Saturday 25 May 2019

Obituary: Charles Krauthammer

Doyen of conservative columnists whose life was a star-spangled example of triumph over tragedy

Brilliant: Commentator Charles Krauthammer. Photo: Getty Images
Brilliant: Commentator Charles Krauthammer. Photo: Getty Images

Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, who has died of cancer aged 68, was one of the most influential political commentators in America; his syndicated Friday column in The Washington Post, which he wrote for more than three decades, appeared in hundreds of publications around the world, including occasionally The Daily Telegraph, and from the early 1990s he was a nightly fixture on Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV.

Despite his conservative views, which he articulated with such incisive clarity and intellectual rigour that he was revered by Republicans, whose uncertainties he crystallised, he was also hugely respected by Democrats.

This was not only because it was so difficult for opponents to shoot down his arguments but also because, though fearless and fierce in self-defence and a master of the barbed but humorous riposte, he also had exquisite manners.

Bill Clinton described him as "a brilliant man" in 2010, which prompted Krauthammer to comment: "I'm toast." Even Barack Obama, whom he had accused of causing "the death of liberalism", invited him to the White House in 2013 to explain why his popularity ratings were so low.

Paralysed from the waist down at the age of 22 after diving into a swimming pool and hitting his head on the bottom, severing his spinal cord, he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, a life that was to prove a star-spangled example of human triumph over tragedy.

In 2016 he could not bring himself to vote for Donald Trump, and in his Washington Post column accused the future president of, among other things, "a shocking absence of elementary decency".

He wrote: "Trump's hypersensitivity and unedited, untempered Pavlovian responses are, shall we say, unusual in both ferocity and predictability...

"I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully.

"I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied."

Nor could he, of course, vote for Trump's Democrat opponent, finding Hillary Clinton "deeply flawed, to the point of unfitness".

On election night, as it became clear that Trump was on the verge of an extraordinary victory which, like almost everyone else, Krauthammer had failed to predict, he observed on the Fox News channel: "What this means ideologically is that the Republican party has become the populist party and the country is going to be without a classically conservative party," adding that Trump's victory was "part of the worldwide Brexit revolution" and noting that, despite the "tremendous benefits" of globalisation, "no one has addressed the needs of those who are the net losers".

Even though he described Trump as "a moral disgrace", his final fear was the liberal elite's obsession with doing whatever was necessary, however questionable, to force him out of office.

As he told Fox News in August 2017: "That would be a catastrophic mistake. It would cause a rupture in the country, where people would say, 'When we people, the ones who have been 'abandoned', elect somebody we like, our guy gets taken out. What happened, I thought we had a stable democracy?'"

Charles Krauthammer was born on March 13, 1950 in New York to Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents. His father Schlom was from Ukraine; his mother Thea was Belgian. He had an older brother, Marcel, from whom he was "inseparable" as a child, and who died of cancer in 2006.

His father, a successful businessman who spoke nine languages and died in 1987 - "probably the most extraordinary man I have ever met and he had a tremendous influence on me" - had left Ukraine soon after the Russian Revolution, aged 16, to seek his fortune in France. He ended up in Lyon and became a French citizen, and when World War II began enlisted in the French army.

After the fall of France in June 1940, he and most of his family managed to escape the Nazis and their French collaborators to move to Cuba, where they bought an industrial diamond factory, and where he met and married his wife in Havana. They returned to France after the war, but decided to leave Europe for good at the end of the 1940s. "Those were very dark times," as Krauthammer would put it. "They applied for a visa to New York and were the most grateful immigrants this country ever had."

French was the language spoken in the Krauthammer household and in the mid-1950s his father, by now a property developer, emigrated again, this time to Montreal. The family returned each summer to Long Beach, New York, where "from early morning till sundown, my brother and I did nothing but swim and play sports". Both brothers were educated at a Hebrew school in Montreal where "I got a rigorous Jewish education".

Krauthammer read Economics and Political Science at McGill University, graduating in 1970 with a First. This was the era of revolutionary student politics in Europe and America, and at McGill he witnessed first-hand its dangers and hypocrisies, which he would say "cleansed" him early on in his political evolution of any "romanticism". He then won a Commonwealth Scholarship to do a year's postgraduate research in politics at Balliol College, Oxford, before embarking in 1971 on a degree in Medicine at Harvard.

It was in July the following year that he had his diving accident. He and a friend had skipped class to play tennis and have a swim. When he hit the bottom of the pool, he remained there until brought to the surface by his friend. He had left two dollars by the side of the pool, and two books: La Condition Humaine by Andre Malraux and The Anatomy of the Spinal Cord.

The Dean of the Medical School urged him to put his degree on hold for a year or two, but Krauthammer replied: "This will turn disaster to ruin. So give me a shot." The Dean relented and he resumed his studies from hospital, where he remained for 14 months. He nevertheless graduated on schedule in 1975, taking his exams orally because he had not yet re-learnt how to write. His first job was in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he undertook well-received research on manic depression.

As a young man Krauthammer was a Democrat, and his next job was as director of planning in psychiatric research for the Jimmy Carter administration in Washington. It was there that he began the switch from the study and treatment of psychiatric disorders to the study and treatment of political ones.

In 1980 he started writing for the liberal magazine The New Republic, which soon took him on staff, and for Vice-President Walter Mondale. But it was when he began writing for Time magazine in 1983, two years into Ronald Reagan's first presidency, that he received national acclaim. Here he coined the phrase "The Reagan Doctrine" to define the change in US foreign policy from passive containment of Soviet-backed regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to proactive overt and covert aid to anti-communist movements, notably in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

In 1985 The Washington Post offered him the weekly column that he would continue until ill health forced him to stop in the summer of 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for (as the citation noted) "his witty and insightful columns on national issues".

His conversion from the liberal to the conservative cause was gradual. In his first book, published in 2013, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, a collection of his writings that was number one in The New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks, he recalled: "I didn't have an 'aha' moment, an epiphany saying, 'Wow, Ronald Reagan is a cool guy', I just over time evolved to a more small-government, more limited, what I would call a more realistic and maybe non-romantic view of the possibility of politics."

His baseline view on foreign policy was that, in the absence of a global existential threat, America should stay out of "teacup wars" in failed states. He opposed "humanitarian intervention" unless to stop overt genocide.

America should use military force, he believed, only in places where there is "strategic necessity".

That changed after the September 11 attacks, with Krauthammer seeing Islamist terrorism as a completely new kind of threat. Although he got angry if accused of being a "neo-con", he supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with the aim of reconstructing them as democracies.

Writing just before the Iraq invasion of 2003, he conceded that this "may well fail" but added: "We cannot afford not to try."

Krauthammer said that he was not religious, yet he once said of atheism: "Of all the theologies or anti-theologies, I think atheism is the least plausible of them all. It's not only the irrationality, but it's the coldness, the soullessness of atheism that strikes me."

His view of "deity" was "complicated", and inspired by Einstein's "sense of this fantastic mystery... ordering and creating beauty in nature... his ability to put the ultimate mysteries of science into a single line, E=mc2, indicates a kind of harmony in the cosmos which cannot be accidental".

Charles Krauthammer, who died on June 21, married, in 1974, Robyn Trethewey, a painter and sculptor whom he had met at Oxford. She and their son Daniel survive him.

© Telegraph

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