• Charles Krauthammer, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics, Crown Forum, 400 pages, 2013, $28.
RALEIGH — Charles Krauthammer’s new book, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics, is an eclectic, engaging, and witty collection of columns and essays from one of America’s most widely read thinkers. This book is a window into the author’s mind, heart, and soul. Upon completion, the reader will truly understand what makes this man tick.
Things That Matter is divided into 16 chapters comprised primarily of newspaper columns and shorter magazine pieces he wrote for The Washington Post and Time. There are also five long-form, denser essays addressing the ethics of embryonic research, Jewish destiny, and America’s role as the world’s superpower. For those familiar with the author’s regular weekly column, these essays require much more than a casual reader’s attention.
While Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist, political commentator, and physician often takes the conservative stance on most hot-button topics, he will surprise readers throughout this book by admitting he sees both sides of certain issues. In select columns, the author defies the ideological status quo and shares his independent views on feminism, evolution, and the death penalty. His newfound admirers may not know it, but Krauthammer was once a Democrat, having worked in the Carter administration as Vice President Walter Mondale’s speechwriter. This book will appeal to readers across the political spectrum, as well as some who loathe politics.
In the opening lines of his autobiographical introduction, the author raises many important questions and discusses what matters most to him. In doing this, he gives us a glimpse into what the book is all about: “What matters? Lives of the good and the great, the innocence of dogs, the cunning of cats, the elegance of nature, the wonders of space, the perfectly thrown outfield assist, the difference between historical guilt and historical responsibility, homage and sacrilege in monumental architecture, fashions and follies and the finer uses of the F-word…manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums social and ethical: Is a doctor ever permitted to kill a patient wishing to die? Why in the age of feminism do we still use the phrase ‘women and children’? How many lies is one allowed to tell to advance stem cell research?”
The author dedicates the book to his wife and son, Robyn and Daniel, and makes it clear that what has mattered most to him is his family. The first chapter is a collection of very personal columns in which we learn a lot about Krauthammer the man. He mourns the loss of his brother Marcel, who died of cancer at age 59 in January 2006. The author also briefly explains how he was paralyzed in a serious accident during his freshman year of medical school.
Those who watch Krauthammer regularly on Fox News may not realize he is confined to a wheelchair because of the way the TV studio set is laid out. He is paralyzed from the waist down. We also learn that he adores chess, Washington Nationals baseball, and his black Labrador retriever, Chester.
Several recurring themes appear throughout the collection. These include Krauthammer’s views that we now live in a culture where everything has been dumbed down to placate our nation’s failing schools, along with a decline in civil society in general; that the Supreme Court should stay out of legislating cases related to such social controversies as same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and abortion rights; and that President Obama is responsible for losing the war in Iraq.
The themes most relevant to today, however, are that of constitutionalism, or the role of government in the lives of its citizens, along with Obama’s failure to lead our country.
On the Constitution: “It defines concretely the nature of our social contract. Nothing in our public life is more substantive. Americans are in the midst of a great national debate over the power, scope and reach of the government established by that document. The debate was sparked by the current administration’s bold push for government expansion — a massive fiscal stimulus, Obamacare, financial regulation and various attempts at controlling the energy economy.”
On Obama: “This is a president who to this day cannot bring himself to identify the enemy as radical Islam. … [F]or President Obama, the word Islamist may not be uttered. Language must be devised to disguise the unpleasantness. Result? The world’s first lexicological war. …This would all be comical and merely peculiar if it didn’t reflect a larger, more troubling reality: The confusion of language is a direct result of a confusion of policy — which is served by constant obfuscation. …The result is visible ambivalence that leads to vacillating policy reeking of incoherence.”
In an interview, former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino asked Krauthammer if his training as a psychiatrist had given him an advantage in making astute political observations. His response is classic Krauthammer, and demonstrates why Americans flock to his writing: “Actually no,” he said. “Although, I do like to joke that there’s not much difference in what I do today as a political analyst in Washington from what I used to do as a psychiatrist in Boston — in both lines of work, I deal every day with people who suffer from paranoia and delusions of grandeur. The only difference is that the paranoids in Washington have access to nuclear weapons.”
Elizabeth Lincicome is a contributor to Carolina Journal.