About Charles K. | Jay Nordlinger |
The National Review
Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger wrote about Charles Krauthammer and his posthumous collection in the February 25 issue of National Review.
Below, he expands that piece, in the style of his Impromptus column.
Charles Krauthammer wrote steadily for almost 40 years — but he was not a book-writer. He wrote essays, columns, speeches, etc. This is true of other top-rate and influential writers as well. Isaiah Berlin, for one. Irving Kristol, for another. Krauthammer was a good friend of the latter’s. And appreciations of both men — Berlin and Kristol — appear in a new Krauthammer collection.
- In 2009, I had a long talk with Charles and wrote about him, here. Have a sentence from that piece: “Sometime in his student career, he read Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, and that, along with John Stuart Mill, gave him something like a foundation.”
Here is another sentence, or a few more:
The late Irving Kristol, father of neoconservatism, famously gave “two cheers for capitalism.” How about Krauthammer? He admires Kristol no end and has much in common with him. But he will go as high as “2.8 cheers” — impressive for someone who once supported LBJ’s Great Society.
- The just-published collection has a predecessor, Things That Matter. It was published in 2013. The new one, Krauthammer compiled with his son, Daniel. It’s called “The Point of It All.” I think of a title from Amos Elon: “The Pity of It All.” This is a sadder title, to be sure. (The subtitle of that bookis “A Portrait of Jews in Germany, 1743–1933.”)
The Point of It All is very wide-ranging, a true Krauthammer sampler. This is Krauthammer in full, or very nearly so. It is a book that says, “This is what he believed. This is who he was.” As such, it is invaluable.
- A major topic of this book is politics, as you would expect. Krauthammer lived and worked in Washington, D.C., his entire career. He hammered the government, as everyone does, but he did not despise it, or politics. On the contrary. Listen to him on Meg Greenfield, his editor at the Washington Post: “She had great respect for what Washington does: weigh deep and often ancient arguments and try from that to fashion action. She had respect for the difficulty of this Sisyphean task and for the fallibility of the men and women engaged in it.” . . .
- A word — a further word — about D.C. politics, or the broad world of Washington. One day, Dick Cheney hosted a bunch of conservative journalists at his home, the official vice-presidential residence. When he noticed Charles — I don’t think Cheney knew he would be there — he bowed slightly and said, “I’m honored.”
- In his introduction to The Point of It All, Daniel Krauthammer writes that “the core political focus of this book is on the nature and the future of liberal democracy and limited government.” His father called liberal democracy “the most free, most humane, most decent political system ever invented by man.” It has foes on all sides, needless to say. Last year, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader, declared, “The era of liberal democracy is over.” Is it? There are always new chapters to be written, dark and light. . .
- About the Middle East, he wrote regularly, always keeping an eye on it. One day, he had a column about Israel — another one. I sent him a note, saying, “Charles, I find that I can barely write about the Arab–Israeli conflict anymore, so weary am I from doing it, year after year, decade after decade. I’m glad you’re not weary — or that you push through it, to say the necessary, again.” He replied, “I know exactly of your weariness. My reluctance to write about it once again is enormous. It’s only a sense of duty — and the shocking realization of how few are prepared to say the obvious truth anymore — that makes me do it.”
- Norman Podhoretz believes that George W. Bush will turn out like Truman: scorned during his presidency and immediately after, and appreciated later. Krauthammer believes the same thing, as you will see in this collection. About Barack Obama, he writes almost bitterly (which is rare for him) — because Obama, in Krauthammer’s estimation, inherited victory in Iraq (agonizingly achieved) and threw it away.
- Krauthammer is a great explainer of, and believer in, deterrence. This is clear in his writings about NATO, for example. You have to commit to Article 5, he says. (This is the plank of the North Atlantic Treaty that says an attack on one is an attack on all.) If you don’t, you have undermined deterrence — and thus invited aggression, the very thing you want to prevent.
In 2017, he made a controversial statement, and utterly characteristic:
Some claim that putting America first is a reassertion of American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it is the antithesis. It makes America no different from all the other countries that define themselves by a particularist blood-and-soil nationalism. What made America exceptional, unique in the world, was defining its own national interest beyond its narrow economic and security needs to encompass the safety and prosperity of a vast array of allies.
