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A Neoconservative of Conviction

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.

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 [1] 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 [2].

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37 Comments To "A Neoconservative of Conviction"

#1 Comment By what is appropriate On June 25, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

“what the appropriate media marketed as “conservatism.””

The “appropriate” media. What a sad thing it is to think I understand exactly what you mean.

As to Krauthammer I will say little, having little good to say. I wish he never had the power and influence he enjoyed. The injury done to decent, gifted people like you is the least of it. He and his kind went very far toward wrecking America and bringing her into disrepute. Our country. It is unforgivable.

#2 Comment By Anne (the other one) On June 25, 2018 @ 11:28 pm

In 2003, Pope John Paul II’s pleaded against war for “ignoring the consequences for the civilian population.” Instead, Krauthammer warmonger and children died.

I doubt history will look kindly on Krauthammer or the rest of the neocon’s.

#3 Comment By Old West On June 25, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

I’ve always been pretty on the Old Right side of the divide, but for some reason, Krauthammer was someone I just could never bring myself to dislike for very long. I think it was because he really was, for the most part, a writer and thinker rather than a mere sloganeer and schemer. I might have disagreed with him often, but I always felt the need to wrestle with his ideas and argumentation.

The gap between him and Bill Kristol couldn’t have been bigger on those scores. We old-style conservatives will be well-mannered enough not to dance on the latter’s grave when his time comes, but there will be no outpouring of sadness when that man is gone such as Krauthammer elicited.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 26, 2018 @ 12:10 am

“Whatever you thought of his beliefs, the late Charles Krauthammer was the best that mainstream conservatism had…Conservatism Inc. is now without its most honorable and effective representative.”

Huh?

Charles Krauthammer was a neocon.

#5 Comment By JimDandy On June 26, 2018 @ 2:16 am

Yeah, sorry, I love ya Gottfried, but the fact that a Neoconservative had genuine convictions doesn’t really move me. And the fact that he was smart, articulate, and an effective debater? I guess evil villains who are good at what they do–like Hannibal Lector–are compelling in fiction, but in real life? Not so much. Maybe I could stomach this if it was a two-part column, with the second part being a eulogy for some Palestinian kid who was murdered by the people The Neocons exists to enable.

#6 Comment By Tzx4 On June 26, 2018 @ 2:34 am

My personal favorite quote of his:

Trump’s hypersensitivity and unedited, untempered Pavlovian responses are, shall we say, unusual in both ferocity and predictability.
This is beyond narcissism. I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.”

#7 Comment By Rosita On June 26, 2018 @ 8:03 am

Agreed with very little of his opinions but he was resilient, tenacious and supremely dignified and self contained.

#8 Comment By mightywhig On June 26, 2018 @ 8:23 am

Great points. I’ve missed CK’s columns for most of the reasons cited here.

#9 Comment By Johann On June 26, 2018 @ 8:38 am

Neoconseravatism is morally bankrupt and has resulted in millions of innocent deaths. There is no way to defend a prophet of that ideology. They just can’t seem to cut out all of their communist roots.

#10 Comment By cj On June 26, 2018 @ 8:41 am

Hmmmmm, oddly missing is Krauthammer’s cheerleading when the W administration lied the US into war with Iraq.

Brendan Nyhand dissects Krauthammer’s dissembling: [3]

Maybe the author of this piece is unfamiliar with the disasterous Iraq war? Find it hard to believe but why else would he have left it out? Surely not on purpose while he wrote his hagiography.

#11 Comment By thepanzer On June 26, 2018 @ 9:33 am

Krauthammer was a chickenhawk nightmare who sent other people to die to enable his own wish-fulfillment. He was a war criminal who deserved jail time. Spend your greif on our broken servicement who come back missing limbs, with PTSD, or eat a gun barrel when they get back home.

Your sympathy is misplaced. Krauthammer was a monster.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On June 26, 2018 @ 10:08 am

God rest his soul.
Excepting Israel, I didn’t always agree with him & he sure predicted the Romney/Obama election outcome wrong, but he always commented with grace & intelligence. That along with civility is something hard to find these days.

#13 Comment By paul gottfried On June 26, 2018 @ 10:20 am

Please note that nowhere in my tribute do I suggest that I agreed with Krauthammer very often; and like one of my critics,I thought his support for the invasion of Iraq was (to say the least) unwise. But I wish to be fair to him as a credible, articulate architect of the reconstructed conservative movement that came of age in the 1980s. Krauthammer was by far the most intelligent advocate of this development; and even as someone who deeply deplores what he achieved, I’m forced to recognize his considerable accomplishment.

