Why politics matter

by Daniel McCabe, BA'89

Columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer is one of the most influential voices in American politics (Photo: Frank Longhitano)

It is said that U.S. president Barack Obama regularly reads Charles Krauthammer’s weekly column in the Washington Post. It can’t be something that Obama looks forward to with much enthusiasm. Krauthammer, BA’70, DLitt’93, is one of the president’s most pointed and persistent critics – he has been particularly scathing in recent weeks about the wobbly launch of Obamacare.

Krauthammer is also a regular contributor to Fox News, and though many of his colleagues there are routinely ridiculed by the left as empty-headed blowhards (see pretty much any episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for ample evidence), Krauthammer himself earns grudging respect, even from those who tend to be in his line of fire.

In a recent profile in the influential publication Politico, Krauthammer is described with admiration as “the closest thing the factionalized [Republican Party] could have to… a de-facto opposition leader for the thinking right.”

A Pulitzer Prize winner for his newspaper writing, Krauthammer is also a best-selling author. Things That Matter, a new collection drawn from three decades of Post columns and other sources, recently topped the New York Times list for best-selling works of non-fiction.

Krauthammer’s initial impulse was to steer clear of politics in the book. And, indeed, some of the book’s most memorable pieces deal with the good-naturedness of dogs, the allure of chess and the remarkable life of an eccentric mathematical genius.

“I realized, though, that I couldn’t leave out the political stuff,” Krauthammer says. “All the wonderful things in life that I enjoy – the quirky, the transcendent – they all depend on getting the politics right. What happens if you get the politics wrong? You end up with Germany in 1933. You end up with the spiritual and material desolation of the Soviet Union. These are not episodes from the distant past.

“Despite the pettiness and the day-to-day grubbiness [of politics], we can’t afford not to pay attention. The outcome is too important.”

While Krauthammer has shifted in his politics over the years (he was once a staunch Democrat and an editor at the left-leaning New Republic), he has long been deeply suspicious of what he calls "utopian thinking, in all its political permutations." Anyone who is a little too certain that he or she knows what's best for everyone else, tends to get Krauthammer's back up.

He says that became ingrained in him back during his undergraduate days when he edited the McGill Daily during the heated era of the McGill Français protests. In the forward to his book, Krauthammer writes that the demonstrations provided him with a "seminal moment" when he noticed "at the head of [one] march, linked arm-in-arm, were two men: McGill's most radical Marxist professor and the leader of a neo-fascist, anti-immigrant popular front." The apparent chumminess of the two figures provided "an object lesson in the virtues of ideological moderation."

A former psychiatrist, Krauthammer abandoned his medical career for writing. “There is a mystique about psychiatry,” he recently explained in an NPR interview, “that people think that you have some kind of a magical lens... Superman’s X-ray vision into the soul. One of the reasons I left psychiatry is that I didn’t believe that.”

He has no regrets about the medical training he received, however.

“The people in medical school tend to be people who have had success all through their youth,” says Krauthammer. “Well, there is nothing like spending a few years in a hospital, in a sea of human suffering, sometimes succeeding in making a difference and sometimes failing, to have the callowness of youth beaten out of you. It teaches you humility.”

While some bemoan the current state of politics in the U.S., saying that partisanship has gone too far and that political discourse has become too mean-spirited, Krauthammer says he isn’t overly concerned.

“Every generation believes that the politics [of its period] is far too uncivil,” he says. “I counsel people to read some of the newspaper articles that were published when Adams ran against Jefferson for the presidency in 1800. The politics of those days were far more vitriolic.”

A former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Krauthammer is much more worried about humanity’s ability to marshal scientific progress judiciously.

“We’ve been around for 200,000 years and within a mere 17 years of discovering atomic power, we were brought to the brink of annihilation,” says Krauthammer, referring to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

“On the one hand, there is technology’s progress, on the other, there’s our ability to control and temper that progress. The things that are conceivable today – embryonic cloning, the development of new forms of biological and chemical weapons – are deeply unsettling.

“We’d better learn to get the politics right.”