Desert Island Books: Charles Krauthammer’s “Things that Matter”

Desert Island Books: Charles Krauthammer’s “Things that Matter”

Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Mat­ter: Three Decades of Pas­sions, Pas­times and Pol­i­tics (388 pages, Crown Forum, 2013). In remem­ber­ing Dr. Krautham­mer, I said this book was one of a score I’d take with me if con­fined to a desert island. Here’s why. 

The read­er will ask: why am I plug­ging to a Churchill audi­ence a set of essays by a polit­i­cal colum­nist? Answer: because many are not polit­i­cal, yet reflect Churchillian thought. More­over, Dr. Krauthammer’s essay about Churchill is one of the best sum­maries of the man I’ve ever read. By any­body. Any­where.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, in a book of over near­ly nine­ty columns and essays, the Churchill arti­cle ranks second—in Part I (enti­tled “Personal”)—after a piece on the author’s beloved broth­er, Mar­cel, who also died young after an hero­ic strug­gle. Churchill was a very per­son­al top­ic of Charles Krauthammer’s. He fre­quent­ly quot­ed Sir Win­ston, always accu­rate­ly.

Krauthammer’s Slant

Meg Green­field, long­time edi­to­r­i­al page edi­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Post, called the Krauthammer’s col­umn “inde­pen­dent and hard to peg polit­i­cal­ly. It’s a very tough col­umn. There’s no ‘trendy’ in it. You nev­er know what is going to hap­pen next.” This reminds me of Churchill. So much does. They both “crossed the aisle.” Dr. Krautham­mer was once Wal­ter Mon­dale’s speech­writer. Churchill end­ed up a Tory, “CK” a con­ser­v­a­tive. Yet it’s risky to label either of them. Per­haps we might bet­ter define them both as clas­si­cal lib­er­als.

Krauthammer’s words make every­one lis­ten, and some­times recon­sid­er. For instance, he recent­ly con­vinced me to aban­don tra­di­tion and sup­port a name change for the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins: “It is sim­ple decen­cy to stop using a slur.” Like me, he root­ed for under­dogs. We were base­ball fanat­ics who back the Wash­ing­ton Nation­als. Being Nation­als fans is no easy task. If you want easy, root for the Yan­kees.

Of course if you’re going to read Krauthammer’s columns, it helps if you agree with him. (When­ev­er I don’t have an answer to some cur­rent ques­tion I say that I have to read him first so I’ll know what to think.) But look: I have very lib­er­al friends who also read and admire him. His death occa­sioned state­ments of respect from all areas of opin­ion, except the fever swamps. Don’t suc­cumb to labels. He had his heroes, left and right. Buy the book to enjoy ele­gant writ­ing, the pre­cise lay­er­ing of facts and log­ic, by a deeply car­ing man who applied seri­ous brain­pow­er to con­tem­plat­ing every­thing from “Borat” to the Cos­mos.

Churchillian Parallels

But why spend mon­ey on a 388-page book less than 1% of which is specif­i­cal­ly Churchill? Because there’s a lot of oth­er mate­r­i­al that touch­es his saga: the Mid­dle East, wars in Asia, bioethics, seri­ous enquiries into the nature of man and the uni­verse. (Churchill cov­ered that in Thoughts and Adven­tures.)

Churchill-relat­ed columns include insults (“In Defense of the F-Word”), the “Joy of Los­ing” (some­thing Sir Win­ston knew 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.

* * *

“Things That Matter”—to the author as to Churchill—include: “the inno­cence of dogs, the cun­ning of cats, the ele­gance of nature, the won­ders of space…the dif­fer­ence between his­tor­i­cal guilt and his­tor­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty, 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 read H.G. Wells and wrote a piece ask­ing, “Are There Men on the Moon?” Krautham­mer stud­ied 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, in Krauthammer’s words, that “fill my days, some trou­ble my nights.”

Unlike many pun­dits, Dr. Krautham­mer laughed at him­self and cul­ti­vat­ed a sense of humor. He 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), he men­tions that the greet­ings they car­ry, on behalf of all mankind, are from the 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.”

Indispensable Man

Finest Hour 104, Autumn 1999. The cov­er was a spoof, but it made Krauthammer’s point.

Do you to know what CK wrote about Win­ston Churchill? He spoke of him fre­quent­ly on the air, but this essay is from the run-up to Time magazine’s “Per­son of the Cen­tu­ry” sweep­stakes in 1999. I’ve quot­ed it so often that I’ve almost mem­o­rized it. In Krauthammer’s view, Churchill was the only pos­si­ble Per­son of the 20th Cen­tu­ry. Ein­stein (Time’s pick) was “the best mind” of the cen­tu­ry, true. But if he hadn’t invent­ed all those the­o­ries, some­body else would have. Churchill, on the oth­er hand, was indis­pens­able. CK wrote:

* * *

Take away Churchill in 1940…and Britain would have set­tled with Hitler—or worse. Nazism would have pre­vailed. Hitler would have achieved what no oth­er tyrant, not even Napoleon, had ever achieved: mas­tery of Europe. Civ­i­liza­tion would have descend­ed into a dark­ness the likes of which it had nev­er known.”

In essence, the rap on Churchill is that he was a 19th cen­tu­ry man para­chut­ed into the 20th. But is that not pre­cise­ly to the point? It took a 19th cen­tu­ry man—traditional in habit, ratio­nal in thought, con­ser­v­a­tive in temper—to save the 20th cen­tu­ry from itself…. The orig­i­nal­i­ty of the 20th sure­ly lay in its pol­i­tics. It invent­ed the police state and the com­mand econ­o­my, mass mobi­liza­tion and mass pro­pa­gan­da, mech­a­nized mur­der and rou­tinized terror—a breath­tak­ing cat­a­log of polit­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty.

And the 20th is a sin­gle sto­ry because his­to­ry saw fit to lodge the entire episode in a sin­gle cen­tu­ry. Total­i­tar­i­an­ism turned out to be a cul-de-sac. It came and went. It has a begin­ning and an end, 1917 and 1991, a run of 75 years neat­ly nes­tled into this cen­tu­ry. That is our sto­ry.

* * *

I’m not going to spoil it by leak­ing any more. Here is the keynote: it comes at the end. We are asked: who are the heroes of the last cen­tu­ry? “Who slew the drag­on?” CK pro­vides a list, from the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion to FDR, de Gaulle, Tru­man, John Paul, Rea­gan…. “But above all vic­to­ry required one man with­out whom the fight would have been lost at the begin­ning. It required Win­ston Churchill.”

One more, very Churchillian thing: there’s no self-absorp­tion here. Churchill was thrown out in 1915 and 1945. He sim­ply ignored it, rebuilt his life and career. A third of the way into Krauthammer’s life, young Charles dove into a swim­ming pool and banged his head. He spent the last forty-four years of his life in a wheel­chair. He also became a psy­chi­a­trist, a syn­di­cat­ed colum­nist, a writer, a hus­band and father, a TV per­son­al­i­ty, a Pulitzer Prize win­ner. Now that’s a Churchill­lian per­for­mance.


This review is updat­ed from the orig­i­nal in The Churchillian, a pub­li­ca­tion of the Win­ston Churchill Memo­r­i­al and Library, Ful­ton, Mis­souri, Win­ter 2013. To hear Dr. Krautham­mer him­self on his book at Pol­i­tics and Prose Book­shop, click here.

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