“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster”: Charles Krauthammer 1950-2018

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster”: Charles Krauthammer 1950-2018

“CK,” Churchillian

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

KrauthammerHis 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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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)

Pres­i­dent 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.”)

* * *

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)

* * *

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

* * *

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 CK:

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

  1. 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.

  2. You con­tin­ue to sur­pass your­self. Thank you for shar­ing your schol­ar­ship with us.

  3. 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.

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