’s February 2009 address to Congress. Krauthammer thought it was “the most radical social democrat agenda ever proposed a president, probably ever since FDR. Probably beyond FDR.”
Krauthammer characterizes Obama’s message in that speech as, “I didn’t come here to tinker. ... I’m here to change America, in a social democratic way — the European model.”
Europe has much wider bounds of socially permissible opinion, and Krauthammer finds that destructive. “In the political culture I grew up in [in Canada], which was fairly radical in the late ’60s, there were real fascists and real communists.” But “in the American political system, one of the cliches is that the game is played between the 40-yard lines.” He’d like to keep it that way.
|I think the Tea Party is a very healthy development. I think it’s injected tremendous energy into the American political system, which is good. ... And I think its basic tenet — which is fundamentally smaller government, more individual freedom — is right.|
Dr. Krauthammer also worries about Obama’s psychology. He’s called Obama a “narcissist,” and he tells me that matters: “He’s the least experienced, least-known president probably in the history of the United States. ... If you’re coming in as a novice, you ought to have some humility in deciding where you want to go and take the country.”
Instead, Obama came to office promising to take up “the work of remaking America,” as he put it in his inaugural address. He dismissed those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.”
Obama said these foot-draggers, people like Krauthammer, “fail to understand ... that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
What Obama dismisses as “stale political arguments,” Krauthammer sees as wise political constraints. “The American system,” Krauthammer wrote in a recent online forum, “was and is the most realistic in understanding the fallen condition of the human being.”
Obama may not realize he is a fallen human being. Every night on Fox and every Friday in the Post, Krauthammer gets to remind the president how fallen he is.