Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, by Charles Krauthammer (Crown Forum, 387 pp., $28)
TGIF has assumed a new meaning for Charles Krauthammer’s ever-growing legion of fans. Every Friday, with the regularity of a metronome, his column appears in the op-ed section of the Washington Post. It is immediately discussed and analyzed, sent to friends via e-mail and fax, snipped out and attached with refrigerator magnets, and widely quoted in the media.
A famously liberal newspaper would seem an unlikely home for conservative opinion. But the Post has its whimsical side, and so does Krauthammer. Tracking the course of his career, for example, he recalls the question of a wide-eyed reporter: “How do I get to be a nationally syndicated columnist?” The reply: “First go to medical school.” In fact, that’s how the commentator did start on his epic journey. What he neglected to mention, however, were the detours encountered en route to the Post and Fox News.
Educated at McGill University and Oxford, the young Canadian entered Harvard Medical School in 1970. His first year at Harvard had barely begun when he was severely injured in a diving accident. The spinal damage was irreparable; he would never walk again. For a lesser soul this would have meant, at best, years of rehabilitation and a change of profession. But Krauthammer was fiercely ambitious and academically brilliant. Confined to his bed for 14 months, he stayed the course and graduated with his class. After that came a residency in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by a move to Washington, D. C. In the early 1980s, while engaged in medical research, he began writing speeches for Vice President Walter Mondale and contributing essays to the New Republic and Time. At that point, Time was at its most schizophrenic. In one issue, readers would find Strobe Talbott writing “How Israel Is Like Iraq.” In another, Krauthammer would object to “the conscious deployment of a double standard directed at the Jewish state and at no other state in the world.”
Readers sensed a new and different tone in the columnist’s voice. “I’m often asked,” Krauthammer recalls, “‘How do you go from Walter Mondale to Fox News?’ To which the short answer is ‘I was young once.’ ” The long answer is that he had always identified with the Democratic Party’s Cold War liberals, “uncompromising Truman-Kennedy anti-communists led by the likes of Henry Jackson, Hubert Humphrey and Pat Moynihan.” But after Ronald Reagan took office, the Democrats did an about-face. “They fell in the thrall of the ‘nuclear freeze,’ an idea of unmatched strategic vacuity.” Years later, leading European Social Democrats repented their youthful contributions to the anti-nuclear movement. “But the Democratic Party never did,” Krauthammer laments. “It went even further left.” In addition, some Democratic leaders voiced a rancorous anti-Israel bias, portraying that nation as an apartheid state. Ergo, “on foreign policy, as the cliché goes, I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me.”
Domestic policy was another matter. Here the Democratic Party remained true to its platform. It was Krauthammer who changed. Trained to examine empirical evidence, the M.D. concluded that the Great Society and other social movements directed from the Beltway were causing injury to the indigent, to minorities, to immigrants—the very people they were supposed to nurture. Thereafter, Krauthammer committed himself to the defense of a “restrained, free-market governance that gave more space and place to the individual and to the civil society that stands between citizen and state.”
Though some columns collected in Things That Matter are autobiographical, most are concerned with a prosecution of reflexive liberal bromides and a defense of intellectual values and perceptions, customarily, though not always, on the right. (To the surprise of many, Krauthammer is a defender of abortion rights, an opponent of the death penalty, and an advocate of higher energy taxes to reduce pollution.)
Krauthammer’s assets include steel-trap logic, an epée wit, a profound sense of history, and a withering contempt for journalists who would rather cringe in the dark than bring the truth to light. After the Fort Hood massacre, Krauthammer notes, the mainstream media played down Major Nidal Hassan’s religious beliefs. “I think he’s probably just a nut case,” said Newsweek’s Evan Thomas. Some were more adamant. Time’s Joe Klein fatuously decried the “attempts by Jewish extremists . . . to argue that the massacre perpetrated by Nidal Hassan was somehow a direct consequence of his Islamic beliefs.” Such delicacy about Islamic carnage is not new, Krauthammer reminds us. “A week after the first (1993) World Trade Center attack, the New York Times ran the following front-page headline about the arrest of one Mohammed Salameh: ‘Jersey City Man Is Charged in Bombing of Trade Center.’ Ah yes, those Jersey men—so resentful of New York, so prone to violence.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Krauthammer finds Barack Obama’s foreign policy wanton. An “incoherence of policy and purpose is why an evacuation from Yemen must be passed off as a ‘reduction in staff.’ Why the Benghazi terror attack must be blamed on some hapless Egyptian-American videographer. . . . In the end, this isn’t about language. It’s about leadership. This is not leading from behind. This is not leading at all.” As for Obamacare, “Once the budget gimmicks are discounted (such as promises of $500 billion cuts in Medicare that will never eventuate), that means hundreds of billions of dollars added to the monstrous budgetary deficits that the Congressional Budget Office projects conservatively at $7 trillion over the next decade. The effect on the dollar is already being felt and could ultimately lead to a catastrophic collapse and/or hyperinflation.”
Krauthammer is an energetic polemicist and a graceful writer. As some of these entries show, he’s also a baseball fan, particularly of the Washington Nationals; an avid chess player; and a wide reader of philosophy and literature. Why, then, does he devote so much of his time to the pocked and sordid arena of politics?
As in so many instances, his argument is persuasive: “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. 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.” Politics “is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.”
Not while this firefighter is on duty.