In case you haven't heard, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer has a new book out that is currently atop the New York Times Best Seller List.
I recently had the privilege of discussing the book as well as other topics with one of the conservative movement's favorite commentators (video follows with transcript):
NEWSBUSTERS: Charles Krauthammer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Fox News political commentator whose weekly column is syndicated to more than 400 newspapers worldwide. He has become one of the nation’s top conservative commentators and is beloved by NewsBusters readers across the fruited plain. After almost 30 years, Charles has a new book out entitled “Things That Matter.” Please give a rousing NewsBusters welcome to Charles Krauthammer. How are you doing, Doctor?
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Doing great.
NEWSBUSTERS: Great. You know, other than your 2004 “Democratic Realism” – which was the text of the Irving Kristol lecture you gave at the American Enterprise Institute that year – this is your first book since 1985’s “Cutting Edges: Making Sense of the Eighties.” What made you want to write a book after roughly 30 years, and what were you trying to accomplish?
KRAUTHAMMER: Gambling debts. I put my money on the Cubs, and it didn't turn out too well.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, and I've also heard you say you put your money on ObamaCare working.
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, ObamaCare, of course. That was another winner. And the Nationals this year. I've had a bad streak. I've always wanted to do a collection. I've sort of hesitated over the years, and I sort of thought that the body of work now would justify it. And also, there's a sort of historic and chronological arc because I began writing at an historic time.
The first day I began my journalism career, I joined the New Republic magazine on the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in in 1981. So it kind of is an historic turning point. And from there to Obama, deep into the Obama presidency, I felt kind of covered this arc of history, and it was a good time to collect the best of what I had written and to see whether I could make sense of it. And I do write an original introduction, which is quite autobiographical – something I rarely do – which does try to put it all in a kind of historic perspective.
NEWSBUSTERS: What I found interesting about that introduction is in the very first paragraph, you mention things that matter to you, and your list included, and I quote, “the finer uses of the F-word.” Why do you see this as important, and would you care to elaborate?
KRAUTHAMMER: I would. In fact, it is my favorite column in the book. I wanted to start the book with it, and when my publishers heard that, they wanted to have me psychiatrically committed. So you'll find it in chapter three.
But you might remember that Dick Cheney used the word on the floor of the Senate in a famous incident about six or seven years ago when Senator Leahy sort of accused him of financially benefiting from his connection to the Iraq War. That's a major accusation. Then Cheney just let loose. So this caused a bit of a twitter and a scandal in Washington.
And I thought Cheney, of course, did exactly the right thing. But, rather than just defend Cheney, I speculated as to whether he might have used two of the variants of the word: the two-worder which ends with “you,” or the three-worder which begins with “go.” So I have this long disposition on the finer uses, the shades of gray, and how these are to be used, and when you deploy one or the other.
Anyway, I had a lot of fun writing it. A lot of the columns in the book are just fun.
I've got another. Do you remember that guy who was arrested by the TSA yelling, “Don't touch my junk” when he was getting the old pat-down? So I portray him, of course, as another great American hero, like a Paul Revere. “Don't tread on me,” the Revolutionary slogan, is a little more elegant than “Don't touch my junk,” but it's basically the same idea.
So, a lot of the book is this kind of looking at what's happening in the culture and sort of taking it lightly. A lot of the book is quite serious, of course, but I don't want to downplay the light parts. Otherwise you won't be able to get out of bed in the morning if you don't see the humor and the ironies that abound. And I write a lot about the ironies in my book.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, also in your opening chapter, you wrote how everything must bow to the sovereignty of politics. Yet most Americans have little use for, interest in, or knowledge of politics. In fact, the vast majority of Americans loathe politics and politicians. How do you square that?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, that's exactly the theme of the book, and that is – I'm glad you pointed it out – that is exactly the point I want to make. For precisely the reason you say, that the practice of politics is so grubby and grasping, so cynical and manipulative, and, as a result, people have correctly mostly tuned out and disdain it as a profession. Given that, I try to make the case that you have to remember one thing. For all of its grubbiness, for all of its lack of elegance, and for all of the beauty of the other things in life, the things that really matter – arts, science, poetry and music, and all the greatness of the culture, which is the stuff I write about in part of the book – in the end you have to remember one thing: politics is what all those other things depend on getting the politics right.
