Charles Krauthammer’s physical disability is “far from the first thing that comes to mind” when Wall Street Journal education reporter Michelle Hackman thinks of him.
Then again, Hackman told me recently, “it may be that I’m blind, and I don’t have an association seeing him on TV. I did have to go check his Wikipedia page just now to refresh myself on exactly what disability he even has.”
For anyone else in need of a reminder: Krauthammer, who died of cancer on Thursday at 68, was paralyzed from the waist down in a diving accident in 1972. While Hackman’s own disability made it easy for her to forget about Krauthammer’s, the sheer intellect of the Washington Post columnist and Fox News commentator compelled others to do the same.
“I really admire that,” Hackman said. “It’s not that he’s hiding his disability — some of us don’t have a choice — but he is so independently well known for his work that his Pulitzer Prize and cogent opinions come to mind first.”
I could not agree more. That Krauthammer accomplished all he did from a wheelchair is one piece of his legacy — and for me, a journalist with cerebral palsy, it is the piece that left the deepest impression.
I did not know Krauthammer personally; though we wrote for the same newspaper, we did not work from the same newsroom. Still, I always viewed him as an impressive and inspirational figure. The reality is there are not many journalists with disabilities at major news outlets — and even fewer who achieve Krauthammer’s level of success.
Reasons are obvious enough. Newsgathering can be harder when your vision, hearing, mobility, speech or other faculties are impaired. I am blessed, after two major leg surgeries, to walk without the braces I wore as a young child. But my gait is irregular, and my balance is poor; media scrums that are part of the daily lives of many reporters intimidate me, and I have gravitated to beats on which I can avoid them — and the attendant risk of toppling over.
When I see footage of a persistent journalist chasing down a lawmaker on Capitol Hill, I sometimes wonder how things would play out if I were the one seeking comment. Part of me thinks I might enjoy a surprising advantage over my non-disabled colleagues. I would never catch up, but perhaps a guilty conscience or fear of bad optics would compel a legislator to stop and talk.
Another part of me remembers that President Trump seemed to pay no political price during the 2016 campaign for mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, whose arthrogryposis visibly limits flexibility in his arms. Maybe outrunning a reporter with CP would be considered fair game.
Trump once made a disparaging remark that some interpreted as a shot at Krauthammer’s condition. Complaining in 2015 about criticism from Krauthammer and another conservative writer, Jonah Goldberg, Trump referred to “a guy that can’t buy a pair of pants,” without making clear which guy he was talking about.
Krauthammer, perhaps being charitable, said he believed Trump had aimed the insult at Goldberg.
In 1984, when Krauthammer was a staff writer at the New Republic, he told The Post that he didn’t like people to “make a big thing about” his disability. The interview, 12 years after his accident, was the first time Krauthammer spoke on the record about life as a paraplegic.
“And the worst thing,” he added, “is when they tell me how courageous I am.”
Whether he would have liked to hear it or not, “Krauthammer showed, courageously and persistently, that physical disabilities need not be disabling in the communication of ideas,” said Brian MacQuarrie, who has covered national politics, among other subjects, in a three-decade career at the Boston Globe.
“As a lifelong stutterer,” MacQuarrie continued, “as a reporter whose most basic form of communication can sometimes be a struggle, Krauthammer’s example has long been an inspiration to never, ever, shy away from the challenge.”
Krauthammer said in that long-ago interview that in the immediate aftermath of his paralysis, he 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.”
Krauthammer did it. And he became a model for other journalists with disabilities, including this one, to attempt the same.