A lot of people are smart. Many are witty. Some understand balance. A few write well. Fewer still are thinkers. And on the rarest of occasion, one encounters a soul blessed with all these gifts. These souls are the giants of their times. On Thursday, June 21st, we lost a giant.
On his way to class in his first year at Harvard Medical school, he and a friend took a quick dip in a pool. Diving in, his head struck the bottom of the pool. The impact was at just the wrong angle. What would have normally caused little or no lasting injury, instead inflicted a tragic injury. The impact had severed his spinal column, and he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
The accident would have detoured most from pursuing their previously intended path through life. But he was no ordinary person. He finished medical school as planned and successfully completed his residency. Perhaps the only such person to have ever done so, he was in his own words, determined to prevent ‘a tragedy from becoming a catastrophe.’ Still seeking just the right way to contribute to the world around him, and through an unlikely path driven more by chance than anything else, this young democrat left the practice of medicine and wound up in Washington, D.C. as a speech-writer for Democrat Walter Mondale. That’s Mondale, as in Vice President Mondale (to President Jimmy Carter) circa the late 1970s. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Carter in the 1980 election, this young man needed a new full-time job. He found it as a writer at the liberal New Republic magazine. From that beginning, as a Walter Mondale – Scoop Jackson democrat, an unexpected transformation would unfold. In the coming years his thinking evolved, his insights sharpened and his unique style and character emerged as a defining facet of his commentary. He had found his ordained means of contributing – he would provide cutting and insightful commentary on the world around him.
Like few others before him, he would speak not just about politics (for who cannot fail to speak on politics whilst working in D.C.?) but also on some of the most important social issues of his time. As importantly, he would bring biting, commonsense and wickedly funny observations to us on a breadth of different topics.
His depth on subjects could be intimidating. The logic of his arguments usually compelling. His demeanor was disarmingly calm, and without insult or impoliteness, he could gut your argument without notice or mercy. He was an intellectual force to reckon with. Someone you didn’t want to debate without really having done your homework.
Though he became known as a conservative commentator, he was not afraid to part with conventional wisdom when it made no sense to him – when common sense ran counter to standard idealogical thinking. A thinker driven by reason and empirical evidence, he could weave compassion and humor into his thinking, and could step back far enough to distinguish noise from substance. Through all of this, he kept his ability to admit error, to speak bluntly and to refine his thinking ceaselessly. You didn’t have to agree with him but you couldn’t help but admire his intellect, his ability to communicate and his insistence on a calm, respectful and polite discourse. Many of the siren voices on cable television today would be wise to reconsider their approach. If you intend only to incite and feed the unthinking “base” on each side, you can ignore this man and what he stood for. If you truly want to make people think and persuade them, you cannot ignore him.
His 2013 best-selling book, Things That Matter, was a compilation of many of his weekly columns and essays appearing throughout the years in publications such as Time, The Washington Post and the New Republic. Those columns and essays resulted in a Pulitzer Prize. Read the book. You will come away from it as I did – amazed at the breadth and depth of his writing. A sampling of column topics – the elegance of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, the odd attraction of “putzer chess”, the beauty of the Space Shuttle, the decision to use a midwife in a high risk later in life pregnancy, the possibility of intelligent life in the universe, the absurdity of the US olympic women’s hockey team crushing defeat of their Chinese counterparts and the ancient pact between dogs and the hyper-power human species. Trust me, it it will make you think, make you laugh and make you yearn for more from this incredibly gifted man.
Those of us who dare to think, and dare to write, to merge thoughts and words into something worth reading and considering, have a standard to meet set by this man. Few of us will ever meet that standard, but surely we will be better for having tried to do so. And in the process we will have found more joy and fulfillment in our efforts than we would have dared to hope for.
On June 21st, Charles Krauthammer lost his battle with cancer. His wife Robin and son Daniel will miss him more that we will. But all of us who knew him, read his words, or marveled at his wisdom; we who valued his discernment, reasoning, honesty, compassion, humor and ability to overcome almost unimaginable personal tragedy are both better off for having encountered him, and are humbled by his example. Some of us have been inspired by him.
On June 21st, a giant fell, and the world shuddered. Charles Krauthammer, rest in peace. You leave behind a legacy of thought, impact and inspiration.