Politics is the mote. It is the wall that protects us against the barbarians, and I don't just mean external barbarians. I also mean the internal barbarism. Politics you have to get right. You can have the most efflorescent and glorious culture, and if you get the politics wrong, everything disappears. And you don't have to be theoretical about this. You just have to think Germany in 1933. China, the cultural revolution, where in half a decade, they tried to destroy 5,000 years of Chinese culture. And you don't even have to go back to history. You can just look today at North Korea. They got the politics wrong. They're ruled by a mad kind of Stalinism. And the result? A nation of slaves and a land of utter spiritual and material desolation.
So the point I want to make is, yes, you have a right to be disgusted with the practice of politics. But you have to remember one thing: we need to get the politics right because all the other stuff - the beautiful stuff, the elegant, physics and math and chess and sport and all the expressions of human excellence – they all stand to be swept away if we get the politics wrong. And that's why even though I intended to do this book only on stuff other than politics – I was going to call the book “Politics Isn't Everything” - in the end, I had to do half of the book on politics, and half on the beautiful and elegant stuff because in the end, it all depends on getting the politics right.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, speaking of getting the politics right, I was surprised to see you thought Winston Churchill was the most important person of the 20th Century. I agree with you that Albert Einstein is well-qualified but the wrong choice. However, even as a conservative, I would say FDR was the person of the century for getting us out of the Depression, winning WWII – albeit Harry Truman was president at the end. And regardless of what we conservatives think about New Deal legislation, they are an important and virtually daily part of our lives. So I’d have to give the honor to FDR. How do you respond? And where do you fit Reagan into that discussion?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I think the reason that it has to be Churchill is because there was one moment, Britain's finest hour, 1940, Britain stood alone. America had not joined the war. Europe had already fallen entirely to Hitler. This is the first time since Napoleon that the continent had fallen to a tyrant, and Hitler was a different order of magnitude than even Napoleon. And in that one moment, that one year, Churchill was able as they famously said to mobilize the English language – and of course to mobilize the English people – to resist and to prevent a darkness from falling over Western civilization that would have been destructive to absolutely everything the West had stood for. And I don't even know whether America in isolation could have in the long run resisted or survived. I don't know about physically survived. But spiritually, to live in a world with that kind of darkness would have been intolerable.
So FDR was a great president, and probably the greatest of the 20th century. One of the three, four, five greatest presidents ever. And what he did for America was incalculable. But what Churchill did for the world, and for the civilization in the West that was 2,000 years old, was indispensable. And when you have one man who is indispensable, I think he has to be the man of the century.
NEWSBUSTERS: And how do you put Reagan and even a Margaret Thatcher into that equation?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think they were the greatest figures of the last half of the 20th century. There is no question that the collapse, the overthrow, the defeat of communism was the great achievement of the West in the second half of the 20th century. It was an event of Biblical proportions. And Reagan was the one who led it. Reagan is the one who sort of gathered the energy and the spirit of the West to do that final push at a time when much of the West was ready for an accommodation, a kind of armistice, a kind of truce with communism. And he had a vision that communism was to end up in the trash heap of history, and he put it there – with Thatcher, with Helmut Kohl, and with, of course, John Paul II. These were the great heroes of the Cold War.
So, I put him in the pantheon as well, and I think that puts him among the highest rank of American presidents.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, maybe the most surprising column in your book for me was from 1995 titled “Myth of the Angry White Male.” You wrote, “In the 10 years before the November 1994 election, there were 59 Nexis references to angry white men. There have been 1400 since.” Tell us about this “myth” and how the media brought it back to castigate the Tea Party.
KRAUTHAMMER: That is exactly right. That is the echo that you get. It is precisely repeated with the Tea Party. And here's what happens. You've got the liberal media. In 1994, liberals, Democrats, who've controlled the House of Representatives for 40 years. So all is right with the universe. And then comes Newt Gingrich and these conservatives who overthrow the perfect order of being as seen of course by liberals.
So, how do you explain this? How could you possibly explain that you, a liberal - the one whose heart bleeds for the disenfranchised and the poor and the destitute, the tribune of the people, the person who understands the essence of human nature more than anybody else – how do you explain the overthrow in this revolutionary election? The only way that liberals could understand it was not that conservatives actually had a better idea, that there was a crisis of the welfare state that liberals had to build, and that it had to be resolved with a whole new way of thinking. They couldn't countenance any of that as a possible explanation.
