Charles Krauthammer: Prize Writer

It’s Monday morning and Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s going to write about. His weekly column is due Wednesday, but he has complete confidence that between now and then the Lord will provide. “Someone, somewhere will do something very stupid or very outrageous or very noteworthy,” he says. “When you first start writing a column, you’re afraid you won’t have anything to write about, but the world turns out to be too interesting. The Lord does provide.”

And the Lord has provided Krauthammer with a job he loves, one he never planned to pursue growing up in Canada.

Charles Krauthammer was born in New York in 1950. His family moved to Montreal when he was five.

“My father naturalized was a naturalized French citizen. He lived in France most of his life and moved to the United States after the war and got involved in real estate. A friend of his took him on a business trip to Montreal and he was enchanted by idea of living in a place where French was spoken. He started to do business there and was finally commuting so much he decided to move.”

Krauthammer adjusted easily to Canadian life, picking up French, which he still speaks French to his mother. The family kept one foot in the United States. While living in New York, his parents bought a summer house in Long Beach, Long Island and they kept it after they moved. “Unlike most people in the Northeast, my family went north in the winter and south in the summer.”

He has many happy memories of spending summers at camp in New York. “It was paradise there. My father sometimes took my brother and I out of school a month early to go to the beach house. From early morning till sundown, my brother and I did nothing but swim and play sports.” Krauthammer felt like he had two lives, being part of two communities, both of which were very Jewish.

His parents were Orthodox and sent him to Hebrew day school. He also took private Gomorrah lessons twice a week. “I got a rigorous Jewish education. I know what it is to be a Jew. There’s a difference between being nominally Jewish or sentimentally Jewish and being grounded in Jewish learning.

When he was a kid, he still liked to have fun, so he would pray for snow on Saturday night because it was hockey night. “If it snowed, the rabbi couldn’t come, so we could watch hockey.”

Even on Shabbat, learning and sports were intertwined. He used to come back from synagogue, take a nap and then study the weekly parsha in the garden with his father. He would listen for his friends late in the afternoon. “We could hear them dribbling a basketball. They’d bounce the ball because you aren’t supposed to carry on Shabbat, but apparently it was okay to dribble. That was our compromise, no traveling; traveling was a religious offense.” Krauthammer enjoyed studying, but he still looked forward to the sound of the ball bouncing he knew he would be released to play.

Krauthammer’s family also instilled a strong love of Israel. His father was in the Mizrachi movement. “He was at a Zionist meeting in Switzerland in 1939 when the war broke out,” Krauthammer said. His family took him to Israel for the first time when he was 13. He’s been back many times since.

Given his commentaries today, you might expect that the Krauthammer dinner table was a nightly political debate, but it wasn’t really. “Our family discussions were less about world politics than Jewish topics, Israel, religion, observance, and school.”

That is not to say Krauthammer wasn’t opinionated from an early age. He always talked a lot. In fact, he says his second grade report card said he talked too much in line.

When did Krauthammer decide he had something important to say? “I’m not sure I have anything important to say now. I never thought of doing what I’m doing. Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor or a scientist.”

He went to college to study science when he was 16, choosing McGill because it was nearby and his parents didn’t think he was ready to go anywhere. He commuted the mile or so to school for the first couple of years, but when he was an upperclassmen, he became editor of the school paper and the job came with a suite at school. That was his first time away from home.

College was an interesting time, Krauthammer said. When he was a senior his clique seized control of the school newspaper from the Marxists who had run it for some time. In fact, he says he is the most proud of the first thing he ever wrote for publication. “It was the editorial giving the political philosophy of the paper after I took over. It was a defense of pluralism. In 1969, defending pluralism was not a very popular thing.”

Krauthammer was also very involved in Jewish life on campus. “We were the Zionist faction at school. It was called the “Hillel coup” when we took over the paper, something I was quite proud of.” Rabbi David Hartmann taught political philosophy at McGill at that time and became Krauthammer’s rebbe. “I used to hang out at his house. I studied Maimonides with him.”

At the time, there was also a confluence of anti-Semitism on right and left. “It was political not personal anti-Semitism,” Krauthammer said. “I’ve never experienced personal anti-Semitism.” He explained that Jews were first admitted to McGill in the 1950’s. By the time he attended, many Jews went to McGill. “The right resented that we upset the WASP establishment and the left was anti-Zionist. We were openly, vociferously Zionist.” He characterizes his own politics at that time as center-left, “sort of what you now call a militant moderate, social democrat.”

When he graduated from college he says he didn’t know what he wanted to be. “I wanted to be everything.” His course of study had changed over the years from science to political science and economics and political philosophy. He had not lost his interest in science and, in fact, was accepted to medical school, but decided to attend Oxford instead on a three year scholarship to study political philosophy. He wasn’t satisfied, however, and at the end of the first year, had an intellectual crisis. “I was writing a thesis about John Stuart Mill. I went away, came back read, my draft and decided I should do something else. On impulse I called Harvard Medical School and they told me there was a spot open that week and if I could come within five or six days, I’d be admitted. You can see my career has not been well planned,” he says smiling.

