Last week a man I admire very much, Dr. Charles Krauthammer, 68, died of cancer. Perhaps best known as a Fox News contributor, he was also a noted political commentator, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and best-selling author.
His life and work were impressive by any measure. They were even more so considering at the age of 22, during his first year at Harvard Medical School, he became paralyzed from the neck down after a diving board accident.
Remarkably, he still graduated on time with his class, the first quadriplegic ever to do so at Harvard. He would go on to become a psychiatrist, but left that practice after only a few years to work for then-Vice President Walter Mondale.
Dr. Krauthammer and I have a few things in common (besides our brilliance, keen insight, superb sense of humor, dashing good looks and humility): a love of baseball; living with spinal cord injuries; and graduating college and grad school as social and political liberals who became much more conservative over time. He described his transition from liberal to conservative as follows:
“The origin of that evolution is simple: I’m open to empirical evidence. The results of the Great Society started coming in and began showing that, for all its good intentions, the War on Poverty was causing irreparable damage to the very communities it was designed to help.”
He would add later in an interview: “As a doctor, I’m a man of science. If your treatment is killing the patient, stop the treatment.”
Unlike me, Krauthammer was Jewish, but described himself as “not religious” and “a Jewish Shinto.” I hold out a slim hope that in his final days perhaps he embraced Jesus as his Messiah.
His book Things That Matter, a compilation of some of his best Time Magazine and Washington Post columns (a treasure trove vast and deep) rolled off the presses in October 2013. I grabbed one right off the assembly line and devoured it.
Herewith, some of my favorite excerpts from Things That Matter, and a couple of bonuses – extra innings:
On why he was not attending mandatory group therapy sessions: Seeing this as pointless, I refused. This did not go over well with management. Around week seven, I was called into the department chairman’s office. He asked me why I had not been attending.
“Because I came here to give therapy, not get it,” I said.
“You’re just in denial,” he protested loudly.
“Of course I am, sir. It’s the best defense mechanism ever invented. Why, I am a master of denial. I should be a professor – I could give a course in denial.”
I was enjoying the riff, but the chief was not. He cut me short: Attend the sessions or leave the program. Having few marketable skills and fewer prospects, I attended. But for the remaining 20 or so weeks, I said nary a word in the group. I was occasionally asked why. “I’m in denial,” I explained. (p. 9)
On why Roy Hobbs is shot in the movie, “The Natural:” [N]o one knows why Hobbs is shot. It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether – and how – we ever come back. (p. 30)
On the death of his beloved black Lab, Chester: Some will protest that in a world with so much human suffering, it is something between eccentric and obscene to mourn a dog. I think not. After all, it is perfectly normal – indeed, deeply human – to be moved when nature presents us with a vision of great beauty. Should we not be moved when it produces a vision – a creature – of the purest sweetness? (p. 60)
On heaven and earth: Science has thoroughly desacralized the universe. It is in the language. When in the last election Walter Mondale warned against militarizing “the heavens,” the usage seemed quaint. After Neil Armstrong and George Lucas, what up there now is simply “space.” …
One price of demystifying the universe is that science, unlike religion, asks only how, not why. As to the purpose of things, science is silent. (pp. 115-17)
On who is responsible for extraordinary accomplishments – the state or the individual: If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Someone else made that happen. President Barack Obama, Roanoke, Virginia, July 13, 2012.
Absurd. We don’t credit the Swiss Postal Service with the Special Theory of Relativity because it transmitted Einstein’s manuscript to the Annelen der Physick. Everyone drives the road, goes to school, uses the mails. So did Steve Jobs. Yet only he created the Mac and the iPad. …
Roads and schools are the constant. What’s variable is the energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work and genius of the individual. It is therefore precisely those individual characteristics, not the communal utilities, that account for the different outcomes. (pp. 136-37)
On why state-sponsored atheism fails: Shortly after his return from Brezhnev’s funeral, Vice President George Bush talked about what had struck him the most. He mentioned the austere pageantry, the goose-stepping soldiers, the music, “the body being drawn through Red Square – not, incidentally, by horses, but behind an armored personnel carrier. But what struck me most… was the fact that from start to finish there was not one mention of – God.”
Why should that matter? you ask .… What is wrong with a society that believes in none? The usual answer follows the lines of an observation by Arthur Schlesinger (and others) that “the declining faith in the supernatural has been accompanied by the rise of the monstrous totalitarian creeds of the 20th century.” Or as Chesterton put it, “The trouble when people stop believing in God is not that they thereafter believe in nothing; it is that they thereafter believe in anything.” In this century, “anything” has included Hitler, Stalin and Mao, authors of the greatest genocidal madnesses of our time. (p. 219)
On Martin Luther King Jr. and other exceptional Americans: It is one of the enduring mysteries of American history – so near-providential as to give the most hardened atheist pause – that it should have produced, at every hinge point, great men who matched the moment. A roiling, revolutionary 18th-century British colony gives birth to the greatest cohort of political thinkers ever: Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, Jay. The crisis of the 19th century brings forth Lincoln; the 20th, FDR.
Equally miraculous is Martin Luther King Jr. Black America’s righteous revolt against a century of post-emancipation oppression could have gone in many bitter and destructive directions. It did not. This was largely the work of one man’s leadership, moral imagination and strategic genius. He turned his own deeply Christian belief that “unearned suffering is redemptive” into a creed of nonviolence that he carved into America’s political consciousness. The result was not just racial liberation but national redemption. (p. 233)
As mentioned, Charles and I shared a love of baseball. A season-ticket holder to the Washington Nationals, he wrote in an exquisite column for The Washington Post in 2016: “God created baseball as a relief from politics ….”
Marc Thiessen adds: “A few years ago, I was talking with Charles … when the news that someone famous had passed away flashed on the television screen. Charles told me the way he hoped to go when his time came. His dream, he said, was to be assassinated during the seventh-inning stretch at a game at Nationals Park. He wanted to die in what he once called ‘my own private paradise,’ where ‘the twilight’s gleaming, the popcorn’s popping, the kids are romping and everyone’s happy.’”
But undoubtedly his most memorable, enduring words will be these, his final ones, from his farewell letter, released June 8, 2018:
[R]ecent tests have revealed that the cancer has returned. … My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.
… I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.
I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life – full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.*
Thank you, Charles Krauthammer. You will be missed. The world is better for your having been in it.