So they could only explain it at the baser instincts of human kind had emerged and had overthrown what is right – meaning the Democrats, liberals in control of government. And as a result, they created the myth of the angry white male. I actually at the time looked at all the polls surrounding that election, and what I found is that there was not a scintilla of evidence to support this angry white male created by the media. If anything, white males were no more or less angry in any of the polls than anybody else.
And then when you get the Tea Party, you get exactly the return. People are saying, how could this be, this spontaneous movement of people who want to restrict government at a time when Obama and Pelosi and Reid are expanding it? Huge amounts of spending with the stimulus. Enormous intrusiveness in taking over healthcare, one sixth of the economy. Attempting to takeover energy with Cap and Trade. All of these things that they're trying to do creates a reaction instead of understanding what it clearly was – a reaction to the overreach of liberalism, and the natural American response to say, “Hey, this is not who we are. We're not Western Europe. This isn't a social democracy. Yes, we look after the poor and we have a safety net, but we don't want to redistribute income like the Europeans do. We don't want the government to control that much the way it is in Europe. We think that is not conducive to growth and to freedom.”
Instead of understanding that is the view and that is the reason that the Tea Party arose, they have to attribute it again to the basest human extincts: angry, white, isolated, resentful, pitchforks, marching in the streets, torches and all this. So that I think relates exactly to what I was writing in the book in that column on “The Myth of the Angry White Male.” It always lives in the heart of liberals because they cannot countenance the fact that a free people would actually choose more limited government. They have to explain it as anger, greed, resentment, and of course, at the very end, the trump card, racism.
NEWSBUSTERS: Yep. Well, speaking of the Tea Party, how do you think today’s Republicans should navigate the split between social conservatives, the Washington elite, and Libertarians?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think this is fairly overblown. There have always been these different streaks and strains within conservatism. I would have expected the big breakup to have happened in the early 1990s because one thing that held the disparate elements of the coalition in place was the glue of anti-communism. When that dissolved, when communism disappeared essentially, you would have expected the breakup, or at least the increase in friction, to begin to manifest itself. And I think it's rather remarkable it took a lot longer for that to develop.
I think these strains have always been there. There's always been a Libertarian strain among conservatism that clashed with the social conservatives. There's always been the internationalist wing that would clash with the more isolationist wing. And I think what's generally happened as those kinds of conflicts get mitigated when people face the larger issue, which is the threat to freedom, and the threat to solvency of the ever-growing, ever-intrusive, ever-expanding leviathan state.
So I do think that the overriding issue that brings all of us together in the conservative movement is this notion of more limited, more constitutional government. And the intramural fights that we have are more about either tactics, or details, or limits, or tendencies. And this will always be true of a major coalition party or major movement. And I do think that those who want to purify, so to speak, the movement by casting out those who disagree with them say on gay marriage, limits of abortion, these kinds of things, are making a huge mistake. The threat is the overriding state, and I think a conservative movement at heart is the resistance to that.
NEWSBUSTERS: Back in September, the Media Research Center honored you with a William F. Buckley award for Media Excellence. What did that mean to you, and tell us your thoughts about Buckley?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, to receive any award named after Buckley is really a distinct honor. Buckley I didn't really know until very late in his life. I got to know him I guess the last fifteen years or so when he would organize a meeting of some conservative writers and people active in conservative politics. We'd meet twice a year, once in New York and once in D.C. I guess that was the beginning of the establishment, which, as you know, we now meet in the Masonic Temple on the full moon at midnight. We all wear robes and chant and spread incense. But this was a separate time when we just sat around and talked.
So, he was obviously the great engine of modern conservatism starting with National Review. And one of the many great services he did was to purge the movement of anti-Semites, Birchers on the extremes, which was extremely healthy and led to the remarkable, inexorable growth of conservatism over the last half century.
NEWSBUSTERS: Were you surprised at the tremendously warm reception you got? I was there, of course. Did that surprise you? Do you expect it? How did that impact you?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, it was a conservative audience. In most conservative quarters, not all, but in most I get a very friendly reception, and these are folks who have been in the trenches. Imagine having to watch mainstream television for a living in order to call out the stuff. They should get commendations for hazardous behavior. Too much of that and they'll end up in the infirmary. So, I give them credit for that, and they really do important work because what happens on mainstream television and other media is really quite remarkable, and somebody has to do it to find it out and publicize it.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, speaking of hazard pay, a few weeks ago you went on Comedy Central’s Daily Show to be interviewed by the perilously liberal Jon Stewart. Why did you do that? It seemed to me you had a lot of fun with Stewart. Would you rather be interviewed by a conservative that mostly agrees with you or a liberal that doesn’t? Why?
