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A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors
Have you ever read a column by Charles Krauthammer?
If not – here’s your chance to; if yes – you don’t really need a recommendation, do you?
The best of the best of Krauthammer’s columns:
Who Should Read “The Point of It All”? And Why?
Love him or hate him, Charles Krauthammer was one of the most revered political pundits of the last few decades.
And these columns reveal the full extent, depth, and (most importantly) evolution of his thought.
You don’t have to be a neoconservative to enjoy them; you just have to be a thinking animal, i.e., a human being.
About Charles Krauthammer
Charles Krauthammer was an American columnist.
Owing to a diving board accident while in his first year at Harvard Medical School, Krauthammer became permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
After graduating as a psychiatrist – and even discovering and describing identify a variant of manic depression called secondary mania – he joined the Carter administration as a director of psychiatric research, and started writing speeches for Walter Mondale in 1980.
Soon he became a prominent columnist, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his Washington Post columns. A leading neoconservative voice, in the last years of his life, Krauthammer was a regular panelist on Fox.
Find out more at https://www.charleskrauthammer.com/.
“The Point of It All PDF Summary”
A Note to Readers
“I have been uncharacteristically silent these past ten months” – thus began Charles Krauthammer’s June 8, 2018 column for The Washington Post. “I had thought that silence would soon be coming to an end,” it went on, “but I’m afraid I must tell you now that fate has decided on a different course for me.”
And that course, unfortunately, was one of no return: after a long and hard fight with a cancerous tumor in his abdomen, Charles Krauthammer surrendered on June 21, 2018, less than two weeks after this column was published.
Behind him, he left a legacy of thousands and thousands of columns, “witty and insightful” enough to earn him a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary back in 1987, and timeless and adored so much to be compiled in a 2018 New York Times bestseller by his only son, Daniel.
The Point of It All is that book – and it is one which you’ll enjoy it regardless of whether you agree with Krauthammer or not.
Because, even his bitter rivals agree, he was a true journalist, one of the very last, a man who sincerely believed in his duty to be an honest and keen commentator of national and world issues.
“I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking,” Krauthammer writes touchingly in the penultimate paragraph of his final column. “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,” he ends. “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.”
The Contents of the Book
A leading neoconservative voice in the journalistic world, Charles Krauthammer began his career as a psychiatrist.
And an exceptional one, mind you: after becoming the first one to identify a variant of manic depression (now called secondary mania), in 1978, Krauthammer became a director of psychiatric research under the Carter administration.
Soon enough, he started writing speeches for Vice President Walter Mondale, and, before too long, he found his true calling: writing.
Over the next thirty years, Krauthammer became a nationwide celebrity as the author of a column for The Washington Post, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and, most recently, a nightly panelist on Fox’s Special Report with Bret Baier.
Compiled by him before his death – and edited by his son, Daniel – The Point of It All is (to quote its blurb) “a powerful collection of the influential columnist’s most important works.”
Though eclectic and covering many different subjects spanning three decades, the columns are divided into eighteen chapters, which are then grouped into five major parts:
• Part I: What a Piece of Work Is Man (comprising chapters 1-6);
• Part II: Man and Society (chapters 7-11);
• Part III: Politics, Foreign and Domestic (chapters 12-15);
• Part IV: Competing Visions: America’s Role in the Course of World History (chapters 16-17); and
• Part V: Speaking in the First Person (chapter 18).
All in all, The Point of It All encompasses 92 columns by Charles Krauthammer, framed between a fitting “Introduction” and a heartbreaking “Eulogy” by his son, Daniel.
Since it would be impossible to summarize all of them in a couple of thousand words, we’ve opted to summarize a few – of course, the ones which piqued our fancy the most.
Praise for the Conservatives
As we implied above, Charles Krauthammer began his writing career as a liberal, writing speeches for Democrat Vice President Walter Mondale.
True, he was a staunch anti-communist and (after all, he was Jewish) a somewhat radical pro-Israeli advocate, but, nevertheless, he was far from being a neoconservative; a Francis P. Sempa review of this book compares Krauthammer’s early political positions to those of Democrat Washington Senator, Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson.
In time, however, Krauthammer’s beliefs moved to the right and, just like a hero of his (Irving Kristol) and quite a few other journalists (David Horowitz, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers), he became a leading public intellectual of American conservationism.
Naturally, in The Point of It All, you’ll find quite a few columns on important figures of the conservative movement; even more naturally, we chose to make these columns the focus of our summary.
As you’ll see, you’ll expect some of Krauthammer’s assessments, but you’ll inevitably be surprised by others.
Ronald Reagan: He Could See for Miles
Krauthammer begins his June 14, 2004, Time column titled as above with a rhetorical question: “What made Ronald Reagan the greatest president of the second half of the 20th century?”
The implication: Ronald Reagan, the icon of the conservative movement, was unquestionably the greatest president of the second half of the 20th century, regardless of your opinion.
