In 1993, Charles Krauthammer delivered the commencement address at McGill University. Some 20 years earlier, he told the graduates, he had been sitting in the same seats. “What I shall offer you today,” he said, “is a reconnaissance report from a two-decade life expedition into the world beyond McGill College Avenue.” Sardonically likening himself to Marco Polo, Krauthammer said he had returned to his alma mater “without silk, with few stories, indeed, with but three pieces of sage advice.”
The lessons? Don’t lose your head, Krauthammer explained. Look outward and avoid the insularity and parochialism of narcissism. And save the best.
Krauthammer, who died of cancer this week, was born in 1950 to Jews who had fled the Holocaust. He exercised the same power over Gen-X and Millennial conservatives that William F. Buckley held for an earlier generation. But Krauthammer’s conservatism was as unique as his biography—and revealing of the intellectual and political currents of the latter half of the American century. Krauthammer, like Walter Lippmann, was not only an influential columnist and essayist. He was emblematic of his times.
Krauthammer went from McGill to Oxford to study political philosophy, only to zigzag to Harvard where he enrolled in medical school and became chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. As he practiced medicine, however, he found he could not escape the call of politics—upon which, he would later write, all else depends. A job at the National Institutes of Health was his ticket to D.C. From there he wrote speeches for Vice President Walter Mondale. The election of Ronald Reagan left him out of a job. He found refuge at The New Republic.
The flagship publication of American liberalism had become a home of sorts for liberals uncomfortable with the direction of the Democratic Party after George McGovern’s presidential nomination in 1972. Krauthammer described his foreign policy at the time as liberal internationalism: taking a hard line toward the Soviet Union, offering rock-ribbed support of the Jewish State of Israel, standing for the furtherance of democratic and pluralistic values abroad, and being willing to defend the Great Society at home. Increasingly, however, he found that he had more in common with Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy than with Jimmy Carter’s or even Walter Mondale’s.
Key to this development was the so-called nuclear freeze—an issue where activists on the left, in his view, were losing their heads. “Indeed, those who refused to lose their heads to the hysteria were diagnosed as suffering from some psychological disorder,” he said at McGill. “Ten years later, with nuclear weapons still capable of destroying the world many times over—not a word about the coming apocalypse. The fever has passed.” But there were other inflammations. And by the late 1980s, this Great Society liberal was sounding more and more like a Reagan Republican.
His new allies were somewhat leery. While Krauthammer became more skeptical of the welfare state’s ability to achieve desired results, and more supportive of a constitutionalism that judged government action by its adherence to the original meaning of the amended text, he was never a social conservative. He was suspicious of certainty. As he put it in a tribute to his hero Isaiah Berlin, “The true heart of the liberal political tradition is the belief that no one has the secret as to what is the ultimate end and goal of life. There are many ends, each deserving respect, and it is out of this very pluribus that we get freedom.”
This skepticism made him wary of all those, including religious conservatives, determined to impose a singular truth on a population of 300 million Americans. “Freedom is being left alone,” he said in the same column. “Freedom is a sphere of autonomy, an inviolable political space that no authority may invade.” And so Krauthammer often found himself at a distance from conservative positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, intelligent design, and the place of religion in public life. In these divergences he became representative of a Beltway conservatism that, while allied with social conservatives and often enjoying their support, nonetheless stood apart from the concerns and beliefs that motivated them to political action.
Neither Berlin nor Krauthammer’s other lodestar, John Stuart Mill, were without intellectual problems. Berlin, Krauthammer said, was not a creator but a curer. His work was a tonic, dissolving the pretensions of political romanticism in an acid bath of empirical moderation. But “the central paradox” of such liberalism, he wrote, was that “it made pluralism—the denial of one supreme, absolute value—the supreme, absolute value.” It was a small jump from embracing multiple “ends of life” to fuzzyheaded and navel-gazing relativism.
But, looking beyond himself, Krauthammer found that lines must be drawn. And it was in the arena of foreign policy where Krauthammer drew such lines most sharply—not to mention, controversially. His support for the anti-Communist contras in Nicaragua cost The New Republic subscriptions. His lifelong commitment to Israel’s survival made him the subject of vitriolic criticism. His proclamation of the “unipolar moment” after the fall of the Soviet Union, and his support for the first and second Iraq wars, both established the lines of argument for foreign-policy debate in the 1990s and 2000s and revealed cleavages within the conservative coalition that eventually would result in the rise of Donald Trump.
Krauthammer opposed a blanket ban on torture. “It would be a gross dereliction of duty for any government not to keep Khalid Sheikh Mohammed isolated, disoriented, alone, despairing, cold and sleepless, in some godforsaken hidden location in order to find out what he knew about plans for future mass murder,” he wrote in The Weekly Standard in 2005. America, he said four years later, could remain global hegemon through sheer will. “Decline is a choice. More than a choice, a temptation.” His circumspection and hesitance to adopt uniform rules was relaxed in the global arena, where he believed international law held no force and the survival of freedom could be ensured only through the exercise of raw power.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Krauthammer became more than a public intellectual. He became a television celebrity. His appearances on Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier introduced him to an audience of millions. For conservatives suspicious of Obama’s “New Foundation,” Krauthammer’s evening commentaries were homiletic. They provided comfort and guidance: comfort that such a brilliant man shared one’s opposition to the president and the direction of history, and guidance in how to criticize the progressivism of Obama and his inheritors.
Krauthammer was aware of his peculiar status as a Harvard-trained psychiatrist holding forth multiple times a day on Rupert Murdoch’s cable-news channel. “I was once a speechwriter for Walter Mondale,” Krauthammer said in 2009. “How do I explain that? Easy. Being born one generation too late, working for Mondale was the closest I could get to being a Trotskyite—which, as you all know, is the royal road to neo-conservatism.”
Like many, I became aware of Krauthammer through television. But not through Fox. Like Krauthammer discovering Berlin at age 19, I came across the good doctor sometime in the early 1990s, during one of his appearances on the syndicated public-affairs show Inside Washington. As a teenager in suburban Virginia interested in politics and foreign affairs, I was captivated by his clarity, his mordant wit, his breadth of knowledge, his incisiveness, his willingness to entertain all arguments, and his adamantine defense of democracy, freedom, and pluralism. Then I discovered I was one of the lucky ones: I also could read him in my local paper, The Washington Post.
No more. Saddened by his death, I find myself grateful his words remain. For they are the touchstones of Krauthammer’s method, interests, passions, and commitments, of his wit, tragic view of life, curiosity, skepticism, and intellectual seriousness and credibility. They can’t be ignored, just as he could not be ignored. And they are his bequest to all of us.
“Conserving what’s best in the past is, well, conservative advice,” he said at McGill in 1993. “It was the advice of Chesterton who defined tradition as the democracy of the dead. Tradition is the ultimate democracy because it extends the franchise to generations past and benefits from their hard-earned wisdom.”
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