Coruscatingly Brilliant: A Tribute to Charles Krauthammer
“If God should grow tired of us.” It was one of those lapidary phrases for which Winston Churchill was so famous. He spoke those words in the House of Commons in his last speech before that body. Churchill was lamenting the cruel necessity of Britain and the United States having to arm themselves with the new, even more terrible hydrogen bomb, one vastly more destructive than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Churchill spoke of the children he saw gamboling and frolicking, unmindful of the nuclear sword of Damocles dangling above their heads. What would be their fate, this old man said wistfully, “if God should grow tired of us.”
That same world-weary spirit pervades Charles Krauthammer’s 1998 essay, “At last Zion: Israel and the Fate of the Jews.” I recall that phrase 20 years later as if I’d first read it this morning, on hearing of his untimely death. Charles was not an old man then, not yet 50. But his sense of history, his command of his subject, his passionate commitment to the survival of Israel and the people for whom it is yet the last refuge spurred him to write this impassioned cri de coeur.
In this careful analysis, Charles noted that Hitler would have had to conquer the world to eradicate the Jewish people in 1940. The Diaspora had dispersed Jews as far from Zion as Hong Kong and Patagonia. Today, the Jews are concentrated in Israel and the United States. And the American Jewish community, he noted, was fast disappearing. It was not because of persecution that American Jews’ future was in doubt, but through assimilation. He cited Jerry Seinfeld as the representative figure of today’s secularized American Jew. The Young Judea friends of my youth would say, there is nothing Jewy about Seinfeld.
Charles Krauthammer dared to think the unthinkable. What if Ahmadinejad of Iran came to possess nuclear weapons? He had openly termed Israel “a two-bomb country.” Iran’s mullahs are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of massive Israeli retaliation. Two bombs—even ones with no more kilotons than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—could suffice to wipe out Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and their environs. Most of Israel’s Jews would then perish in a Second Holocaust. And Ahmadinejad’s successors in Tehran have retracted none of his homicidal threats.
I felt a special tie to Charles Krauthammer. As a 12-year-old, I dived into the swimming pool of West Islip’s new junior-senior high school. Growing up on Long Island near the ocean, many of us kids had never been in a swimming pool before. I struck my head on the bottom. My blood gushed forth, alarming me and all the other boys. I was raced to the hospital in an ambulance, sirens blaring. My poor parents were warned: He may be paralyzed or brain damaged. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten. And I thank God I was spared the crippling disability that struck down young Charles Krauthammer when he suffered his swimming pool accident.
He may have been struck down, but he was not kept down. The rise of Charles Krauthammer to national and international respect is one of the great testaments to the human spirit. Charles epitomized the courage of a Jefferson, who said: “I steer my bark with hope in the head, leaving fear far astern.”
One encounter especially led me to revere this man and his devoted wife. Twenty years ago, I arrived early for a lecture at the Hudson Institute in Washington. I found my seat in the back of the hall and opened a book. Before the start of the lecture, Charles and Robyn Krauthammer came in and occupied one of the front rows, Charles wheeling his chair to an assigned spot. He would not be presenting this day. I was unsure what to do. Should I announce my presence in some way? I remained quiet, reading, but I glimpsed the tender way that Robyn Krauthammer straightened his tie, patted his hair, and gently kissed his forehead. Only now have I felt free to write about this beautiful scene of marital love.
Thinking of Charles Krauthammer’s passing, another phrase comes to mind—coruscatingly brilliant. I’ve only seen that SAT word used once. John F. Kennedy laughed when told he and his New Frontiersmen were being described in glowing press accounts as coruscatingly brilliant.
“With a shift of 50,000 votes in Illinois and Texas,” Kennedy scoffed, “we’d all be called coruscatingly dumb!” Defined as sparkling, giving off shafts of light, “coruscatingly brilliant” applies in every sense to the writing and the personal demeanor of Charles Krauthammer.
All the tributes stress Charles Krauthammer’s great civility. He was a contender. He was fully capable of dismissing a presidential aspirant as a “clown show.” But there was no meanness in him. You can read hundreds of his columns without finding a single vicious, personal attack.
Some might dismiss him as “overrated,” but that is only because in these distempered times, civility itself is underrated. I had the honor of lecturing at the National Security Agency several years ago. Going through the elaborate screening to enter the building—even as an invited guest—gives one the sense that this is all secret, very secret stuff. I had been asked to lecture on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, on their great quality of civility. Mindful of Charles Krauthammer’s kindness and his good humor, I think civility should not be kept a secret.
Robert Morrison is a former Reagan official and senior fellow at the Family Research Council who blogs from Annapolis.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of Charles Krauthammer on Fox News.