“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster”: Charles Krauthammer 1950-2018
The best editor I ever had wrote: “There is nothing to be said when a friend dies, even among people whose trade is words.” Much nevertheless is being said about Charles Krauthammer. That is fitting, and it is what we have the Internet for. (Some of the most touching tributes are linked below. Fox News produced a very fine tribute, “Krauthammer in His Own Words” click here.)
My editor meant, rather, that for some, words are inadequate against “a big, empty hole where there was once someone you loved. And all the talk in the world won’t change that. Everybody who knew him well misses him.” For CK, those who think they knew him well include millions who encountered him only as a face on the evening news. And were mesmerized by his intellect, eloquence, humor and collegiality.
All those are very Churchillian traits. So is courage. Unlike many of those talking faces, Dr. Krauthammer never indulged in introspection or self-pity. In his forties and his seventies, Winston Churchill was thrown violently out office. He ignored it and rebuilt his life, declaring: “Never give in.” In his twenties, young Charles dove into a swimming pool, banged his head, and was confined forever after to a wheelchair. He ignored it and became a psychiatrist, a writer, syndicated columnist, a husband and father, a TV personality, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Now that is a Churchillian performance.
Things That Matter
His book is one of a score I would take with me if confined to a desert island. Significantly, among its nearly ninety columns and essays, the Churchill chapter ranks second—in Part I (entitled “Personal”)—after a piece on his beloved brother Marcel. Churchill was a very personal subject to Dr. Krauthammer, who was always quoting him (accurately). Many chapters touch on Churchill’s saga: the Middle East, wars in Asia, bioethics and the future, serious enquiries into the nature of man and the universe. (Churchill covered those in Thoughts and Adventures.)
Churchill-related columns include insults (“In Defense of the F-Word”), the “Joy of Losing” (a thing Sir Winston knew something about), how to define democracy (Churchill laid out precepts, Krauthammer laid out Albania), the Holocaust, Zionism, Language, Leadership, the question of Germany’s “collective guilt.” There’s plenty here to interest Churchillians.
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And much else besides. CK was fascinated by “the innocence of dogs, the cunning of cats, the elegance of nature, the wonders of space…fashions and follies…manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums social and ethical. Is a doctor ever permitted to kill a patient wishing to die? Why in the age of feminism do we still use the phrase ‘women and children?’” Churchill wrote an essay asking, “Are There Men on the Moon?” Krauthammer studied Enrico Fermi and wondered: “With so many habitable planets out there, why in God’s name have we never heard a word from a single one of them?” Fermi’s answer, as CK explained, is disquieting. These are subjects, he wrote, that “fill my days, some trouble my nights.”
I wrote all this and more in a review, the best words I could summon up. I sent it to my hero through a mutual friend with a copy of Churchill by Himself. He didn’t have to reply, but of course, being CK, he did: “How kind and generous was your assessment of my writing. And how gratifying to receive such appreciation. As you know, being a writer as well, the point of writing is less self-expression than trying to express and impress certain ideas on others. Your kind review makes me think that I might have succeeded in some way.”
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Fortune and the magic name of Churchill gave me the chance to meet him twice. The first was at a dinner for Sir Martin Gilbert hosted by a World War II Veteran’s Association in 2004. I presented him with the Sir Winston Churchill Birthday Book, which a friend and I had just republished. It contains a Churchill quote for every day of the year, with space opposite for penciling in someone’s birthday. It has an uncanny knack for providing suitable quotations for everyone. CK’s birthday was March 13th: “There is always much to be said for not attempting more than you can do….But this principle…has its exceptions.” Said Charles: “He had that one right.”
The second was just a few years ago at a Hillsdale College Churchill seminar. That video is not online, but I recommend one that is. In 2011, CK spoke to 50,000 people (99% online) at a Hillsdale Constitution Day celebration. He spoke with piercing clarity, as Brit Hume said. “He was as kind a man as I ever known. His personal grace and gentleness were just remarkable. He was one of a kind.”
One should not attach any great importance to those encounters, and hope I don’t sound like a groupie. But since Bill Buckley died, he was my go-to source of political wisdom. Forever after his Hillsdale appearance, whenever I was unsure of something I would say: I have to read Charles Krauthammer, who will tell me what to think.”
“Hinged” : Krauthammer at Large
I must present a few blades from my sheaf of Krauthammeriana.
Career choices: “How do you go from Walter Mondale to Fox News? The answer is short and simple. I was young once … It is true that I’m a psychiatrist in remission. People ask me the difference [between psychiatry] and what I do in Washington and the answer is rather simple. In both lines of work I deal every day with people who have delusions of grandeur. The only difference is that here in Washington these deluded have access to nuclear weapons….” (2011)
Donald Trump: After a heated news conference, CNN’s Jake Tapper called the President “unhinged.” Dr. Krauthammer (a devout Never Trumper before the election) replied: “I found it entirely hinged … The high point was when he mentioned me. I thought I was going to be the surprise new national security adviser, so I was somewhat disappointed. The country is really divided. He’s not the one who caused it, but his supporters will love this, and those who are skeptical about him are going to wonder about how hinged he is.” (2017; this reminded me of Churchill using “choate” as the opposite of “inchoate.”)
