Since Charles Krauthammer’s death two days ago at age 68, friends have been asking for my reaction to the seemingly endless tributes that have been playing, most conspicuously on Fox News. On June 21, the day of his death, Fox, the channel with which he was long associated as a regular and honored news commentator, devoted hours to eulogizing Krauthammer. The man who died after spending most of his productive life as a paraplegic was personally heroic and managed to be cheerful in the company of his friends and disciples until the end of his earthly existence. Even when he knew he was dying of a cancerous tumor, he sent out life-affirming messages to his companions; he remained so much of a presence among his followers and fans that his very predictable death caught many by surprise.
I have written these lines in appreciation of Krauthammer’s admirable personal qualities. But there is another kind of appreciation that I would add as an historian of American conservatism, a strictly scholarly appreciation that has nothing to do with liking what Krauthammer said or endorsing the positions he took. In fact I hardly ever agreed with him, and even in those rare instances when I did—e.g., being skeptical over Obama’s deal with Iran or favoring the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem—I felt much less passionately than he did. What makes my assessment even more difficult is that I was on the losing side of the ideological victory won by Krauthammer’s allies and disciples. That loss has made my professional life much more difficult than it might otherwise have been.
That said, Krauthammer exerted a powerful influence both by force of will and through his rhetorical brilliance in helping to transform the establishment Right. The contemporary Right bears little if any resemblance to what it was during the 1950s and 1960s, when it resisted the civil rights revolution, opposed communism as a godless enemy that worshipped state power, and favored traditional social relations. Then in the 1980s the neoconservatives came along and imposed their will on a movement into which they and their sponsors invested megabucks. The neocons also moved conservatism towards the Left by identifying it with a global democratic foreign policy, a centralized welfare state (albeit one that was to be “prudently” managed), and a mainstream liberal view of the evolution of American “liberal democracy.” Both support for the Israeli Right and constant warnings about recurrent anti-Semitism became veritable fixations within this transformed conservatism.
This transformation required figures who could present it credibly, and Krauthammer may have been the most indispensable of those who assumed this role. There were others who contributed to this effort, like the political theorist Harry Jaffa and the journalist and fundraiser Irving Kristol. But Krauthammer was clearly superior to them as an exponent of what the appropriate media marketed as “conservatism.” He carried out his task with such pedagogical skill and such obvious conviction that even someone who disagreed with where he took American conservatism had to be impressed. Unlike my friends and followers on the shrinking Old Right, I was not so much upset as awed by Krauthammer’s laying down of conservative party lines as a TV commentator and newspaper columnist. He was so far superior to others attempting to do the same thing that listening to or reading him was like watching an Olympic swimmer after seeing kiddies splash around in a plastic pool.
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Krauthammer’s oral commentaries, as one of his worshipful former colleagues noted, came out like coherent, carefully worded editorials, and he spoke with such sincerity that I sometimes found myself moved by his impassioned presentation of views that I couldn’t possibly accept. In 2002, Krauthammer went off against the Senate minority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, calling for his resignation for praising Senator Strom Thurmond on his hundredth birthday. Lott, Krauthammer charged, had spoken favorably about a onetime Dixiecrat who had run for president in 1948 as an opponent of the civil rights movement. Apparently Lott had ignored the most important event in American history in his lifetime and was giving aid and comfort to segregationists. I wouldn’t have given this tirade any attention had it come from a different source, and even now I think it was overblown. But when Krauthammer inveighed against Lott, I knew he was speaking from the heart. He probably had stronger convictions than the person he was taking to task.
Those convictions were why Krauthammer infuriated the Old Right more than any other neoconservative. He was not a careerist recycling platitudes that others had come up with to advance himself professionally. When my friends would ask in disbelief apropos of something he’d said “Does Krauthammer call this conservatism?” they knew the answer was “yes.” He was not a journalist-for-hire but a well-educated physician and student of philosophy. Although the significance of his death may not yet be felt, Conservatism Inc. is now without its most honorable and effective representative.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.