Charles Krauthammer, the erudite conservative columnist and bestselling author who became a television star and one of the most cogent critics of the Obama administration, died Thursday of cancer. He was 68 years old.
Though heartbreaking for the conservative movement generally and his audience in print and on Fox News particularly, Mr. Krauthammer’s death was not unexpected. On June 8 he had revealed his dire situation in a public letter.
“Recent tests have revealed that the cancer had returned,” he wrote, explaining why his once-ubiquitous presence had noticeably diminished in recent months. “There was no sign of it as recently as a month ago, which means it is aggressive and spreading rapidly. My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”
Though trained as a physician at Harvard Medical School, Mr. Krauthammer eschewed a career in psychiatry to become one of the primary conservative voices on The Washington Post’s op-ed page. Mr. Krauthammer had already demonstrated an ability to switch gears smoothly in life, as his probable future as a surgeon had already been ended, at age 22, by a swimming accident at Harvard that severed his spinal cord. He used a wheelchair after the accident. Years later, Mr. Krauthammer would write that he strongly considered dropping out of Harvard, but at the urging of professors he valued forever, he remained enrolled.
The move from a doctor’s office to a public intellectual’s wasn’t the last for Mr. Krauthammer, as he then became a popular fixture on Fox News as a conservative commentator. As Fox News came to dominate the cable news ratings, it was Mr. Krauthammer who was credited with the quip that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, had “found a niche audience: half the country.”
Whatever the field he took after graduating from McGill University in his native Canada, Mr. Krauthammer won honors on it. In medicine, he was awarded the Edwin Dunlop Prize for excellence in psychiatric research. In 1984, his writing for The New Republic won a National Magazine Award, and in 1987 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his commentary in The Post.
Mr. Krauthammer, a chess fiend in his spare time, was well aware of his peripatetic accomplishment, once joking in The Post that, “everything I’ve gotten good at, I quit the next day to go on to do something else.”
In a similar vein, he once told C-SPAN “I’ve had a very checkered, irregular career.”
Politics attracted him because he thought that at some point all other pursuits were either touched or consumed by it, he wrote in his introduction to “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics,” a collection of writings he published in 2015. The book leaped to the top of The New York Times bestsellers list, a perch it held for 10 weeks. It remained on the list for almost 40 weeks, and Thursday evening it occupied a Top 25 spot at Amazon in three categories.
While Mr. Krauthammer could be a withering critic of left-wing policies, he did not spare conservative figures when he thought they deserved it. While never embracing the Never Trump position that dominated the conservative publications in which Mr. Krauthammer was most prominent and respected, he was would slam Mr. Trump or others in his administration when he felt they deserved it.
After protests at Charlottesville, Virginia, turned lethal, and Mr. Trump ham-handedly said there were “good people” on both sides, Mr. Krauthammer labeled the president’s words and action, “a moral disgrace.”
Nevertheless, some members of the Trump administration were quick to offer praise Thursday, with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley calling Mr. Krauthammer’s death “a loss of wisdom and talent.”
Indeed, Mr. Krauthammer became a conservative after first dabbling with more liberal factions. When he arrived in Washington following his residency, he first found work in 1980 writing speeches for Vice President Walter Mondale on Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful presidential campaign for re-election.
Mr. Krauthammer, echoing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous line about how adults should move from liberalism to conservatism, once noted his route was typical. A supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democrats announced war on poverty and the Great Society while in his 20s, Mr. Krauthammer said the growing evidence they had not accomplished their goals and had in some ways proved destructive instead, prompted his shift to the right.
“It’s my job to call a folly a folly,” was the first quote chosen by Fox New host Bret Baier in a reflection on Mr. Krauthammer’s life that aired shortly after his death was announced.
Despite being limited in his movements, Mr. Krauthammer rarely discussed his handicap. In addition to his writing and TV appearances, Mr. Krauthammer enjoyed a lucrative career as a public speaker, where he would address the crowd while occasionally leaning forward and sipping from a long straw inserted into his drink.
Encomiums from across the political spectrum came quickly Thursday, with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell noting “his moral wisdom was straightforward but profound.”
Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post where Mr. Krauthammer ceased his column last year for health reasons, tweeted his respect.
“A huge loss to vigorous and civil debate on public policy,” Mr. Baron wrote.
“His always principled stand on the most important issues of our time has been a guiding star in an often turbulent world, a world that has too many superficial thinkers vulnerable to the ebb and flow of fashion, and a world that, unfortunately, has only one Charles Krauthammer,” Mr. Murdoch said in a statement. “His words, his ideas, his dignity and his integrity will resonate within our society and within me for many, many years to come.”
Mr. Krauthammer is survived by his wife, Robyn, whom he met while doing post graduate studies at Oxford University, and their son, Daniel.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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