CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER has the highest disdain for those who exalt surviving.
He wrote in The New Republic, where he is a senior editor: "From Southampton to Malibu, radical chic, like wide ties, has come and gone. Survivor chic is in. We have such a heavy schedule of crises to be gotten through nowadays -- identity, midlife, and so on -- that only a select few can manage the time, the energy (the courage!) to work through them all."
Krauthammer made no mention in that article -- which was ultimately an essay on the heroism of Lenny Skutnik -- of his own survivorhood, and nothing irks him more than being called a survivor. However, he seems doomed eternally to the characterization. Why is a prize-winning essayist -- praised for his brilliant arguments -- unable to convince people that he is not a survivor?
Here's why he'll never win this argument:
The summer of his first year in medical school, Krauthammer, who was 22, dove off a springboard at an outdoor swimming pool and hit his head on the bottom, breaking his neck and injuring his spinal cord. He lay in the water, legs paralyzed, unable to swim to the top.
"I knew exactly what had happened," he says now. "And I knew I was going to die, because I couldn't swim. And at a certain point, when that happens, you don't panic anymore. And it was at that point that they pulled me out."
Of course, he -- for lack of a better word -- survived. For the past 12 years, he has been paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair. He has partial use of his arms and hands, but it took a lot of practice to be able to write again -- which he does in a big, loopy, perfectly legible style. The first year or two after his accident, he exercised with weights every day, so he could use his hands. The weight lifting bores him, so he doesn't do it anymore. However, he does exercises like calisthenics and stretching in the morning with a physical therapist, who comes every day of the week to the Cathedral Avenue co-op he shares with his wife. He is tall and thin, dark-skinned, relaxed as he talks about his disability. Most people don't ask about it.
"I don't like when they make a big thing about it," he says. "And the worst thing is when they tell me how courageous I am. That," he says, chuckling in an easy, low voice, "drives me to distraction."
His own heroes range from the early Zionist pioneers of Palestine to Eden Pastora (the Sandinista military hero turned anti-Sandinista rebel) to his father, a French Jew, a leader of Jewish refugees from all over Europe. The elder Krauthammer fled France for Cuba and helped new refugees who arrived there destitute and homeless.
"People who risk," Krauthammer defines as the common denominator. "People who have, and are willing to lose it for something."
A little smile tugs at his mouth. "I don't know how my father's going to like being grouped with Eden Pastora," he muses. "He may be shocked."
Krauthammer has few illusions -- whether about politics or the finality of his injury. And one of the most painful assessments he has made of his life is that no matter what he does, people will always see his handicap before they see anything else.
"That was the one thing that bothered me very early on," Krauthammer says. "The first week, I thought, the terrible thing is that people are going to judge me now by a different standard. If I can just muddle through life, they'll say it was a great achievement, given this.
"I thought that would be the worst, that would be the greatest defeat in my life -- if I allowed that. I decided if I could make people judge me by the old standard, that would be a triumph and that's what I try to do. It seemed to me the only way to live." A Second Career
So far, Krauthammer, 34, has been wildly successful at this. Few of his readers know that he is paraplegic; he never writes about it -- and he says this the first time he has talked about it for publication. What most readers know of him is his writing. This year he won the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism and the Champion Media Award for Economic Understanding. He is a regular essayist for Time. He was a speechwriter for Walter Mondale during Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign. And all this is just in his second career, writing.
He's a psychiatrist by training who, before growing disenchanted with the profession, was chief resident of the Psychiatric Consultation Service at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and won the Edwin Dunlop Prize for excellence in psychiatric research and clinical medicine. As a third-year resident, Krauthammer discovered that mania could sometimes be secondary in nature, caused by other things, such as tumors or drugs. He and Gerald Klerman, an expert on manic illness and one of Krauthammer's professors, wrote a paper on it in 1978.
Before that, he breezed through McGill University, graduating first in his class. Krauthammer couldn't decide between medicine and philosophy, so he became a psychiatrist -- as a compromise of sorts, he says. It turned out to be the worst of both worlds.
"I don't have the temperament to be a psychiatrist and I'm also not a believer," says Krauthammer who graduated from Harvard Medical School as a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society, the medical school equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa.
