Daniel Oppenheimer is author of “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.” He is writing a book on the art critic Dave Hickey.
On April 26, 2013, to mark the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Charles Krauthammer devoted his Washington Post opinion column to predicting how history would render judgment on Bush. Like so many of the columns Krauthammer delivered over his more than three decades as a Post columnist, it’s a fairly masterful work of rhetoric. In fewer than 800 words, Krauthammer manages to defensibly compare Bush to Abraham Lincoln, exclude from view the financial crisis of 2008 (among other complexities of the Bush administration) and subtly assign blame to Barack Obama for the Boston Marathon bombing.
The climax of the piece, when it comes, has force. “Like Bush,” writes Krauthammer, “Harry Truman left office widely scorned, largely because of the inconclusive war he left behind. In time, however, Korea came to be seen as but one battle in a much larger Cold War that Truman was instrumental in winning. He established the institutional and policy infrastructure (CIA, NATO, the Truman Doctrine, etc.) that made possible ultimate victory almost a half-century later. I suspect history will similarly see Bush as the man who, by trial and error but also with prescience and principle, established the structures that will take us through another long twilight struggle and enable us to prevail.”
One can be fairly stunned by the judgment and still grant Krauthammer, who died last year from intestinal cancer, his due as a columnist. If there is a case to be made for the greatness of Bush, who left office seeming like one of the most disastrous American presidents of the 20th century, it is surely here. Bush was the president on watch when American power and supremacy were confronted with a world historical challenge. He made grievous mistakes. He didn’t win the wars he started. But the security foundation he laid, on a bedrock of hard choices, will maintain American global dominance over the long run and thus enable the continued flourishing of the liberal democracies (including our own) that depend on such dominance.
It’s a cold argument, and “The Point of It All,” the posthumous anthology in which it’s collected, has some ice in its veins. The acceptance of human suffering that enables Krauthammer to hypothesize Iraq as a retrospective victory for liberal democracy is rather ruthlessly deployed throughout the collection on behalf of a range of subjects. Krauthammer is hard-faced, in particular, in defense of America, “mankind’s first-ever universal nation.”
History, for Krauthammer, is a never-ending, unforgiving lesson in the extraordinary difficulty of carving out even small pockets of freedom, prosperity and stability. War, death, stupidity, cruelty and domineering are tolerable, in the long run, if they serve or at least don’t impede the creation and sustenance of such pockets. For a free society as vast and enduring as the United States, a great deal is tolerable. The alternative isn’t something better or purer, but chaos and the misery that it breeds.
This perspective achieves a kind of sublime brutality in “Thomas Jefferson, the Sublime Oxymoron,” a Time magazine essay occasioned by a Library of Congress exhibition on Jefferson. Krauthammer writes admiringly, in particular, of the clarity with which Jefferson dealt with the Native American “conundrum.” “Jefferson had great respect for the Indians,” he writes. “He considered them the equal of the white man. And yet he fully understood that America would have to be built at their expense. . . . ‘Behind every great fortune there is a crime,’ said Balzac. Behind every great nation too. Jefferson certainly wanted to do justice to the Indians. But he knew the white man needed to instill fear in the Indian or the American experiment would fail.”
This exculpatory turn is a characteristic Krauthammer maneuver, a harsh 100-proof tonic for a world that threatens to deprive us of consolation and certainty at every turn: It was bad, but we are nonetheless good. In some ways we are only able to be good because tough leaders are willing to be bad. Acknowledge this fact, and the past, but don’t be dragged down by guilt.
Krauthammer was also quite warm, even reverential, when he wanted to be. In columns in the new collection he is charming on fatherhood, baseball, chess, the “Genius of the Founders,” the miracle of modern Israel, space exploration, Australia, friendship, Tiger Woods, America and Americans, and much else. His warmth offers reassurance as well. “There is something about the American spirit — about the bedrock decency and common sense of the American — that seems to help us find our way,” he writes, “something about American history that redeems itself in a way that inspires all. I would summarize it by quoting my favorite pundit, Otto von Bismarck . . . [who] is famously said to have said: ‘God looks after children, drunkards, idiots and the United States of America.’ I think he still does. I hope he still does.”
I find this somewhat reassuring. But mostly I find Krauthammer frustrating, a smart man and expert craftsman who lacked the intellectual grit to push at, or through, his own defenses and premises. He was forgiving of the flaws of ideological allies but too often dismissive of the intellects and motives of the people with whom he disagreed. He was a close and thoughtful reader within a narrow field but indifferent to the point of ignorance when it came to many of the major intellectual figures and movements of the modern era. He practiced as a psychiatrist for seven years before becoming a full-time writer, but he wasn’t interested in the nuances of human psychology. He was a facile writer of sentences, an excellent summarizer of ideas and a master architect of the op-ed, which is a notoriously difficult form.
But he was a complacent thinker. Krauthammer stopped at the point when things threatened to become too complex or messy. Even his contempt for Donald Trump, which he was admirably willing to bear with him into the lion’s den (i.e. Fox News), ran up against hard limits. Trump, for Krauthammer, wasn’t symptomatic of deeper flaws in our country or the conservative movement. He was an aberration.
“Beware the too-examined life,” he said to the McGill University class of 1993, in a commencement speech included in “The Point of It All.” This was not a throwaway line for Krauthammer. It was core to his worldview. Introspection, self-consciousness, deconstruction: For Krauthammer these practices were more likely to be vices than virtues, corrosive to the good life, sound political judgment and global leadership.
I think he introspected too little and forgave too much. But it’s worth admitting (as he would not, if he were in my position) that I might be wrong. We all choose the level of complexity at which it makes sense for us to live. We simplify, because it is impossible to do otherwise. We live more meaningfully in the conviction that certain broad notions, like love and truth, are richer than the subsidiary levels of discourse into which they can be parsed. We recognize that dwelling at length on one’s faults, failures and traumas can sabotage the capacity to function and grow. We believe that the particular constellation of principles, reductions, generalizations, elisions, emphases and self-deceptions that constitutes our political worldview is the precise one that, if adopted by everyone, would be most conducive to the health of the republic. We all have our stories.
Krauthammer had his stories. They spoke — speak — to many, many people. As I write these words, “The Point of It All” is second on the Washington Post and New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists, in both cases just behind Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” This is an instructive, or ironic, pairing. Krauthammer had almost nothing but disdain for Obama’s husband and for the more introspective, tempered patriotism of the first couple. He thought it subverted the national project and was a luxury that leaders couldn’t afford.
I’m on Team Obama, but it’s worth saying that if the big argument we were having right now, as a nation, were reflected in a battle for bestseller supremacy between a serious, careful conservative like Charles Krauthammer and a thoughtful liberal like Michelle Obama, we’d be in a much better place. I fear that it’s No. 4 on the Post list, the Colbert show’s cheap, Trump-mocking picture book “Whose Boat Is This Boat?,” that is the more accurate signpost.
of It All
By Charles Krauthammer
Crown Forum. 360 pp. $28