And – to go back to the introductory question – there are reasons why he deserves this title.
The main one?
“Luck in his looks, luck in his voice, luck in his smile, luck in his choice of mate;” also, luck in the fact that he was a President in a time of trouble and boasted with both “courage and conviction” to get the USA back on track.
“The ungenerous would say he had a great presidency but was not a great man,” writes Krauthammer. “That follows the tradition of his opponents who throughout his career consistently underestimated him, disdaining him as a good actor, a Being There simpleton who could read scripts written for him by others.”
“In fact,” he concludes, “Reagan frustrated his biographers because he was so complex – a free-market egalitarian, an intellectually serious nonintellectual, an ideologue with great tactical flexibility.”
And above all, a man of integrity who stood firmly for “a set of ideas.” And, in Krauthammer’s belief, there is no better definition of presidential greatness.
John Paul II: The Power of Faith
According to Krauthammer, Reagan is also “one of the great liberators of the 20th century.” The others: Roosevelt, Churchill and – surprise, surprise – Pope John Paul II.
If Reagan managed to inspire a spark in Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky by predicting the end of communism when few could ever predict such an outcome, Pope John Paull II “sparked, tended, and fanned the flames of freedom in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe” until the total (and astonishing) collapse of the Soviet empire.
Subtitled “The Power of Faith,” Krauthammer’s April 4, 2005, Washington Post obituary for Pope John Paul II is a demonstration of how sincere faith sometimes beats sheer power:
Under the benign and deeply humane vision of this pope, the power of faith led to the liberation of half a continent. Under the barbaric and nihilistic vision of Islam’s jihadists, the power of faith has produced terror and chaos. That contrast alone, which has dawned upon us unmistakably ever since September 11, should be reason enough to be grateful for John Paul II. But we mourn him for more than that. We mourn him for restoring strength to the Western idea of the free human spirit at a moment of deepest doubt and despair. And for seeing us through to today’s great moment of possibility for both faith and freedom.
The Bush Legacy
If we need to describe Bush in one sentence, Krauthammer’s choice is “He kept us safe.”
True, he says, Bush failed to bring democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq – blame some of this on Obama, though – but he did create “the entire anti-terror infrastructure that continues to keep us safe.”
And that will probably remain his legacy in the mind of Krauthammer, who compares Bush to Truman.
“Like Bush,” he writes, “Harry Truman left office widely scorned, largely because of the inconclusive war he left behind… 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.”
Trump Derangement Syndrome: You Can’t Govern by Id
Donald Trump – inevitably – is mentioned in quite a few of Charles Krauthammer’s columns and his views of him tend to change from one to the next.
In one of his last columns on Trump – published on June 9, 2017, in The Washington Post – in which he weighs in on Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Krauthammer shows both the extent of his intellect and the depth of his integrity.
Even though, at least suggesting by its title, the article is primarily aimed at the journalists on the left who hyperbolize each decision made by Trump to absurd heights (this is what calls the Trump Derangement Syndrome), Krauthammer isn’t interested in defending Trump’s decision en bloc (as the rightists usually do).
In fact, he blames the left for mixing “legitimate policy differences on the one hand and signs of psychic pathology on the other” and, thus, really doing nobody a favor.
“Trump was elected to do politically incorrect – and needed – things like withdrawing from Paris,” he writes. “He was not elected to do crazy things, starting with his tweets. If he cannot distinguish between the two, Trump Derangement Syndrome will only become epidemic.”
By the way, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris was a necessary one, says Krauthammer, since “the Paris agreement itself was a huge failure” from the start, punishing the West for its “two-century head start on industrialization” and giving a pass to China and India.
Though Krauthammer isn’t that convinced on the climate change consensus, he is all for a climate-change pact, but one much different than the Paris Agreement.
In his words, one that will be “strong and enforceable, that would impose relatively uniform demands on China, India, the United States, the European Union and any others willing to join.”
Thank You, Isaiah Berlin
First published on November 14, 1997, in The Washington Post – so, nine days after the death of Isaiah Berlin – this article (both a personal essay and a heartfelt eulogy to one of the greatest men of the 20th century) is one of our favorites in the book.
In It, Krauthammer remembers how he was “cured of the stupidities of youth” by Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, a book he describes as “a great argument for pluralism.”
Published in 1969 (the year of grand theories and grand aspirations: liberation, revolution, historical inevitability) the book got Krauthammer back on the right track by showing him that what all those great seducers (Marx, Trotsky, Mao, Ho, Castro, Rousseau) had in common was a unifying idea.
Not one specific unifying idea as the ones in the parenthesis above, but a unifying idea full stop.