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The Universe: “I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as a public service—to reassure my readers that this most unread bestseller is indeed as inscrutable as they thought.” Speaking of the attempts to contact alien life forms (Voyagers 1 and 2), CK noted that the greetings they carry, on behalf of all mankind, are from UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, a Nazi. “Makes you wish that we’d immediately sent out a Voyager 3 beeping frantically: Please disregard all previous messages.” (2000)
Vladimir Putin: “Being a good, well trained KGB agent, he lies with a smile. I love the fact that this week he’s been saying it could’ve been Russian patriots—who are artists who act on their own—who might have hacked. But of course the state is innocent. Nothing like that happens in Russia without the state. He knows it, we know it, but he’s a very good liar.” (2017)
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Baseball: Rick Ankiel was the first player since Babe Ruth to have won at least ten games as a pitcher and also to hit at least fifty home runs. Recalling how Ankiel’s pitching career was destroyed by a nervous breakdown, and how he came fighting back as an outfielder, CK summoned up his own life’s impulses: “The catastrophe that awaits everyone from a simple false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter—every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether—and how—we ever come back.” (2011)
And after our beloved Washington Nationals set the team record of eight home runs in a game, including four in a row and the all-time record of five in an inning: “Oh, the glory! With the White House on fire, the Congress in chaos, and the world going to hell in a handbasket, we need happy news like this. This is why God created baseball, late on the sixth day.” (2014)
Friends and Colleagues
[Churchill and Krauthammer] have many things in common. Both have a wit as dry as a properly-made martini. They both exhibit an unparalleled intellectual capaciousness, enabling a supremely wide range in their writing. Both men dictate their prose. Charles may think my comparison of him to the great statesman is extravagant, but I do not think so, for this simple reason: Charles rightly refers to Churchill in his essay as “the indispensable man.” Well, for those of us trying to make sense of what is happening in our country right now, Charles is our indispensable man. —Steve Hayward
I remember attending an event at the Kennedy Center which Charles and his wife put on to celebrate ancient Hebrew music, and my wife saying to me, “We wouldn’t be here for anybody but Charles Krauthammer.” On the 4th of July Charles would have all his colleagues and friends out at his summer home on the Chesapeake, but it wasn’t all hot dogs and cokes, it was something special. Charles would have each of us read a passage from the Declaration of Independence. Nothing was more emotional than being among people of different political perspectives….attracted to a fine intellect, Robyn’s husband, Daniel’s dad, who loved America. —Juan Williams
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Like a lot of his friends we started out as ideological adversaries …We spent many dinners together. I had the foolishness to challenge him at chess. I never beat him but they were very instructive games. He would even correct my moves before he clobbered them. We spent a lot of time splitting theological hairs … He knew Aquinas, the principle articulator of Catholic theology, better than I did, and I studied it formally… It is said that “no great man is a good man.” Charles was an exception to that. —Andrew Napolitano
The loss to America is dwarfed by the loss to his family and friends, but nevertheless it is enormous. Especially at this time. The nation is deeply divided. Americans are having difficulty separating fact from fiction. Today’s debates lack the intellectual rigor and civility that Charles championed in his columns, his appearances on Fox News, and his many speeches and essays. When Donald Trump emerged on the political scene, Charles was no cheerleader. But after the election, Charles insisted on treating Mr. Trump with the fairness and respect due the president of the United States. Still, he kept watch for dangers to the institutions the Founding Fathers put in place-the “guardrails” that constrain any president’s behavior. —Irwin Stelzer
May we all say this at the end…
Two weeks ago he wrote to all to say that his fight with cancer was lost. “I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life—full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”
That does not diminish our loss, however eloquent and typical of him. He died as he had lived, brave and unaffected, facing the most traumatic of human experiences. I have quoted this passage before, but it is irresistible now. It fits him so perfectly—almost as if Churchill in 1931, writing of Arthur Balfour, intended it for Charles:
As I observed him regarding with calm, firm and cheerful gaze the approach of Death, I felt how foolish the Stoics were to make such a fuss about an event so natural and so indispensable to mankind. But I felt also the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets its fall shivered into fragments upon the ground.
6 thoughts on ““If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster”: Charles Krauthammer 1950-2018”
I always looked out for his syndicated column in The Miami Herald. In 2006 I’d just learned about my brother’s HIV diagnosis around the same time I read “Marcel, My Brother.” Wish I’d kept a copy of what I wrote him then, for I felt I’d face my own loss soon. With advances in this field my brother is alive and well to this day. As for me now I will miss him terribly and hope that many will pick up and carry on where he has left off. My most sincere sympathy to his dear wife and son.
That article your wrote brought tears to my eyes. So beautifully written and so sad to read CK passed away. What courage he had. Thank-you for sharing.
Thanks to all. I loved that man.
Bravo. I’ve sent it to the family. We are very close and it is a tragedy all around.
You continue to surpass yourself. Thank you for sharing your scholarship with us.
Thank you. I watched the tribute last night and your article here would have had a place on it. I discovered CK back in the ’90s as a syndicated columnist in the Naples Daily News. I would often clip out one of his columns and my Dad and I would discuss them. I didn’t know anything about his personal life then but was delighted to find and follow him on Fox and have like so many missed him this past year. After reading Things that Matter I’d hoped that one day he’d be our guest speaker at a Churchill Birthday dinner. We have, as you said, lost a great man.