Despite his status as influential political pundit, Charles Krauthammer, who died on June 21 at age 68, knew that no spirit should be nurtured on politics alone. Krauthammer’s rich and varied intellectual and esthetic diet was described in his “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics” (2013) Some of his passions and pastimes stay in the reader’s memory more than politics, innately a more evanescent field. A previous Krauthammer collection, “Cutting Edges: Making Sense of the Eighties,” contained too much that was obsolete by the time it reached book form, some readers felt. Few things are as perishable as policy advice, and Krauthammer’s chosen profession was what he called a “color commentator,” borrowing a term from sports.
Others might have dubbed Krauthammer a transcendental kibitzer, albeit an exceptionally erudite and informed one. His urge to excel started in adolescence with physics, abandoned at age 16 when he discovered that he would not be a world-shaking theorist. Yet he retained fondness for the writings of Richard Feynman, the bongo drum-playing, amateur safecracking American theoretical physicist of Lithuanian Jewish origin. From physics, Krauthammer moved on to psychiatry, which he mastered to no small degree, publishing original research on the epidemiology of mania. He would leave that field with few regrets, later referring to himself as “in remission” from psychiatry. Apart from some jests targeting politicians such as Al Gore or Howard Dean whom he mockingly diagnosed as requiring medication, Krauthammer never believed that his professional psychiatric experience was useful in the political world.
More pertinent was the sheer range and variety of his interests, inspired early on by the example of his father Schlum Krauthammer, an Orthodox Jewish real estate developer born in Ukraine. The elder Krauthammer’s peripatetic life as a refugee and expatriate required him to speak nine languages. Krauthammer enjoyed noting that in later years, his father sometimes spoke all nine at once, leaving it up to his son to act as interpreter. Krauthammer’s own foreign language accomplishments were concentrated on Hebrew and French, the latter doubtless assisted by his mother Thea’s Belgian Jewish origins. The verve of spoken language would be part of Krauthammer’s communicativeness on countless TV and radio broadcasts as well as in writing, which he preferred to dictate.
Krauthammer’s direct experience of the Old World gave unusual depth to his historical awareness. A key text for him was Norman Cohn’s “Pursuit of the Millennium,” about medieval anti-Semitism and the Crusades. Before visiting the U. S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Krauthammer admitted that he had felt uneasy about a “showcase of the Jewish experience in the heart of America” being devoted to the Holocaust rather than positive achievements, but after seeing the museum, he concluded:
“Yes, the Holocaust is but one part of the Jewish experience. But it is a monumental part, and perishable. As this generation passes, the memory of the Holocaust will fade. This museum-immovable, irrefutable — will do much to guard the memory.”
As a guardian of memory, Krauthammer advocated such authors as the English Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose essays developed arguments about the essential role of liberty in civilization. Yet Krauthammer, despite enduring respect for Berlin, in the 1970s as a Commonwealth Scholar in politics at Oxford University, turned down the option of studying with him. Krauthammer confided to a radio interviewer in 2013 that in that year, Berlin was teaching a course on Marxism, a subject he had already studied and “never wanted to read another word of Marx again.” Instead, Krauthammer took classes with John Plamenatz, a lesser known political theorist, before returning to America to earn a degree in medicine.
A later intellectual pursuit with significant results for posterity resulted in the association Pro Musica Hebraica, cofounded with his wife Robyn circa 2003. The Krauthammers noticed that performance institutions in Washington, D.C. celebrated all cultures in musical concerts, apart from Judaism. Krauthammer told The Jewish Press in 2012 that his plan was to share opportunities to listen to composers inspired by Jewish themes not just for listening pleasure, but also energetically didactic motives. Krauthammer asserted about an event that year:
“One theme that runs through this concert is redemption. It’s a theme that’s so prevalent in the liturgy that you can’t go three pages in the siddur without coming across it. I think it’s very important, particularly for those who may not be religious or aren’t even Jewish, to understand that the idea of return, restoration – the idea of Zion – is not a modern creation but a theme going back to Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim, which was written 2,500 years ago.” Krauthammer recalled that as a boy, he had heard performances by the legendary cantor Moshe Koussevitzky. He hoped to recreate the inspirational quality of those occasions for listeners of our time. Following its first public event in 2008, Pro Musica Hebraica created an online archive of rarely heard works by a range of composers from different eras. Skilled performers include the Biava Quartet, an ensemble formed at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The Biava Quartet disbanded in 2010, making these renditions all the more precious.
Not all of Krauthammer’s intensely pursued diversions had such lasting impact. He was a longtime chess aficionado, recommending to readers a book on chess theory by Aron Nimzowitsch, a Latvian Jewish chess grandmaster, as well as George Steiner’s account of the World Chess Championship 1972, at which America’s Bobby Fischer duelled with Soviet champion Boris Spassky. Krauthammer played speed chess at home with friends, or in an occasional informal match with Natan Sharansky, the Russian-born Israeli politician who honed his own chess skills during years spent in Soviet prisons. Krauthammer was wary of the game’s addictive impact, especially in its online forms. To an interviewer in 2010, he claimed that chess was “like alcohol. It’s a drug. I have to control it, or it could overwhelm me.” He told The New York Times the same year that he had entered the Atlantic Open tournament in 2002, won a small sum, but “found the concentration and exhaustion almost unbearable.”
Occasionally unbearable for other reasons was Krauthammer’s experience as a filmgoer. In 1989 he vehemently rejected what he termed the “metaphysical cant” in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, despite the film’s serious consideration by theologians and others. In 2004, he slated Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic Passion of the Christ as “spectacularly vicious” and a “singular act of interreligious aggression.”
Krauthammer’s devotion to the sport of baseball was likewise fraught with moral conclusions, if in less aggressive contexts. Last year he offered what he called the “Krauthammer Conjecture: In sports, the pleasure of winning is less than the pain of losing…A net negative of suffering.”
Ever-ready to acknowledge errors made in political diagnoses and recommendations made under pressure of the news cycle, the net value of Krauthammer’s decades in public life was indubitably positive.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.