Them’s fighting words — but Krauthammer did not shrink from a fight, when the topic mattered. He was princely in manners, but no violet.
- He could write on matters foreign and domestic. Even extraterrestrial. (Krauthammer had an abiding interest in space. It was one of his few interests I did not share. Chess was another.) Krauthammer was besotted with America, and pushed assimilation, hard. He wanted the New World to be different from the Old. “Without ever having thought it through,” he lamented, “we are engaged in unmaking the American union and encouraging the very tribalism that is the bane of the modern world.”
He did not write those words in recent years, but rather in 1990.
• I’m reminded of something. Let me give you a little biography (his). The below is from that 2009 piece I wrote about him:
Krauthammer was born in 1950, in New York City. But, when he was six, his family moved to Montreal, where he grew up. He later realized that he could not stay in Quebec, to make his career. The reason was this: He thought he would like to have a role in public life — maybe something in government. And, to be blunt about it, Quebec was no place for a Jew with that kind of ambition. Its political culture was more like that of Europe than like that of English Canada or America. A Jew was always an outsider, or even an “alien” element. Besides which, Quebec’s politics were consumed with one issue: separatism, independence. To Krauthammer, this was “one of the most trivial issues on the planet,” and certainly not one to spend a life or career on. Krauthammer retains a deep general admiration for Canada, whatever its flaws and annoyances. . .
- All politics and no play makes Jack, or Charles, a dull boy. The Point of It All has columns about chess — a game that Krauthammer played well. (One of his opponents was Natan Sharansky, another good player.) In addition, the book has a column or two about baseball, which Krauthammer loved (as does his fellow conservative columnist at the Washington Post, George Will). . .
So, Krauthammer has his enthusiasms. One of the best collections I know is called, in fact, “Enthusiasms.” It is by Bernard Levin, the British journalist, and it was published in 1983. The book has chapters on cities, walking, Shakespeare, music, and more.
Would you like to know whom the book is dedicated to? Arianna Stassinopoulos, now Huffington. (I asked her once, “How does it feel to be the dedicatee of such a great book?” It felt good.) . . .
Reading Charles, I had the sensation of reading an old conservatism, even if it is recently “old.” You could even call it a paleoconservatism.
- I once quoted to him something that Bill Buckley said about Paul Johnson (in his introduction to an anthology, The Quotable Paul Johnson): Johnson is so routinely excellent, it’s possible to take him for granted. But one shouldn’t. Krauthammer is routinely excellent too — and not to be taken for granted.
- A young writer — or an old one, or any in between — can find a good example in Krauthammer. Here he is in a 2013 interview: “You’re betraying your whole life if you don’t say what you think — and you don’t say it honestly and bluntly.” Here he is in a 2017 email (to me): “I must admit that when I write these days I have the feeling that everything I say is so perfectly obvious that there’s no need to write it. Except that these days, that’s all the more reason to write it.”
Writing the obvious is an underappreciated act — because the obvious is not apparent to all, ever.
- Back to Isaiah Berlin, and the Four Essays on Liberty. Krauthammer read them when he was in college. And when Berlin died in 1997, Krauthammer wrote, “Four Essays is available everywhere. Buy it. Make your children read it before they go to college. . . . And keep one copy at home.” I say the same of The Point of It All.
I intend to refer to it for many years to come — going to the index and asking, “What did Charles have to say about this? Anything?” (The answer will probably be yes.) Journalism is ephemeral, by nature. “It’s fish wrap by Friday,” goes an old saying. Rick Brookhiser once pointed out to me that the very word “day” is in journalism (jour). It’s meant to last a day.
This makes me all the more grateful for, and delighted with, The Point of It All. It is Charles bundled up — a permanent, portable Charles. In addition to being a stellar book, it is a great service.
Read the entire interview and comments at https://news.yahoo.com/charles-k-113050405.html;_ylt=Awr9KRGtfHRc3UkAaHBXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEyaGc2dGVoBGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjcwMTNfMQRzZWMDc2M-
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