"I try to get him back into psychiatry," says his former colleague, Klerman, "but that seems to be a lost cause."
But Krauthammer, who has kept up his medical licenses and finished most of the exams necessary to be board certified in psychiatry, plans to take his last exam, an oral one, when it is given in Washington in October.
Now, at The New Republic, he also functions as doctor-in-residence. A stethoscope, Band-Aids and Bufferin are tucked into a corner of one of his crammed bookshelves, and staffers who suddenly take ill are trotted into Krauthammer's office.
Mainly, though, Krauthammer diagnoses the problems of the world. Nuclear strategy is a big interest of now; he'll also be writing about Mario Cuomo and the religion-and-politics controversy.
"I write about what gets me mad," he says. "I find it hard to set out stuff that I have no passion about."
In print, he's all sharp edges and brilliance. In person, there's something gentle about his manner. The words are still witty and precise, but sometimes you have to strain to hear them because he's talking so softly. "He's one of the easiest people to get along with," says James K. Glassman, publisher of The New Republic. "He's easygoing. He's not prickly."
In his essays, nowhere is his tongue more tart than when he's lashing out at the "looniness in our set of social systems."
Some of these are fun. In his 1982 review of Jane Fonda's Workout Book -- the cover story of The New Republic that week -- he savages ("It was so easy," he says) Fonda's fusion of politics and exercise: "Heretofore, economic democracy (Tom Hayden's term for a kind of grass-roots democratic socialism) was justified on the grounds of equality or social justice. Now, The Workout provides an entirely new rationale: it purifies the pores."
He loathes trendiness, "which is one reason I had an aversion to the Hart campaign," he says. "Anything that has the word 'new' in it I'm immediately suspicious about."
In his prize-winning article on AIDS he decries the tendency to attribute moral meaning to illness (AIDS as a metaphor for the corruption of gay life) much the way he hates the notion that he's courageous for being paralyzed. "Disease is completely neutral," he says. " There's nothing ennobling about disease. And there's nothing degrading about it. It's a condition of life."
He's tough on members of the middle class, scolding them for seeing the rest of the world as reflections of themselves -- "plural solipsism" he has called it.
"I'm really very pro-middle class," he says, "because I'm a Democrat. And I believe that the middle class is the backbone of democracy. I've been accused of a lot of conservative leanings around here, and a lot of it is because I believe in the middle class."
He comes across as decidedly more conservative than the image the magazine projects.
"I do certain things that are considered mildly outrageous," he says contemplatively. For example? "I came out against the nuclear freeze very early because I was appalled that no one had simply looked at the idea and examined what it really meant. Everybody was sort of jumping on the bandwagon." Though sympathetic to the movement's grassroots supporters, he calls the freeze "a bumper-sticker idea, the first very good bumper-sticker idea of the last 10 years in the nuclear debate."
He calls the Soviet Union "an empire of evil." He approved of the invasion of Grenada. He applauded the placing of Euromissiles ("That was a triumph of foreign policy which was largely overlooked, because had it not taken place it would have been noticed"). And he wrote an article called "Why Not Overthrow the Sandinistas?"
"The question for us is not do we decide on our own in Washington to overthrow a government," he says, "but when these people, these rebels -- many of whom are social democrats who are some of the only good people in the area, with gangsters on all sides -- when they come to us and say 'All we want is your help. We don't want your boys . . .' I think it's right to help those people."
When asked, Krauthammer also says that the Nicaraguan people are better off under the Sandinistas than under Somoza. "There are better levels of education. On balance, the people are probably better off now, but if they end up under a Cuban type regime -- which is quite likely if things continue the way they are -- they'll be worse off. That's why I think we ought to help people who want to prevent that."
But to attach a label like "conservative" to Krauthammer is not enough, say his colleagues.
"He has a very Jewish view of history," says Martin Peretz, editor in chief and president of The New Republic. "Many Jews have lived through in their historical consciousness the promises of the new tomorrow and the morrow turned out to be quite cruel."
All this gets Krauthammer some very interesting fan mail.
"I'm the one here who gets letters from conservative congressmen congratulating me on pieces," Krauthammer says. "I have to hide them in my box."
