Underrated: Charles Krauthammer

The greatest American journalist of his generation, who overcame severe disability but has died in his sixties

Underrated
(Illustration by Michael Daley)

This summer has taken a heavy toll of American writers and thinkers. First the nation’s leading novelists, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth; then, within a week of each other, the greatest living scholars of, respectively, Russia and the Muslim world: Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis. All these men lived on into ripe old age; Lewis was even a centenarian. Now, though, comes more tragic news: Charles Krauthammer has died aged just 68.

For more than three decades, Kraut-hammer has been the best American pundit of his generation. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post and commentator for Fox News, he is more than a household name — he is a giant of journalism. As a psychiatrist, he has made major contributions, in particular to our knowledge of bipolar disorder. And he has done all this despite being paralysed since a diving accident in his first year at Harvard Medical School. He spent four decades refusing to be defined by his disability: “It seemed to me the only way to live.”

Yet on this side of the Atlantic, Krauthammer is underrated. That is because he belongs to the select band  known as neoconservatives: in Irving Kristol’s words, liberals mugged by reality. Neocons will always be sneered at in Europe. Their uncompromising patriotism is unnerving for “post-national” devotees of the European Union. Their cosmopolitanism challenges the stereotype of the parochial American conservative. And their commitment to the promotion of democracy is unsettling for Europeans, to whom collaboration with or appeasement of tyrants is second nature. In particular, the role of Israel as an oasis of democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East commands American neoconservatives’ allegiance, whereas Europeans across the political spectrum tend to support the corrupt, autocratic and openly anti-Semitic Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that it spends some $360 million a year — nearly half of the foreign aid it receives — sponsoring terrorists.

Krauthammer has been a Democrat as well as a democrat. Yet after writing speeches for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980, he turned to Ronald Reagan and ever since he has given qualified support to Republican administrations. The only one he refused to vote for was Donald Trump. At the time of the election in 2016, he had grave doubts about Trump’s fitness for office. Though too ill to write or appear on TV in recent months, he would probably have supported most of the foreign policy decisions that the President has made. His worst fears about Trump have not been realised — so far.
Krauthammer preferred to call himself a “democratic realist”, rather than a neoconservative, but in truth this is a distinction without a difference. He had a remarkable gift for the one-liner. It was he, not Reagan, who invented the “Reagan Doctrine” to describe the rollback of Communist dictatorships in the 1980s. It was he who came up with the “unipolar moment” to describe American dominance after the Cold War — a moment that has endured to this day, whatever Messrs Putin and Xi may like to think. If it were up to Krauthammer, indeed, that moment would stretch out indefinitely, like the nunc stans (“eternal now”) of the scholastic philosophers.

And yet nobody was more aware than he of the precariousness of power. Krauthammer kept his distance from patrons of all kinds. He had a healthy disrespect for pomp and circumstance. He loved England, having studied at Oxford, before his accident, but could never see the point of the monarchy.

Krauthammer has always been a deeply cultured man, with an old-fashioned love of learning and the arts. Together with his urbane and courageous wife Robbie, he founded Pro Musica Hebraica, a charity with the aim of rediscovering the rich but largely unfamiliar heritage of classical Jewish music. An enthusiastic chess player, Krauthammer has demonstrated the superiority of his analytical skills to the less rigorous methods of those who see politics as a game of chance. “This is pretty high-level chess,” was his comment on the endgame of the Isis caliphate. We shall sorely miss his ability to look several moves ahead.

The deepest significance of Krauthammer, however, consists in the existential choice that he made. Here is a man of consummate intellectual abilities who, faced with a devastating physical disability, chose to dedicate his life’s work to the service of his country. It would have been entirely natural to have concentrated his formidable energies on contributing to medical science, which had granted him a new lease of life. Instead, he opted for the unpredictable career of a freelance journalist, with all the risks and sacrifices that entailed.

The best monument to Krauthammer is the inspiration that he has offered to future generations of journalists. In his valedictory “note to readers”, he wrote: “I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small part in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.” He is too modest: it was not a small part, but a colossal one. Charles Krauthammer has helped guide not only America’s destiny, but that of Western civilisation.