#14 Comment By [email protected] On June 26, 2018 @ 10:45 am

Kruathammer was anything but a conservative. Radical? Yes!

On April 5, 1996 Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post

“DISARM THE CITIZENRY. BUT NOT YET”

Yes, Sarah Brady is doing God’s work. Yes, in the end America must follow the way of other democracies and disarm.

After we failed to find WMDs in Iraq Krauthammer again took to the pages of the Washington Post on May 16, 2003 and listed three reason why invading and occupying Iraq had to be done!

A Moral Reckoning

Human rights

Economic equity

Social justice

So we killed 100 thousand Iraqis, lost thousands of Americans and thousands more ruined for life for Social Justice, Economic equality, and Human rights

If Krauthammer was the best conservatives had then the country is finished.

#15 Comment By JS On June 26, 2018 @ 11:57 am

A great intellect? I just don’t see it. So he could talk in complete sentences and calmly, that didn’t make him some great intellectual giant. His worldview seems pretty simple, he wanted a one world government and he wanted the US to be it.

#16 Comment By Dan Hayes On June 26, 2018 @ 11:58 am

You’ve given the Devil (albeit a minor variety one) his due!

#17 Comment By Patricus On June 26, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

I remember when he wrote for The New Republic. He was one of those advocating for a state directed economy similar to Japan’ and Germany’s. I never bought into his so called conservatism. He did drift from facism to neocon. I guess he could have been even worse. Not a conservative hero.

#18 Comment By Myron Hudson On June 26, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

William F. Buckley Jr. Or have we forgotten?

Krauthammer was not even right twice a day. Good riddance.

#19 Comment By Frank Healy On June 26, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

I love you Paul, but this one has me flummoxed. CK always struck me as the quintessential neocon hack. I despise what David Brooks stands for, but he is certainly capable of remarkable insights. George Will can be fatuous and silly, but he can write much better than CK ever could.

#20 Comment By Dee On June 26, 2018 @ 1:41 pm

In my view his one and only issue was getting the US taxpayers to clear the middle east of Israels enemies.. Real or imagined.. In this endevour he was one of many who succeeded.

#21 Comment By Thaomas On June 26, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

I do not think it is proper to call Kauthhammer a neo-Liberal. Neo liberals are not no-cons on foreign policy. You can try but Iraq and Guantanamo and torture and pulling out of the Iran deal are not neo-Liberal “things.” Likewise, neo-liberals are not hostile to using state power and redistribution to share the benefits of neo-liberal policies like trade agreements.

I agree it is proper to call him a Conservative because he rejected the xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism that Republican “conservatives” have increasing embraced.

#22 Comment By mrscracker On June 26, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

[4] ,
To be fair, second sight is always 20/20.
Lots of folks, including many Iraqis, thought getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a great thing.

We went to church with a govt. contractor during that period & he said Iraqis would run up on the street & thank him for helping rid their country of Hussein.

It’s taken us a while to figure out that when one dictator is toppled something worse almost always takes their place. And more lives are lost in the ensuing chaos.
I’d like to hope America had learned that lesson, but probably not. Plus, we seem to only bother dictators that have resources we need/want.

#23 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On June 26, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

He brought to my mind Millán Astray, target of Unamuno’s famous put-down.

God forgive me.

#24 Comment By BobS On June 26, 2018 @ 4:58 pm

“…the late Charles Krauthammer was the best that mainstream conservatism had.”
Yeah, you’re probably right- the morally bankrupt Krauthammer probably was the best person to to symbolize a political philosophy that seems to consider cruelty a virtue.

#25 Comment By cka2nd On June 26, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

“But when Krauthammer inveighed against Lott, I knew he was speaking from the heart.”

The single issue for which I take Chris Matthews seriously, where I don’t think it’s just a pose or stupidity on his part, is racial bigotry and animus. The sincerity of his anger, his speaking from the heart, convinces me that he learned that one thing from the 60’s, to the bottom of his soul.

#26 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 26, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

“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.”

Sad that you used constitutional civil liberties in the same sentence as communism. eeeek.