Actually, Krauthammer is disappointed with both major parties. "I'm very unhappy with the Democratic foreign policy," he says. "And I'm very unhappy with Republican domestic policy."
There are things he doesn't like about Republican foreign policy too, but "if I have to choose between Republican foreign policy and Democratic foreign policy I would choose the Republican. That's not to say there's a lot in it I don't find wrong, but they have done certain good things in foreign policy."
He doesn't know if he'll support his former boss, Mondale. "I know Mondale a little bit and it's a question of whether you know someone and can trust them. It's as much a feeling I have for him as a political decision."
How will he vote? "I'm convinceable on both sides," he says.
Still, Krauthammer declines to describe himself as a neoconservative. "That's usually said as a kind of accusation," he says. "I guess I'm one of the last of the Henry Jackson Democrats." He adds now: "I guess we could all meet in a closet." Of Courage and Choice
Krauthammer was born in New York and grew up in Montreal speaking French at home with a father of Austro-Hungarian birth and a Belgian-born Jewish mother. "She was three steps ahead of the Nazis," he says. They met in Cuba after fleeing their respective countries.
His father, Shulim Krauthammer, moved to Lyons, France, and as a teen-ager made his fortune distributing mushrooms throughout western Europe. In Montreal after the war, the elder Krauthammer, who has a law degree, went into the real estate business. (Shulim and Thea Krauthammer now live on Long Island.)
Charles Krauthammer studied political theory at Oxford until he got restless for the real world. "I was sort of drifting into outer space," he says.
He had already been accepted at Harvard Medical School, medicine seeming a natural choice. There were several doctors in the family.
The accident happened on a hot summer day during his first year of medical school. He was diving into an outdoor pool at the Children's Inn, a motel adjacent to the Children's Hospital in Boston.
He had had always been athletic. He taught sailing and water skiing during his teen-age summers and skiied competitively at Oxford. He loved to dive and to ski jump. "I liked to be in the air," he says. "Of course, I paid for it in the end."
He spent 14 months in several Boston and New York hospitals; at first there was some doubt he would live. He lost an enormous amount of weight and contracted pneumonia. It took eight months of exercise to be strong enough to get around.
"I made a very early decision to stay in medical school," he says, "to keep my life on track until I could figure out what had happened . . . I was very unhappy and set back, but railing just seemed to me to be pointless. After all, I had done it. And there was no one to blame for it. And the 'why me?' question never appealed to me. Everybody has their tragedy. And this happened to be mine. Some have greater ones than others. The question I asked myself is 'How am I going to live?' "
At the beginning he worried about losing his independence. He worried about his personal life. "But that went away pretty soon," he says. "It didn't change too vastly."
He took some exams orally when he couldn't write, and he witnessed surgery but didn't have to close wounds. "They didn't require that I hold a retractor in operations, which is all the medical student does," he says.
"There was a little bit of controversy over whether we should accept him for psychiatric training," says Klerman, referring to his residency at Massachusetts General. "There was some question of whether with his handicap he could do the training. I was all for it."
"When you grow up in a very easy and warm environment you just don't have a sense of what it is to suffer," Krauthammer says, "and once you suffer a little bit on your own, you develop a little bit of a sensitivity to it. I think I'm a little less callow than I was." He pauses. "I don't recommend this as a way to acquire sympathy, but if it happens to you you might as well pick some up along the way."
So he refuses accolades for simply surviving. Courage is about choices, he keeps saying. Well, what if he had chosen not to live?
"Some people argue that that is really the courageous choice," he says. "I think either choice is a valid one."
Krauthammer sued the builders of the pool and waited five years before settling out of court for about $1 million. By that time, he was a psychiatrist treating patients and not in dire need of the money -- not that he had ever been. "My family's never needed money," he says. He's used the settlement money for living expenses and investments. "It does cover all the extra costs in my life," he says. "Like my van. Instead of spending $8,000 on a car, I spend $40,000."
The money, he says, "rights the scales a bit," but he professes no bitterness for the people he sued. "You build the pool and move the board up a bit," he says with a shrug. "You don't blame the people. They're legally liable, but they weren't vindictive. It's all rather impersonal."