It was during his freshmen year in medical school that he had the accident that changed his life. He dove off the diving board at a swimming pool and hit his head on the bottom. Since then, he’s been confined to a wheelchair, something few people know unless they’ve seen him in person or on television. While he was forced to make certain lifestyle changes, Krauthammer did not let the accident affect his ambition.

He completed medical school and did a three year residency in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, serving as chief resident the last year. During that time he wrote a paper about a condition he called “secondary mania.” Almost twenty years later, one of Krauthammer’s friends at the AMA sent him a newsletter discussing the identification and treatment of secondary mania. “I had said there was disease no one recognized and gave it a name. I left the field before the paper was even published. I sent it in and then left. I discovered that an entire field of study had grown up around the paper. It’s kind of like being a bastard child in another country and discovering you have a whole other family.”

After all the hard work to become a physician, Krauthammer again decided that was not what he wanted to do. What really interested him was public policy, but having grown up in Canada he didn’t have any American connections.

Then fate took a hand. The Harvard Professor who co-authored the paper he wrote had been appointed by President Carter to what is now the National Institute of Mental Health. His colleague invited Krauthammer to join him in 1978 after he finished his residency. Krauthammer decided to go to Washington to find his fortune.

While working in the Institute, “through pure serendipity,” Krauthammer landed a job with Walter Mondale as a speech writer. “I had never written a speech before. I think it showed.”

That job only lasted until Mondale’s defeat in November. By this time, he decided he wasn’t as interested as he thought in mental health research. Before the election he had noticed an ad in The New Republic for a position to be the managing editor. At his wife’s urging he wrote a letter applying for the job. The next day, then editor Michael Kinsley called him. “He said, ‘you’re a doctor, do you really want to do this?’ I said yes.” Kinsley called Krauthammer in for an interview. “He asked about my journalistic experience and, of course it was zero. So he said, ‘can you show me any writing samples,’ and I said no. So Kinsley said you have to show us you can write and asked me to write a piece for the magazine.”

The article he wrote was subsequently published in the magazine and reprinted by the Washington Post. It was the first time a TNR story had been republished by the Post so Kinsley was very pleased. Kinsley convinced Krauthammer he wouldn’t be happy as managing editor, and asked him to write for the magazine instead. Krauthammer wrote a few articles, stopped to work for Mondale, then was offered a job as an editor after campaign. He stayed at the magazine for eight years.

In 1983, while he was cranking out pieces for TNR, Krauthammer started writing back page essays for Time. A year later, the Post invited him to submit columns to them and subsequently decided to syndicate it. By 1988, he was writing doing long pieces and some editorials for TNR, essays for Time and a weekly column. He decided it was too much. He was only 38, but thought it would be nice to become independent. He kept his title as contributing editor to TNR, but moved across the street and set up his own office and is now very happy to be his own boss. “I make my own hours, wear jeans and a sweat shirt, hire own staff.” Of course, independence didn’t mean he was going to significantly reduce his work load. He joined a weekly political TV show, continued writing for Time, became a contributing editor for The Standard and remained a member of various editorial boards, including The Public Interest and National Interest.

The first year his column was in syndication, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. When asked what it meant to him, he replied, “It meant never having to worry who the winner is again, because the prize is never given in that category to the same person twice. You want to win it once before you die, so if you can win it in your first year you’re relieved of the anxiety every year. Also, you’ll know how the first line of your obituary will read. Those are the two major advantages.”

The Pulitzer also turned out to be an emotional prize. When he received the award, he saw his father for the last time. He didn’t know it would be the last time, but his father died a month later. “If I hadn’t have gone to New York for the prize, I wouldn’t have seen him.”

Until then, Krauthammer didn’t know how happy his father was about him giving up medicine to become a writer. “My father always wanted me to be a doctor. I wasn’t sure if he ever reconciled to my downward social mobility of becoming a journalist. But it made him very happy and I was told he was showing it off to the nurses for days and days. That was the sweetest part of the Pulitzer.”

The prize also gave Krauthammer’s career a boost. “I wasn’t nationally known before.” The tangible impact of the Prize was to make K more famous and to cause a big jump in the number of papers buying his column.”

Being well-known is nice, but what Krauthammer really craves is influence. The question is, does anyone really pay attention to op-eds? “You can learn from op-eds. I do,” says Krauthammer. “It’s the best place to get timely thinking about current events and, one might say on a stretch, political philosophy.” He adds that the day of the great influential op-ed writers like Walter Lippman when there was no competition from television and other media are over. He says the impact is more incremental today.

He likes reading the opinions of others because they represent a certain way of thinking and it’s interesting to see how they approach problems, though he acknowledges a lot are not worth reading. “I don’t know if I have influence. I know there are people who read me and people who make decisions who read what I write and they may be affected.”

