Usually, when a journalist publishes a book containing reproductions of his past journalistic endeavors, it is little cause to open up amazon.com for a download. Way more often than not such an event is an exercise in self-indulgence, or a consequence of the journalist’s lack of anything new to say or an attempt to cash in on old news. Not so with Dr. Charles Krauthammer. His new book, Things That Matter, is a brilliant compendium of some of his most notable weekly columns and magazine pieces composed over the last thirty years. Moreover, the short essays are accompanied by a deeply personal, long introduction and five significantly longer essays that addressed several compelling topics from recent decades. The combination makes for a sparkling read that spotlights Krauthammer’s brilliant insights and analyses over the years. Throughout the entire book, the reader will find original thought on many of the most significant topics of the last thirty years – expressed clearly, originally, passionately and persuasively. The ubiquitous wit and humor alone are worth the price of admission.
Most of the entries are copies of pieces that Krauthammer published in his weekly column in the Washington Post – a staple of the DC pundit scene for nearly 30 years. Others are reproductions of short essays that appeared in Time, The Weekly Standard, the New Republic and a couple other places. They are organized into three broad categories: Personal, Political and Historical. Within these three parts, there are chapters, each organized around a distinct theme, and in which Krauthammer treats the issues that he sees as the most important that America faced (and still faces in many instances).
For example, in the Political part, there is a chapter entitled “Citizen and State” containing material on the Constitution, the balance of power between the individual and the government, and the enduring nastiness of US elections. In the Historical part, there is a fascinating chapter entitled “The Jewish Question, Again” in which the columns contain amazing new insight about a political/cultural terrain that has been worked over as thoroughly as any subject in political philosophy. Finally, in the Personal part, there is a chapter entitled “Passions and Pastimes: whose columns describe some of the activities (outside of politics) that Krauthammer has pursued with passion over the years (e.g., baseball and chess).
Virtually all of the columns contain amazingly fresh ideas. One gains insight on matters recent and long past. For example, here are five randomly chosen, representative samples:
Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns. The entire 20th century with its mass political enthusiasms is a lesson in the supreme power of politics to produce ever-expanding circles of ruin. World War I not only killed more people than any previous war. The psychological shock of Europe’s senseless self-inflicted devastation forever changed Western sensibilities, practically overthrowing the classical arts, virtues and modes of thought. The Russian Revolution and its imitators (Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian) tried to atomize society so thoroughly—to war against the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state—that the most basic bonds of family, faith, fellowship and conscience came to near dissolution. Of course, the greatest demonstration of the finality of politics is the Holocaust, which in less than a decade destroyed a millennium-old civilization, sweeping away not only 6 million souls but the institutions, the culture, the very tongue of the now-vanished world of European Jewry.
The most considered and balanced statement of politics’ place in the hierarchy of human disciplines came, naturally, from an American. “I must study politics and war,” wrote John Adams, “that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. Adams saw clearly that politics is the indispensable foundation for things elegant and beautiful. First and above all else, you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness. That’s politics done right, hard-earned, often by war. And yet the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.
For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class—social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies—arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).
Two decades ago, however, socialism and communism died rudely, then were buried forever by the empirical demonstration of the superiority of market capitalism everywhere from Thatcher’s England to Deng’s China, where just the partial abolition of socialism lifted more people out of poverty more rapidly than ever in human history. Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but—even better—in the name of Earth itself.
Environmentalists are Gaia’s priests, instructing us in her proper service and casting out those who refuse to genuflect.
Which is why with the waning of the decade [1980s] the conservatives’ time might soon be up. Voters are not sentimental. They don’t give points for past achievement. They turned out Winston Churchill less than three months after V-E Day. The rule is: What have you done for me lately? After the Democratic Party built the magnificent structure of the New Deal, it ran out of ideas, and the voters threw the rascals out. Conservatives have done what they were asked to do in 1980: break inflation and restore Western power. Their job is done. The voters sense it. The Republicans took a whipping in the 1989 elections. Their social agenda (most prominently, abortion) proved unenactable. And that was the fallback for a party whose economic and foreign policy agenda has already been enacted. There is another turn ahead. Democrats will do everything in their power to blow it, but one new idea and the ’90s belongs to them.
Facing the choice of whether to maintain our dominance or to gradually, deliberately, willingly and indeed relievedly give it up, we are currently on a course toward the latter. The current liberal ascendancy in the United States—controlling the executive and both houses of Congress, dominating the media and elite culture—has set us on a course for decline. And this is true for both foreign and domestic policies. Indeed, they work synergistically to ensure that outcome.
As fresh and enlightening as the columns are, it is the Introduction and the five long essays that make the book truly special. In his Introduction, Krauthammer, describes with passion his personal journey from McGill University to a fellowship in political philosophy at Oxford, then to Medical school and a budding career in psychiatry at Mass General, abruptly altered by a trip to Washington that led to a lifetime as a political pundit – interrupted in the early going by a tragic accident that put him in a wheel chair for life. The story is told with humility, wit and wonder, and one cannot help but admire a man who refused to allow a severe disability to interfere with his life plans.
As for the long essays, there are five. All are chock full of insight, originality and a deep and penetrating understanding and analysis of several fundamental issues of our times. They deal with: the ethics of embryonic research; the fate of the Jewish people; and, most importantly, the fate of the American experiment in individual liberty – as seen at ten year intervals between the fall of the Soviet Empire and the advent of Barack Obama. I discovered so many original insights in these that I read them several times.
Finally, what’s a book review without some criticism? In fact, there is little to criticize here. Well, as with any compendium of essays written over many years, there is bound to be some disjointedness and jarring discontinuities. Often the chronological flow is barely discernible. Also, as is inevitable in a reproduction of old material, there are more than a few places where one can’t avoid reacting with: “Well that didn’t work out the way you predicted.” But these minuses are extremely minor compared to the overall positive impression. Things That Matter is aptly named. Krauthammer has selected from among his treasure trove of columns some of the best that: treated the major events of the day, put them in historical perspective and predicted the consequences with uncanny insight. Together with his moving introduction and five captivating essays, they add up to a brilliant read and a valuable resource to consult as America continues to struggle with its self-imposed mandate to keep alive the fire of liberty that was lit by our forefathers more than two centuries ago.
This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative. However, that site is experiencing technical difficulties. The link will be provided when the site is back to normal.