And the problem with unifying ideas – i.e., grand narratives – is quite simple: they are an antidote to human freedom:
What they offer may be glorious and uplifting and just. But freedom is something very different. Freedom is being left alone. Freedom is a sphere of autonomy, an inviolable political space that no authority may invade. In fact, said Berlin, these other ‘higher’ pseudo-freedoms peddled by the monist prophets are very dangerous. They proclaim one true value above all else – equality in Marx, fraternity in Rousseau – and in the end the individual with his freedom is crushed underfoot. Heads roll. Millions of them.
“Four Essays is available everywhere,” writes Krauthammer. “Buy it. Make your children read it before they go to college, the last redoubt of romantic neo-Marxism. If they think the book is obvious, you have raised them well. If they don’t, Berlin will challenge their complacency.”
Misc: Chess and Madness
Unsurprisingly, Krauthammer’s book is filled with quite a few gems of columns, some of which concern his family, others miscellaneous current events, and yet a third group some trivial human pursuits such as sports (baseball, golf, sailing).
Since he was an avid chess player, Krauthammer couldn’t resist writing a few chess-related columns: “Genius, Insanity, Innocence” (a review of the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher), “Man vs. Computer: Still a Match” (an analysis of the Garry Kasparov – X3D Fritz 2003 chess match) and, the most interesting of them all, “The Tyranny of Chess.”
In all of these columns, Krauthammer notes how genius and madness are connected and how it is almost unsurprising that chess players tend to go mad from time to time.
Well, one of them, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former chess champion, and the president of FIDE from 1995 to 2018, became (back in 1993) the first president of Kalmykia, a Caspian Russian republic.
And he remained on the position for the next two decades (you can guess how), doing what you would expect from a chess player: almost everything wrong.
Among other things (some of them really, really bad) he turned Kalmykia (a Godforsaken, impoverished country “where the sheep outnumber the people two to one”) into the world’s first “chess state:”
“Compulsory chess classes in all schools. Prime-time chess on TV. And in the midst of crushing poverty, a just-erected “Chess City,” a surreal Potemkin village topped by a five-story glass-pavilioned chess palace where Ilyumzhinov has just staged an international chess tournament.”
Well, now “the world knows what chess players have known all along: a passion for chess, like a drug addiction or a criminal record, should be automatic disqualification for any serious public activity.”
“Column writing excepted, of course,” Krauthammer wittily quips.
Key Lessons from “The Point of It All”
1. Monistic Ideas Negate Freedom by Definition
2. Don’t Underestimate the Legacy of the Conservatives
3. You Can’t Pigeonhole a Great Mind
Monistic Ideas Negate Freedom by Definition
This is not an idea by Krauthammer, but it is nevertheless an idea he stood by during his whole life; perhaps because it is one which utterly changed his worldview when he was a 19-year-old boy.
It comes from Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, in which (among other things) one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century argues that monistic ideas such as Marxism fail to understand that human liberty is all about having a multitude of options.
Putting any idea – even egalitarianism – above all others would inevitably result in the enslavement – and maybe even death – of millions of people.
Don’t Underestimate the Legacy of the Conservatives
Charles Krauthammer deems Ronald Reagan the greatest president of the second half of the 20th century and thinks that George Bush and even Donald Trump did some things right.
Also, though a Jew, he believes that Pope John Paul II was one of the great liberators of the 20th century, together with the aforementioned Reagan, Roosevelt, and Churchill.
If it wasn’t for these guys, he says, we would be living in a dystopian communist society; so don’t forget that.
You Can’t Pigeonhole a Great Mind
Though a leading neoconservative voice, Krauthammer is ambivalent on more than one occasion.
For example, he does think that Trump is a bit mad (not as far as his policy decision are concerned but in relation to his use of Twitter), and supports abortion and gay marriage.
Also, though not that convinced by the science behind the climate change, he advocates for a strong international agreement and urges the USA to unilaterally start burning fewer fossils.
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“The Point of It All Quotes”Thomas Jefferson will ever haunt us… If Washington is father of our country, Jefferson is father of the ever restless, ever hungering American mind. Click To Tweet The idea of limited government has triumphed. But the moment may not last. The pluralism Berlin championed will be challenged again. Click To Tweet Stem cell research will one day be a boon to humanity. We owe it to posterity to pursue it. But we also owe posterity a moral universe not trampled and corrupted by arrogant, brilliant science. Click To Tweet Bible-thumping psychopaths hold no monopoly on belief in the End. Before casting stones at the easy targets, a secular society might reflect on its own ample appetite for apocalypse. Click To Tweet Traditional Judaism has 613 commandments… the 614th is to deny Hitler any posthumous victories. The reduction of Jewish identity to victimhood would be one such victory. It must not be permitted. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Reading Krauthammer’s columns was always a joy; and it is even a greater joy to read them this way, packed in a single volume and in retrospect.
“The Point of It All is very wide-ranging, a true Krauthammer sampler,” notes Jay Nordlinger correctly. “This is Krauthammer in full, or very nearly so. It is a book that says, ‘This is what he believed. This is who he was.’ As such, it is invaluable.”
Indeed, it is.