KRAUTHAMMER: I've never shied away from debate. In fact, I do in Washington, I've been doing for 21 years a syndicated television show called Inside Washington on PBS where it's basically tag team wrestling except that I don't have a team. So, it's three liberals and me. That's kept me in fighting shape for all these years. I kind of enjoy that. I think it's good to go up against the opposition, and he's a really smart, well-informed guy, and a funny guy. So he's kind of the perfect opponent. That's heavyweight stuff, and I like that kind of arena. I found it was a very good discussion, and I'm glad I did it. I would do it again.
NEWSBUSTERS: I don't know whether you saw. I had written about that, and it turned out that he edited something that you said from the broadcast version that ended up getting put into the online version, but in reality it was edited out of what was broadcast. It was kind of peculiar. I don't know whether you had seen what he had done.
KRAUTHAMMER: No. After leaving the studio from doing it live to tape, I never saw it again. I heard about it, and I did read what you said, and tried to follow the transcript. I couldn't quite remember that incident, but I do remember saying what you said was edited out. I'm not really sure the motive. Maybe it was to fit it into the TV portion so that it would be coherent. I think it was a funny line. As long as it ended up somewhere online it's okay with me. It is a peculiarity, and I just, I'll give it the most benign explanation – they wanted it to fit into the format.
NEWSBUSTERS: You're being too gentlemanly, but that's okay. That's what we expect of you. So give us your take on the state of the media today. Do you think liberals still dominate like they have for decades, or is the existence of Fox, conservative talk radio, and the blogosphere leveling the playing field? Will the playing field ever be level, or are conservatives destined to always be on the losing end when it comes to media?
KRAUTHAMMER: Oh, we'll never level the playing field. We'll always be outnumbered, overwhelmed. You know, the British were outnumbered I think ten to one at Agincourt by the French, and we all know how that one ended. So I'm not too worried about the odds. It's in the nature of the media to attract liberals. It's a kind of self-selection process. Maybe there's prejudice in hiring, but even without that it would be weighted towards the left.
The whole difference is that if you compare us to when Ronald Reagan won election in 1980, then the left had a monopoly. Three networks, and that was basically it. And now there is an opposition on television – Fox. There is an opposition – talk radio. There are think tanks that are conservative think tanks. I don't think you can say there are very many universities, but think tanks function as an intellectual bulwark. We have our journals, and I think with that I do believe the intellectual firepower on our side really evens the playing field.
So, as long as there's a place for our voice to be elucidated and for it to be heard, I'm not too worried. I think we're right, so that in the end, I think we're going to prevail.
NEWSBUSTERS: At the news outlets other than Fox, who do you consider the best news people in the major outlets? What news outlets do you most rely on?
KRAUTHAMMER: Frankly, the thing I watch on television is sports. So I go with the Red Sox and the Cardinals as the best. I get my news from reading papers, going online and reading journals and stuff. If I ever do watch mainstream news, it's to examine the bias – just to see how they do it and how slanted they are, and at what point do they get so embarrassed by covering up for Obama that they give up the cover up or they give up the softball treatment.
So that interests me, but that's not where I go to get the firsthand information. There it's mostly online, and there you have to filter. If you're reading liberal media, you have to provide a bit of a filter, but in the end you can get a fairly good idea of what's going on. And then you draw your own conclusions.
NEWSBUSTERS: So what websites do you rely on most for what you think is going to give you the most accurate information of the current events?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I read the major papers. I get them all in hard copy. I tend to scour them even more deeply. The Post, the Times, the Wall Street Journal. Online I go through Real Clear Politics of course, because then I have sort of a choice of what's being written so that it can be from oddball publications. I like their weird science stuff about new discoveries in quantum mechanics, not that I understand much of it, but it intrigues me. Time travel, you know, that kind of thing. I read the National Review, the Corner. It's wonderful, probably the best of the group blogs. I read the Weekly Standard. I'll occasionally read the New Republic where I used to work to get a more liberal perspective. I read Mickey Kaus in the Daily Caller, who's one of the best liberal writers if not the best bloggers around.
