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The lifelong wanderlust of Charles Krauthammer

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Charles Krauthammer at his office in Washington, 2010. (Flickr photo)

On June 21, the U.S. conservative moment lost a leading intellectual light when Charles Krauthammer passed away from small intestine cancer. The 68-year-old Washington Post columnist and Fox News pundit was admired for his writing, commentary, and honest (and blunt) analysis. 

Yet there was one unusual theme that followed his every move: wanderlust. 

He wandered in two countries. Born in 1950 in New York, he moved with his parents to Montreal at age 5. He graduated from McGill University with a degree in political science and economics and, after a year as a Commonwealth Scholar at Oxford University, attended medical school at Harvard University.

A freak diving accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Hospitalized for 14 months, he still graduated with his Harvard classmates – and worked as a resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1975 to 1978.

This led to further wanderlust with respect to his career and ideology.

Krauthammer’s true passion was politics. Hence, he joined President Jimmy Carter’s administration in 1978 to direct planning for psychiatric research, and served as Vice-President Walter Mondale’s speechwriter.

The irony, of course, is he worked for Democrats. Nevertheless, to classify him a modern liberal would be preposterous. He opposed radical leftism, and identified with centrist (politics, economics) and centre-right (foreign policy) positions.  

The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg’s March 2, 2009 piece described his evolution. Krauthammer was “70 per cent Mondale liberal, 30 per cent ‘Scoop Jackson Democrat,’ i.e., hard-line on Israel and relations with the Soviet Union” working for Carter. It switched to “50-50: still fairly liberal on economic and social questions but a full-bore foreign-policy neoconservative” when they worked at The New Republic. Later, he was “a pretty solid 90-10 Republican.”

Indeed, the intellectual odyssey of the man who coined the phrase “Reagan Doctrine” in an April 1985 Time Magazine piece was based on the realization America’s political pendulum was shifting. He didn’t leave the Democrats, but the Democrats left him by lurching to the political left. 

The Republicans seemed a more natural fit. But not a perfect fit, by any means.

Republican writer/commentator Peter Wehner wrote in a June 21, 2018 New York Times column that his friend “situated himself in a particular school within conservatism, one that is temperamentally moderate, deeply suspicious of ideology, aware of the complexity of human society, and empirical in the sense that he was constantly testing what he was saying against what was actually happening in the world and the effect it had.” He wasn’t interested “in being a member of a political team,” but “his goal was to better understand reality.”

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Another component of Krauthammer’s identity was that of a wandering Jew. 

Born into an Orthodox family, he evolved into a “complicated agnostic.” He told The Daily Caller in 2013, “There was once a philosopher who said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I fear him greatly.’ That’s about where I am.”

Yet he was profoundly moved at McGill by Prof. David Hartman’s courses on Maimonides. It helped him realize “Jewish culture was not just a Sunday afternoon lecture,” he told the Jerusalem Post in 2009, but “belonged with a great secular culture that I admired as a student.” 

He also launched the not-for-profit Pro Musica Hebraica with his wife, Robyn, in 2004. It has presented concerts of lost or forgotten Jewish classical music with performances by talented musicians such as Itzhak Perlman. The reception has been very positive.  

What caused Krauthammer’s wanderlust? The answer was unveiled in a June 21 Fox News special. His father, Shulim, had a motto he taught his son, “I want you to know everything. I want you to learn everything. You don’t have to do everything, but you got to know everything.”

That’s what he attempted to do, and that’s why it was a life well-led. Rest in peace.