But I agree. It is not that Mr Krauthhammer and friends (necons) made accurate assessments and means of obtaining their goals. The fact remains that they changed the polity of the party and more the country. Neoconservative doesn’t even apply because plenty of liberals are on the bandwagon for regime by force and at will for some greater glory of capital markets, democracy or and I hate to say — Israel.

They used rather common motifs about human worth, moral high ground, and economic equity, to name a few to launch a rather brutal and ‘ethicless’ processes that have made more well known forces for change look like amateurs in all but the implementation — there they failed miserably.

And I think a lot of professional people would echo the bemoan that had they jumped on the bandwagon — their lives would have been more fruitful.

#27 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 26, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

Trump’s hypersensitivity and unedited, untempered Pavlovian responses are, shall we say, unusual in both ferocity and predictability.
“This is beyond narcissism. I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.”

This one has been making the rounds on that bastion of intellectual give-and-take, Facebook. As a trained psychiatrist Charlie knew–or at least should have known–that neither he nor anyone is qualified to diagnose from afar. Instead, this comment illustrates his heartfelt passion, which I do believe was genuine, notwithstanding that it was technically without any medical foundation.I thought he was wrong, wrong, wrong on foreign policy. Where he triumphed was as a person. A brave man who overcame adversity and faced death with stoic resignation and equanimity. That alone qualifies him as a man to be admired in my book, notwithstanding his politics.

#28 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 26, 2018 @ 9:59 pm

He was a landsman, but he was also what he was. You, Mr. Gottfried, should protect your considerable reputation, stick with just the straight-up truth, and walk back major portions of this disaster of a Krauthammer obit. You owe it to yourself.

#29 Comment By Youknowho On June 27, 2018 @ 1:22 am

Charles Krauthammer publicly supported torture. You cannot decry Gina Hampel and give Krauthammer a pass. He is as guilty as she.

May God forgive him for I cannot.

#30 Comment By more in anger than in sadness On June 27, 2018 @ 8:58 am

Here’s the thing, Professor. Your remarks about Krauthammer are courteous and generous. Courtesy and generosity were not returned to you, were they? It speaks well of you, but you’re giving him far better than he deserves.

#31 Comment By Tulsa Ron On June 27, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

Not a Chance! Not even close. Krauthammer was a Neocon, more loyal to Israel than to America and Conservatism. He and his ilk are the advocates of “regime change”, invasion of Iraq, endless wars in the middle east. Pat Buchanan is, by far, the best that American Conservatism has to offer.

#32 Comment By John of Dorset On June 27, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

As a traditional conservative myself, I’m sure agree with Gottfried far, far more than Krauthammer. But like the former I could respect latter, and I find Gottfried’s obituary to be humane and moving. It is a shame that some here can’t overlook differences of opinion, and feel the need to rant about neocons.

#33 Comment By Fabian On June 27, 2018 @ 6:35 pm

I will not miss that pompous guy. I don’t wish him well wherever he is. Conviction is not an excuse.

#34 Comment By TR On June 28, 2018 @ 7:53 am

In his early days he was certainly worth reading. But towards the end his automatic support of Israel was truly distressing.

#35 Comment By General Manager On June 28, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

Iraq. Krauthammer may have advocated it but only George Bush could push the start button. It is a very recent American phenomenon to allow criticism of Israel.

#36 Comment By Richiehero On June 28, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

Yes, Dr. Krauthammer was a genuine intellectual-if increasingly obliged to the neocon/pro-war manifesto-not ashamed to admit his European roots (he spoke French with his mother, they say). One has to admire what he accomplished after the horrible diving accident that left him wheelchair-bound for life. At the time of that accident, however, he was 22 years old, the Vietnam War was raging, and he (an American citizen) was safely ensconced at Harvard, likely with a student deferment that kept him free of draft danger. I always wondered if he ever thought of all the other young men of his generation who also spent their lives in wheelchairs after their tours in Vietnam, if indeed they came home at all. It would seem that the Vietnam experience of his own compatriots did little to alter his own pro-war stance, for there were few voices as loud as his in the chorus of pro-war supporters. That was a shame . . .

#37 Comment By Josep On June 30, 2018 @ 8:36 pm

@Richiehero
not ashamed to admit his European roots (he spoke French with his mother, they say)
It makes me wonder what his opinions of the “boycott France” campaign (from ’03 to ’07) were. I’d be grateful for any info on this.