Having worked in Washington conservative circles for over a decade, I wish I had a great personal anecdote to share about Charles Krauthammer, who by all accounts was as wonderful a human being as he was a writer.
Unfortunately, on the few occasions on which I had the opportunity to meet him, I was too tongue-tied and bumbling to sustain any sort of conversation, not quite knowing what to say to a man who I felt I had so much to say.
As part of my job, I’ve had to interact with a number of public figures, and typically have had no qualms about pressing cabinet officials, presidential candidates, or members of Congress. Yet why is it that of all the people I’ve met in this city, I was so awestruck in the presence of another writer?
Of course, the answer is that it’s because Krauthammer wasn’t just another writer. In an era of YouTube and social media, when anybody with an Internet connection can spout out an opinion that could potentially go viral, it seems absurd to think of any political pundit as irreplaceable. Yet that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think of the sad passing of Charles Krauthammer. He is simply irreplaceable.
To start, Krauthammer was undeniably brilliant. After graduating from Harvard Medical School, he was well on his way to making a name for himself as a psychiatrist before changing course and entering the world of political writing. The fact that he was able to shift gears so seamlessly speaks to his mental agility.
But there are a lot of people who are brilliant. What was different about Krauthammer is that he was able to use his intellect to form opinions and then communicate them in an accessible way to broader audiences without dumbing down his arguments.
The 800-word column format presents a challenge to writers, who often struggle to make a broader point and provide enough evidence to back it up, without going into excessive detail. Krauthammer was a master of the format. Read through his columns, and they weren’t typically filled with fancy prose or lengthy Latin phrases. Instead, his intelligence came through in the clarity of his thought and his ability to work through issues with reason using just enough supporting evidence.
His column ran every Friday, and while the rest of us rushed to weigh in on the ongoing controversies in Washington that consumed any given week, he managed to write something that took a bigger picture view, simultaneously seeming obvious yet fresh. For many conservatives, his columns often expressed ideas that were kind of floating around in their minds, but that they couldn’t quite articulate as clearly. He coined the term the ”Reagan Doctrine” to describe President Ronald Reagan’s strategy to win the Cold War, and “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to diagnose the hysterical way that opponents reacted to President George W. Bush.
Under President Barack Obama, Krauthammer set the standard for substantive criticism that was harsh yet steered clear of the bile and conspiratorial thinking that tempted some conservative pundits. Whether the issue was Obamacare, the disastrous Iran deal, executive overreach, or his parting shot toward Israel at the U.N., Krauthammer offered blistering yet fair critiques of Obama’s presidency.
Krauthammer made no secret of his disapproval of President Trump and fretted about the awful choice in the 2016 election, yet in his final column written last year, he expressed relief that the guardrails of democracy seemed to be keeping Trump’s worst impulses in check.
Perhaps above all, Krauthammer managed to convey a sense of moral clarity, something that was on full display whenever he wrote about Israel, and was also demonstrated in a powerful 2004 column in which he grappled with the issue of stem cell research and where to draw the line on medical experimentation given the “competing human values” of searching for cures and respecting life.
“When I was 22 and a first-year medical student, I suffered a spinal-cord injury,” he wrote. “I have not walked in 32 years. I would be delighted to do so again. But not at any price. I think it is more important to bequeath to my son a world that retains a moral compass…”
Charles Krauthammer has left this world far too soon and will be sorely missed, but his legacy will not soon be forgotten.