I’m working my way through Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Matter, a collection of his columns over the past three decades. The book’s publication has provided the occasion for some much-deserved appreciation of the man, whose personal story is remarkable and whose influence on politics is unique. (In what now seems like ancient history, he suggested a plan for averting a debt ceiling crisis in early 2013, which worked.)
Still, it feels as though few reviewers have identified what, exactly, makes Krauthammer special. It’s not just his remarkable recovery from a disabling accident, which Chris Wallace discussed on Fox News Sunday. He does not define the conservative agenda the way Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin sometimes do. While he’s no David Brooks, telling the media what they want to hear, he sometimes dissents from the conservative line.
What Krauthammer does, above all, is translate conservatism into the conventional language of mainstream political debate. Conservatives tune in to see him on Fox News Special Report or e-mail his weekly column around because we like the way he puts our case to the world–not necessarily because he puts it best. (The result still manages to shock some liberals, as clips of his appearances on DC-area Inside Washington show.)
On the Jon Stewart show, Krauthammer praised Social Security and Medicare as the “achievements” of liberal politics, and praised the “success” of the welfare state. He also backed away from a full-throated defense of Ted Cruz (though he did not throw Cruz under the bus). Those gestures struck many conservatives, including me, as rather surprising. But tactically, they were effective: Stewart sat and listened, as did his audience.
Krauthammer’s columns have a patient but plaintive style, as if he is addressing a skeptical audience, never quite losing faith that they will listen to reason. He is the guest at the dinner party who says something quite unexpected. There is a gasp or two. Forks clatter onto plates. And then he starts to explain, and his hosts start to listen. He challenges them, never “singing for his supper.” But he still manages to secure another invite.
The task of explaining conservatism is one that Krauthammer takes very seriously. It is telling that the excerpt he chose for wider publication is called “Moving From Left to Right,” and deftly summarizes the path he has taken. That same spirit, that same urgent mission flows through the entire book. He is not trying to lead. Nor is he trying to win votes. He is trying to translate–sometimes in both directions. In that task, he is invaluable.