Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Definition of Mensch

Published in National Review Online on June 21, 2018


It’s usually a bad idea to meet your idols, or to get to know your heroes. It isn’t fair to expect anyone to live up to the image of them that you build up in admiration of their work. And people are people—they disappoint.

But I say it’s usually a bad idea because there are exceptions, and for me Charles Krauthammer was the most exceptional of all. I’d idolized him for years by the time I finally got to know him a little—and came to idolize him only more.

He was a member of George W. Bush’s bioethics advisory commission in the early 2000s, and I worked on the staff. I had such a high opinion of him by then that no one could have been reasonably expected to live up to it. But Charles vastly exceeded my expectations because, while he was as brilliant in person as he seemed in writing and on television, I always also found him just so damned kind and happy.

That’s not to say he was approachable, exactly. I never stopped being intimidated by him. But he was deeply kind, even sweet in his way. I got to know him a little bit better over the years that followed, and the more I saw of him the more thoroughly impressive he was: a mensch in every sense.

The clarity of his mind and the force of his arguments were key to what I admired as a reader and viewer, of course. Like so many conservatives, I often found myself hoping Charles would use the following Friday’s column to write about some particular issue I was struggling with so that I’d know what to think about it. But what I came over time to admire about Charles Krauthammer the man was something more than brilliance or sharpness. Much more.

Dignity is ultimately the key to being a mensch. And in thinking about Charles in recent days as the seriousness of his condition became known, and especially after hearing he had died on Thursday, it was the dignity of the man that has stood out to me.

Dignity doesn’t mean solemnness. Charles had a great sense of humor and loved to puncture pompous windbags. He had fun too. I once got to take a brief ride with him in the specially outfitted van he drove, and while I didn’t get to see him employ “the deuce” I did come about as close to a heart attack as I can recall in my life, much to his amusement. Dignity, rather, runs deep, and it was always at the core of what he did and said.

Charles once wrote: “It has always been my intention to die at my desk.” And while he didn’t get his wish on that front, his final act was thoroughly characteristic in a more profound sense. His way of making the terrible news of his cancer public was true to the man—preternaturally dignified, and full of goodness, grace, and gratitude. His example in so dark an hour of his life was yet another reason to be grateful to him, and for him. Yet another cause for admiration.

RIP

— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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