The Example of Charles Krauthammer

Published June 21, 2018

The New York Times

I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle when I arrived in Washington, D.C., to work as an intern in 1983. I was in search of an intellectual role model. I soon found one in Charles Krauthammer, who was writing for The New Republic and Time. In 1985, he became a columnist for The Washington Post. Years later, he became a close friend and eventually — he would wince at this — something of a heroic figure to me. His character turned out to be even more impressive than his mind.

On June 8, Charles announced that his doctors had informed him that he had only a few weeks to live, the result of an aggressive, rapidly spreading cancer. “This is the final verdict,” he wrote in a note to his readers. “My fight is over.” He died on Thursday.

It is a shattering loss. Charles, who received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, was not only an elegant writer; he also had a beautiful mind: precise, logical, subtle and blessedly free of cant. He loathed trendiness and the fads that sometimes sweep over the culture.

Like any good columnist, Charles had deep convictions — on the uniqueness and greatness of America, his devotion to democratic pluralism, and his support for Israel and Zionism; on the wonder and joys of physics, chess and baseball, especially his beloved Washington Nationals. (We once exchanged thoughts on an upcoming Super Bowl, but he couldn’t help concluding this way: “Of course, the whole damn game is just a prelude to the beginning of spring training. We must keep things in perspective.”)

But convictions on some matters never meant certainty on all matters. He was comfortable with what he called “inescapable ambiguity” on complicated moral matters. For Charles, abortion was such an issue. My views on abortion are more conservative than his were, but I have long kept in mind what he wrote in 1985:

There is not the slightest recognition on either side that abortion might be at the limits of our empirical and moral knowledge. The problem starts with an awesome mystery: the transformation of two soulless cells into a living human being. That leads to an insoluble empirical question: How and exactly when does that occur? On that, in turn, hangs the moral issue: What are the claims of the entity undergoing that transformation?

How can we expect such a question to yield answers that are not tentative and indeterminate? So difficult a moral question should command humility, or at least a little old-fashioned tolerance.

This is a model of concision, precision and illumination.

In an age when political commentary is getting shallower and more vituperative, we will especially miss Charles’s style of writing — calm, carefully constructed arguments based on propositions and evidence, tinged with a cutting wit and wry humor but never malice.

There’s another quality of his that we will miss: intellectual independence. Charles started out his political career as a centrist Democrat yet ended up as a conservative and a fixture on Fox News. But he situated himself in a particular school within conservatism, one that is temperamentally moderate, deeply suspicious of ideology, aware of the complexity of human society, and empirical in the sense that he was constantly testing what he was saying against what was actually happening in the world and the effect it had. Charles had no interest in being a member of a political team; his goal was to better understand reality.

Political tribalism is rotting American politics; it needs more people who reject partisan zeal and can speak honestly about their own side’s blind spots and defects. Charles, alert to the maladies of the American right, was a fierce critic of Pat Buchanan in the early 1990s, when Mr. Buchanan was bringing conservative audiences to their feet with a nascent version of the ugliness and divisiveness that has come to characterize the Republican Party under President Trump. This helps explain why it was no surprise that Charles has been a harsh critic of Mr. Trump, who is an anathema to everything Charles prized. (In October 2015 Charles, in reacting to Mr. Trump’s claim that “I’m a great Christian,” told me, “Hell, I’m a better Christian than Donald Trump.” Charles, a Jew who referred to himself as a “complicated agnostic,” was right.)

“To me, loyalty to one party has never been a decision of fundamental importance,” the 20th-century political thinker Raymond Aron said. “According to the circumstances I am in agreement or disagreement with the action of a given movement or a given party.” Aron added, “Perhaps such an attitude is contrary to the morality (or immorality) of political action; it is not contrary to the obligations of the writer.” As a writer, Charles embodied the Aron ethic.

His intellect was not the most impressive thing about him; nor was his skill as a writer. His integrity was. He was a person of dignity, equanimity and personal grace. No man is a hero to his valet, the old saying goes. Charles had no valets, but he did have research assistants, many of them over the years. They speak about him with reverence.

Rich Lowry, whom I first met when he was a research assistant for Charles, describes him as “a profoundly humane man, courageous and kind, witty and thoughtful, principled and wise. A truly great soul.” David Hodges, another former research assistant, wrote: “To say that I loved working for him is an understatement. I not only loved the work, but I loved the man.”

One of the gifts in my life has been to be on the receiving end of Charles’s generosity of spirit. When I was a young writer he encouraged me, and he never stopped doing so. I benefited enormously from his wisdom along the way, and tried to share it with others, including when I worked in the White House. I invited him to the White House lecture series I hosted and organized meetings that he and other journalists, intellectuals and historians attended with President George W. Bush. Yet he always called things as he saw them. When he wrote in 2005 that the nomination of the Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, to the Supreme Court should be withdrawn, it was the kill shot for that nomination.

Charles, Bill Bennett, Charles Murray and I began to meet for lunch at a local restaurant every few months starting in the mid-1990s, and we have continued to do so, on and off, ever since. Mr. Murray once referred to these lunches as one of the little jewels that adorns life.

We talked about politics, of course, but we also discussed political philosophy, sports, religion, tales from our youth and family. (In a city where prominent figures often speak about their devotion to family rather than demonstrate it, Charles was the real deal.) We all benefited from the back and forth, from the refinement to our own ways of thinking. We asked one another a lot of questions along the lines of, “What do you think about X?” but mostly we benefited from the easy friendship and laughter.

A word about courage. It’s a quality Charles revered. He praised it in others and never once applied it to himself. He should have.

When he was 22, enrolled as a student in medical school, he hit his head at the bottom of a pool, broke his neck and injured his spinal chord. Charles used a wheelchair and had only partial use of his arms and hands. The fact that he graduated from medical school is itself remarkable. (After he broke his neck he spent 14 months in the hospital recovering.) He rarely spoke about his accident, and when he did, he did so in a relaxed, matter-of-fact manner, minimizing its impact. He once described his accident to me as “my one bad break,” adding, “Overall, I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand.” He was without an ounce of self-pity.

“All it means is whatever I do is a little bit harder and probably a little bit slower,” is how he’s put it. “And that’s basically it. Everybody has their cross to bear — everybody.” He went on to say: “It’s very easy to be characterized by the externalities in your life. I dislike people focusing on it. I made a vow when I was injured that it would never be what would characterize my life.” It never did, but it did reveal something quite admirable about him.

It is telling that the news of his terminal illness rocked the world of so many people, including those who didn’t personally know Charles. It has brought grief to me, because one of the people I most admired in life — for whom I have great affection and to whom I have looked for decades to help make sense of the world around us — has left it.

John F. Kennedy said, “The Greeks defined happiness as the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.” Charles Krauthammer lived a happy life.

Peter Wehner (@Peter Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.

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