He speaks of his paralysis with eloquent understatement. "It's a nuisance," he says. "It's like having to carry a ball on a chain with you all the time, but if you have it all the time, you learn to pick it up."
It has made for a drastically different life -- and perhaps that's why his view of what he's done is so different from what outsiders think he's done.
"I'll tell you what the analogy is," he says. "The people who probably understand me best are political refugees in exile . . . They have to go to a new country where they have to speak a language they have a lot of trouble with. Now, they can express themselves but they never have that wonderful elegance they have in their native tongue . . . They can do everything that they did, but it takes a lot more effort and it's never quite as elegant. And that's really my position."
In a conversation once, Peretz called Krauthammer "the bravest person I know." Peretz now winces when reminded of it (so does Krauthammer), and says he doesn't want to talk about it.
"Like all of us," Peretz says, "I have some disabled friends. Some make you conscious of it all the time. They talk about it, they complain about it. Then, I have a friend, in a similar situation to Charles, who pretends that there's nothing wrong. You don't have either with Charles. There's no pretense. There's also no nagging whine. He talks about it . . . He was a ski champion and if you end up talking about skiing, he will talk about it with a certain wistful nostalgia. But you don't end up feeling sorry for him."
Krauthammer met his wife, Robyn, who is 38, at Oxford. Born and raised in Australia, she was doing graduate work in law. When he left Oxford for medical school, they corresponded regularly, but after his accident he stopped writing. She found out about his accident several months later, they started corresponding again and about a year later, Krauthammer -- who had discouraged friends from coming to see him -- invited her to visit.
She arrived in late fall of 1973 and never left. They have been married 10 years.
"It's a very delicate thing," he says. "People don't know how to respond. They don't know what to say."
She declined to be interviewed for this story. She's now an artist, and her landscapes, done in the ancient Chinese style of watercolor, hang on one wall of her husband's office. A framed photograph of her sits on his bookshelf.
"I am a little more work. She obviously had to think about it," he says of the marriage. "And she decided to do it. There's only one me. So there was no alternative. She wanted me."
Gerald Klerman says, "She's absolutely devoted to Charles. She's a fantastic housewife and cook. She converted to Judaism when she married him. They light candles every Friday night." Work as Play
In 1978, Krauthammer came to Washington as a special assistant to Klerman, who had just been appointed director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration. (Klerman is back at Massachusetts General now.) "That was my ticket out of medicine," Krauthammer says.
At a dinner one night, Charles and Robyn Krauthammer met Martin Kaplan, who was writing speeches for Mondale. He knew Krauthammer was casting about for other things to do, so when Kaplan became chief speech writer for Mondale, he hired Krauthammer.
Krauthammer had never written a speech when Kaplan hired him. "But then again neither had I when I was first hired," says Kaplan, who is working for Mondale again this year.
The staff of The New Republic was a little more taken aback when it got his application for the open position of managing editor.
"I got his re'sume' and it said he was a psychiatrist and I thought, 'God this is bizarre,' " recalls Michael Kinsley, now the magazine's TRB columnist. "We started talking, and I said, after a while, 'Look, you don't want to be managing editor. You want to write. Why don't you write me some pieces?' "
What is difficult attracts him. Theoretical physics intrigued him, though he believed he'd never be brilliant at it. "Everything I've gotten good at I quit the next day to go on to do something else," he says.
Horrified by the blank page, he prefers to dictate his first drafts -- or write in the dark. He keeps graduate student hours, arriving at work at 10:30 and working at night, and detests the birds outside his apartment who chirp him awake too early. ("I don't think I've ever seen a dawn in my life -- except from the other end.") He loves the weather hot.
His work is his play, and he takes it up on most weekends.
As a psychiatrist, he says he felt that there was "a world out there I didn't touch -- and that I worried about. Now, I worry about it and occasionally -- what's the word Tom Stoppard used in his new play? -- give it a little bit of a nudge. He was describing what playwrights do. They put words together and when they get it right, they give the world a nudge. It's giving the world a nudge every week that's a great pleasure. I don't imagine that I nudge it very much. But every once in a while . . ."