Krauthammer says he has given birth to two babies: the first was his medical research paper on secondary mania and the second was coining the term “Reagan Doctrine” to describe the President’s policy toward Nicaragua in 1985. There was serious argument about whether to contain or rollback Communism. In early 80’s hysteria about nuclear freeze.

TNR took strong position against it. I wrote a lot. He thinks he also made a difference in the debate against the nuclear freeze. In general, K hopes to give reasons and courage to like-minded people. Writing legitimates an idea. Once an idea’s appeared in print, people feel it’s okay to express it. First effect to affect like-minded people. He acknowledges it’s not easy to influence unlike-minded people. My role is to challenge them, but people don’t come up in street and say ‘I used to be a liberal until I read you.’ You can show them a coherent opposition argument and gain their respect, and shape the debate. I don’t hold out much hope of conversion.”

Krauthammer believes he has a responsibility to his readers “to give them my best every week, even if I’m tired or out of ideas. My goal is to write something parents will clip and send to their kids in college.”

His typical work day is, well, never typical. Basically his job consists of reading, thinking and writing. “On Monday I think, Tuesday I write, Wednesday I edit, Thursday I rest. There’s a rhythm to writing a column.”

He’s been asked to write other columns, but he never does more than one; because, he says, “I don’t have more than one good idea.”

And how does he take criticism? “Usually badly. Actually, I respect some critics and I enjoy a good argument. For example, Kinsley is my favorite opponent. I wrote many dueling pieces with Kinsley in the TNR. He is paradigm for an opponent because he is honest.”

Krauthammer tries to respond to all the mail he gets, 5-10 letters a day, he says, maybe more, but it’s not easy. “I usually respond to best ones, but it’s impossible to respond to them all.” He got one particularly memorable letter. “Many years ago, a woman noticed my name and asked if I was related to [shulan K] who saved her and her mother when they were refugees from Austria during second world war and it turned out to be my father. They hadn’t seen or heard from each other for 40 years.[chk]

Columns on subjects like abortion and gun control provoke an avalanche of mail he says, but what surprised him most was the strong reaction he got when he wrote a column about dog breeding. He never realized how many people cared about the topic.

Like most longtime columnists, Krauthammer’s positions on issues are often predictable, he tends to take positions that might be described as center-right. But he does occasionally surprise people or even change his own view. One major issue where he’s had a change of heart is affirmative action. “Logic supported the results it produced. I thought it did more good than harm in the early 1980’s when I wrote in defense of it. I might mention one place I defended it was in Commentary, to show I don’t always preach to converted, and it caused quite a stir. I thought it was important to construct black middle class and that’s what it was doing. By the late 1980’s, I decided the social and moral costs were too high. It’s done some good, combined with corrosive effects. Honest argument means you have to admit the good and bad. Now he still sees some positive elements, but is a strong opponent of affirmative action.

The subjects that most interest him often relate to medical ethics, the only part of medicine he says he keeps up with because it’s non-technical. “I’m interested in human experimentation, baby does, assisted suicide. Always interested in those issues. They’re very complicated.”

Krauthammer’s other major area of writing is strategy and geostrategic policy. In 1990, Krauthammer gave speech that was later published in Foreign Affairs that looked at unipolar world in post-Cold War world, which was and is a minority view. People thought world went from bipolar to multipolar. I thought it was unipolar dominated by us. Story closed before Gulf War started. Success in Gulf vindicated my argument. He still thinks the Clinton Administration doesn’t understand overwhelming U.S. dominance in world, it behaves as if we’re a middling power. The Administration has none of the confidence to recognize America’s predominance and use it as a bludgeon to get results. This Administration is so meek in using American power and prestige, it’s squandering opportunity. I like to write about it, but it’s hard to know where your ground is. You have to read broad canvas of history.

Though Krauthammer writes about politics, he avoids any direct involvement in the field, but he says he will talk to anyone. In fact, the week after our interview he was scheduled to testify before Congress during hearings related to assisted suicide. “I see that as part of being a citizen,” he said.

Krauthammer also shies away from the Washington political scene, preferring to spend time with his wife Robyn and eleven-year-old son Daniel. He’s been married for 22 years. They met when both were students at Oxford in that well-known romantic haunt, the laundry. “I’d never seen a washing machine in my life and struck up a conversation with t. We were married two years later. Robyn is a lawyer who now works as an artist. Krauthammer proudly displays her work in his office.

One of his other passions is chess. Every Monday night he hosts a speed chess group at his house. “We eat sourdough pretzels and potato chips. It’s a high cholesterol chess game, I can’t vouch for quality of game.”

He’s also very interested in sculpture, especially monuments and memorials. He loves to go to visit those dedicated to Vietnam, Korea, the civil war. The thought reminds him of a column he wrote critical of the Vietnam Memorial. “I got that very wrong,” he says now.

What does the future hold for Charles Krauthammer? He hasn’t planned his career up till now so he’s not too sure. “When my son is older, I might settle down and write books,” he says, “but, for now, I’m having too good a time.”