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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