Jackson Doughart
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Charles Krauthammer's achievement

Prince Arthur Herald, 27 November 2013

The practice of journalists praising one another is in no short supply, as suggested by the number of awards given annually for “excellence” in writing. And the decoration of various unimpressive persons with supposedly-important recognitions (Thomas Friedman has three Pulitzers!) does little to help. As well, the elite circles of high-brow journalism seem to be rapidly constricting: as a friend once told me, perhaps from now on we should call it the New York Review of Each Other’s Books.

That said, please permit me a brief indulgence. Charles Krauthammer has a new book out called Things That Matter, which includes columns and essays from his past thirty years as a political analyst in Washington. I’ve been following his column since I was in high school, which meant that I was reading many of the more-recent pieces in the collection for the second time when I picked it up last week. Many of the pieces are prescient, and others have remained relevant years after their initial publication.

Like many figures of note in the commentary business, Krauthammer had an interesting path to his current position. He went to medical school at Harvard and became a practising psychiatrist in Boston before becoming a writer. Previous to his first journalism job at the New Republic, he worked in the bureaucracy under President Carter and wrote speeches for the 1980 vice-presidential campaign of Walter Mondale. Also interesting is that Krauthammer, at age 19, was the editor of the McGill Daily when he studied in Montreal in the late 60s. At the time, he writes, it was dominated by Maoists and Stalinists. His goal was to move it in the direction of democratic socialism — considered right-wing at the time.

The story of his political evolution is told at length in the book’s introductory essay. Once a so-called Cold War Liberal or “Scoop Jackson Democrat” (referring to Henry Jackson, the senator from Washington State), he supported the New Deal and Great Society programs until the 1980s, when the work of James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray presented an empirical critique of the Great Society, persuading Krauthammer that despite the good intentions, the welfare state was doing more harm than good and that a defense of free-market capitalism and limited government was needed. In this respect, he can be read in a similar way to his mentor Irving Kristol, who notoriously broke with liberalism in the 70s on both domestic and foreign-policy grounds, producing the intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism.

It’s not especially important to me that the authors I read agree with my political views, though Krauthammer does for the most part. For instance, one of my favourite writers was Alexander Cockburn, who died of cancer last year. Cockburn was as proudly radical and left-of-centre as one can get, but that’s not chiefly what matters: ultimately he was intellectually honest, insightful, and a talent, which made him valuable. Krauthammer is all of those things as well, and he also represents an important voice of rational criticism. A recent Politico article states that in the age of Obama, he has become “a de facto opposition leader for the thinking right.”

In lieu of praising his ideological position, I’d like to impress three things about his work which are, in my view, important attributes for young writers to notice.
The first is his writing style, particularly his economy with words. Since I’m a nerd about these things, I often check the word count of columns that I read and compare it with what I initially perceived them to be. Invariably, Krauthammer’s column seem a lot longer than they actually are because he’s able to get a lot of work done in a short space. And when he occasionally writes longer pieces, forTime or the Weekly Standard for instance, the economy of style is kept; the pieces are longer because they have more arguments, not more “fill”.

Secondly, Krauthammer’s presentation is transparent and accessible. He doesn’t try to wow you with his vocabulary or his knowledge of history. When he makes references, he explains their relevance clearly, and when he argues, he does so in plain language and according to a logical form. What this suggests to me is not only a virtue of humility but also a respect for the reader.

Third, he thinks independently and allows his reasoning to find their proper conclusion, without any indication of fear that a position will be poorly received by “the base”. Some unexpected positions have involved major issues — his support for legal abortion and stem-cell research, for the idea of gun control, and for social security — and more minor ones as well, such as support for changing the name of the Washington Redskins and for ceasing to use the expression “women and children”, which he sees as degrading to the former. He also broke with conservatives in his criticism of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, which Krauthammer argued to contain anti-Semitism.

Yet he remains an influential conservative voice because his opinion and intellect are actually respected, and not merely useful for advancing the cause. The essays collected in Things That Matter exemplify why this is so, making it an interesting as well as a fun read.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com