Who is the most influential American columnist? According to an international survey the Financial Times published in 2006, the award goes to Charles Krauthammer, the 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator whose weekly column for the Washington Post is syndicated in some 200 papers (and who, incidentally, has been confined to a wheelchair since a diving accident in 1972). It is hard to avoid Krauthammer’s work. He is a contributing editor for both the New Republic and the Weekly Standard, where his essays appear regularly, and he writes frequently for many other publications, from Time to Commentary.
In its citation, the FT noted Krauthammer’s deep influence on US foreign policy. In the mid-1980s, he gave local habitation and a name to “The Reagan Doctrine”, the newly confident American posture toward the Soviet Union that went beyond containment and sought to be an exporter as well a guarantor of democracy.
Krauthammer has a knack for coining quietly evocative phrases to name inchoate political realities. It is a talent that goes beyond lexical inventiveness. In naming and describing the Reagan Doctrine, for example, he did not simply come up with a memorable term, he defined and laid out a new road map for US foreign policy. He did something similar in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when, in an essay called “The Unipolar Moment”, he presciently described America’s emerging new (albeit, he predicted, temporary) role as the world’s only superpower. That is conventional wisdom now, but as the Soviet Union crumbled most pundits were predicting a very different alchemy of political power sharing.
Krauthammer is also canny about the bloody crossroads where politics and pathology meet. Doubtless his achievements in this direction owe something to his training as a medical doctor and his early career as a psychiatrist. Certainly, the phenomenon he denominated Bush Derangement Syndrome (“the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush”) deserves an honoured place in the annals of mental epidemiology. Bush Derangement Syndrome is an incapacitating malady, spread by exposure to a wide variety of pathogens, but even acute sufferers from the illness could admit the genius of Krauthammer’s coinage.
Given Krauthammer’s prominence, you might think him a poor candidate for a column whose title is “Underrated”. But neither prominence nor political influence is quite the same thing as public esteem, and in that court Krauthammer has yet to get his due. A comment on the FT website when Krauthammer was named the most influential American columnist epitomises the reaction among the bien pensants. “You can’t be serious,” wrote an outraged reader, who went on to describe Krauthammer as “an apologist for the hard Right.”
In fact, Krauthammer is exceptionally difficult to categorise. He started his career in public life working as a psychiatrist for Jimmy Carter (not, alas, as his personal shrink, merely advising him on policy) and went on to be a speechwriter for (Vice-President) Walter Mondale. Not much aroma of hard-rightery from those precincts. Irving Kristol famously defined a “neo-conservative” as a liberal who had been mugged by reality, and perhaps Krauthammer suffered some such ambush while watching Reagan pit America against an “evil empire”.
Krauthammer’s greatest gift as a political commentator lies in his combination of political acumen with moral clarity. During the last US presidential campaign, for example, the herd of independent minds was unanimous in heaping ridicule on Sarah Palin after her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson. The coup de grâce was identified as the moment when Gibson asked Palin whether she agreed with the Bush doctrine. “In what sense, Charlie?” she asked. “After making her fish for the answer, Gibson grudgingly explained that the Bush doctrine ‘is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defence’.
Commenting on the interview, Krauthammer noted that he was well up on the Bush doctrine because he coined the phrase in the Weekly Standard in 2001. It did not, as Gibson suggested, mean a single position but rather described four separate foreign policy attitudes of which the ambition to bring liberty to the oppressed, not preemption, was the most salient.
Krauthammer’s perspicacity is galling to his detractors – how often events have proved him correct – but what really sends them round the bend is his moral clarity. For example, when Israel, having suffered hundreds of rocket attacks from Hamas, entered Gaza to put a stop to the carnage, the usual suspects demonstrated against Israel. Krauthammer calmly pointed out that in this conflict “one combatant is committed to causing the most civilian pain and suffering on both sides. The other combatant is committed to saving as many lives as possible”.
That many apparently rational people hesitate to say which was which is one reason that Charles Krauthammer is sadly underrated. If President Obama has any sense, he will listen to the incorruptible, if critical, voice of Krauthammer rather than to the flatterers who surround him.