So that's where I pick up information, but I sort of go link to link. So I'm often finding myself serendipitously places I've never been, and I learn things.
NEWSBUSTERS: Which media outlets today disappoint you the most?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I must say I find the New York Times editorial page unreadable. Even the headlines are hard to read. Once you've read a headline, there's no need to read inside. I just find it so metronomically predictable that it's uninteresting. That's a place where it could really have influence and yet it's such an echo chamber for the administration.
I love the way when everybody in the media was admitting that Obama, when he said, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan period,” everybody was calling it an untruth. The only question was whether it was a deceptive one or he was ignorant or deliberate, meaning a lie. The New York Times referred to it as “he misspoke” as if he tripped over a syllable. Misspoke is a word invented, if I'm not mistaken, by Ron Ziegler who was Nixon's press secretary, especially during Watergate. So that's the level of apologetics that you get to at the New York Times editorial page.
NEWSBUSTERS: We've seen, though, with the exception of the New York Times and MSNBC, the media clearly have turned as it pertains to ObamaCare, and in particular, the nice little lie or the “misspoke.” Why do you think the media have turned, and do you think that this is a temporary thing? Why do you think they're here at this point, because it's rather surprising?
KRAUTHAMMER: At a certain point it gets embarrassing to try to create cover stories for this administration. The guy says, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” and then he says the word “period.” That's death by punctuation. Period means no caveats, no exceptions, no context, no stories, no waivers, that's it. And then they've spent the last two weeks giving you caveats, exceptions, waivers, interpretations of the law, saying they failed in the crafting, which is an outright falsehood. They deliberately crafted it to kick people off their plans.
At a certain point, there's a certain honor in journalism. You know, if you believe in a president, I can understand that. You give him the benefit of the doubt. I would imagine conservative journalists might have done that in the Reagan days. But at a certain point, you have your journalistic integrity, and then you've got to call it like you see it.
NEWSBUSTERS: Do you think there's also an element here that they helped spread the lie years ago supporting the president on all of this?
KRAUTHAMMER: Yeah, but in some sense they did it innocently. You know, when Mary Landrieu, the Senator from Louisiana repeated almost word for word “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” she hadn't read the whole bill. She should. She voted on it. But certainly if you're a member of the press and you're a journalist, and you're covering 50 different stories, you're not going to read it. There's not a person who read the 2,200 pages and lived to talk about it. So, you wouldn't really know, and you sort of accept that premise. You might have heard some rumblings otherwise, but there was a lot to cover. So, yeah, you feel that you were deceived as well.
NEWSBUSTERS: Do you think that there's any hope for ObamaCare succeeding at this point, or do you think it's going to get worse? Is there an upside here, or is the downside going to keep getting worse?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think it's likely to get worse. It's not certain, it's possible they'll fix the website. It's possible they'll be able to deflect the anger of the tens of millions who are now going to lose their plan. We're only up to five million. Wait till the employers begin withdrawing their health coverage. So when that avalanche of discontent comes, I'm not sure they can withstand it. But I'm not 100 percent certain that it will fail. It is possible that they'll be able to get enough positive coverage, enough people testifying to wonderful outcomes that it will sort of balance out the people who are hurt. I don't know that that will happen. I doubt it will happen.
So, I do think it is likely to begin to unravel to the point where it's Democrats who are going to want to do away with it, and that's the ultimate irony, and that's what I think conservatives ought to be working towards.
NEWSBUSTERS: Interesting. Well, I would be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to congratulate you for being number one on the New York Times nonfiction list. How does that feel?
KRAUTHAMMER: It feels pretty good, actually. I waited 30 – let's see, how long is it? - I waited 28 years to write a book, and it's done very well, so I'm very gratified. A lot of people worked hard to make that happen, and I'm glad I'm being read. When you write a column, you know that it wraps fish every Tuesday. You kind of wonder about what you've spent your life on. So, I always wanted to put the best of my writings between hardcover not knowing if it would get an audience or a reception. And it has, so that is extremely gratifying.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, we at NewsBusters and the Media Research Center couldn't be happier for you, sir.
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, thank you, I really appreciate that, Noel.
NEWSBUSTERS: Thank you for your time, sir.