What Charles Krauthammer believed in 1984

Clark Coleman writes (Feb. 7):

I was browing an old copy of Right Reason by WFB, Jr., today. It is mostly a collection of old columns, but also has a correspondence section.

There is a letter from a senior editor at The New Republic that seems to date from early 1984 (it speaks of endorsing either Mondale or Hart later in the year). The letter speaks of the long list of criticisms that the editors of The New Republic could bring against President Reagan, and of someday converting the benighted Republicans to a vision of “social justice.” The letter sounds stereotypically left-liberal in every way. Then I saw the signature: the TNR editor who wrote the letter was Charles Krauthammer.

Is this old news, that Krauthammer was such a left-liberal Democratic Party man as recently as 1984, when other liberals had already become Reagan Democrats and neo-cons?

I’ve typed out the Krauthammer letter to William Buckley, circa April 1984:

Dear Mr. Buckley:

It’s hard to know what to say about an article [“The New Republic Problem,” NR, April 6] that applauds what The New Republic writes, and then, based on something it has not yet done, accuses it of bankruptcy, except to say that this must be as close as NR can bring itself to praise a liberal publication like The New Republic without breaking out in hives. Nonetheless, as the author of the editorial in question, I will overlook NR’s peculiar allergies, and address the bankruptcy charge.

Assume we endorse Mondale or Hart for President. There’s nothing inconsistent, let alone bankrupt, in doing so while at the same time pointing out three foreign-policy successes by the Reagan Administration. For one thing, three policies do not a Presidency make. In foreign policy, Mr. Reagan has a lot to answer for, particularly on arms control, and his disastrous misreading of American interests in the Middle East. (Even after Lebanon, Mr. Reagan persists in turning the cheek once again to “moderate” Jordanians and Saudis, who have consistently wrecked every previous Reagan peace initiative.) On domestic policy, the catalogue of sins we believe the President has committed is too long to recapitulate here, but is neatly packed into a terse 2,500-word editorial appearing in the TNR issue immediately preceding the one you found so appealing. We venture to guess that even NR, if it could suppress its anti-liberal prejudices long enough, could come up with three successes of the Carter Administration. We suggest you start with the Panama Canal Treaty, Camp David, and energy decontrol. Admitting the successes of one’s political adversaries is, to us, a sign merely of absent prejudice. It’s not an endorsement.

So there is no longer a Jackson wing of the Democratic Party. Perhaps—though your sister publication, The American Spectator, writes this very week that TNR is the Henry Jackson wing of the Democratic Party—but so what? It sounds peculiar for NR, which for so many years could not claim a wing, or even a feather, of the Republican Party, to find fault with The New Republic for holding a minority view in its party. NR spent 25 years educating its party to the truth; The New Republic under Martin Peretz has been at it for only ten. Accordingly, we will use NR as the standard: If by 1999 the Democratic Party has not elected a President from the New Republic wing of the party, we may just have to rethink our allegiances and turn our attention to educating Republicans on the virtues of social justice.

Charles Krauthammer
Senior Editor
The New Republic
Washington, D.C.

(pp. 357-58 of Right Reason, by William F. Buckley, Jr.)

LA replies:

Thank you very much for this. I don’t agree that the letter sounds stereotypically left-liberal in every way; after all, its strongest criticism of Reagan is that he is so naive as to think that “moderate” Arabs represent a hope for the Middle East.

The two main things we learn from the letter are that Krauthammer as of 1984 was a Democratic political journalist who opposed Reagan and planned to support either Mondale or Hart for the presidency, and that Krauthammer believed in “social justice.”

The first revelation, by itself, is no big deal; lots of people started out as liberals and became conservatives, and Krauthammer might have undergone such an evolution, though, as we know from his record, he has not.

The second revelation is more damning. “Social justice” is the cry, not of liberals, and certainly not of moderate liberals of the TNR persuasion, but of leftists. It is a communist-style phrase conveying some vague notion of total equality that no society on earth has ever realized.

It would be most interesting for someone to send the letter to Krauthammer and ask him:

As of 1984, as shown by this letter, you believed in “social justice.” Do you still believe in social justice? If not, why not? Also, during your last 20 years as a conservative star, have you ever told your readers that just a few years before becoming a conservative star you believed in social justice, and expressed to William F. Buckley your desire to convert Republicans to your vision of social justice?

LA continues:

See also the entry earlier today, “Pajamas takes down Krauthammer.”

LA continues:

Why does this matter? Why do I keep returning to the issue of Krauthammer’s liberalism? It’s a matter of honesty and how he presents himself to the world.

Supposed he said openly:

“I am critical of liberalism in some ways and thus occasionally find myself on the same side of issues as conservatives. Obamacare is a case in point. However, at bottom I am a social liberal, and conservatives should know this about me.”

If he were to say this, I wouldn’t have anything to say against him. He is, after all, a useful ally of conservatives on various issues—though, according to David Solway and the commenters at Pajamas Media, that is less and less the case.

But he doesn’t say it. For decades, but particularly during the last two years in which he has attained all-out guru status, he has deliberately allowed the world to believe that he is a conservative. He never contests the description of himself as a conservative. He has even referred to himself as a conservative. So his entire public identity and persona are based on a lie. And he uses his false position as conservative guru subtly to undermine conservatism from within.

And this bad faith in which he always operates is, I believe, part of the reason for the deeply veiled expression he always has on his face.

The other reason for his veiled expression, I believe, is his severe physical disability, which he has coped with heroically and stoically through his entire adult life. That a man is admirably stoic in one area of his life does not preclude his acting in deep bad faith in another.

Kilroy M. writes:

I have no interest in defending Krauthammer, but question whether the perception of his “conservative star” status is entirely his own fault. In an earlier post you replied to statements about his alleged conservative principles that he never actually articulated anything of the kind. In light of that, the only people that should be held to account for holding him up as a leading light of the right, are the people that presume, assume and read into him and his work a conservative content that is not there. In other words, it is his audience’s fault, not his, that he has come to be known as a man of the right. I don’t think he is under any obligation to deny or correct every inaccurate assessment of what he is, but it is the responsibility of the media and conservative commentariat to know what and who they are talking about. The letter cited by your earlier correspondent is in the public domain. There is no excuse for anybody to be under any illusions that such as man is anything than what he himself manifests to be.

LA replies:

Up to a point I agree with you. His “conservative” star status is principally the work of other people, not himself, and I guess it could be reasonably argued, though I myself would not agree, that he is under no obligation to correct other people’s incorrect impressions about himself.

But when he is directly addressed as a conservative—“Charles, you’re a conservative, what do you think about this?”—and doesn’t correct the impression, then I think the act of omission amounts to his participating in the construction of that false status. And, as I mentioned, in more recent times I think he has gone beyond the act of omission and has sometimes described himself as a conservative.

At the same time, the world—on both the left and the right—is so invested in his being a conservative that even if he said he was not, they would probably go on calling him one. William Kristol is a case in point. From time to time over the years he has let on that he’s really not a conservative. He’s said that he likes Franklin Roosevelt, that he’s liberal in some ways, that he might vote Democratic under some circumstances, and so on. But no one ever seems to notice Kristol’s quiet attempts at truth in packaging. They go on calling him a conservative. I suppose the only thing that would work would be some formal, categorical pronouncement. Which brings your argument to mind. Is a Kristol or a Krauthammer obligated to make a formal, categorical statement that he is not a conservative, just because other people think he is one?

February 10

Kilroy M. replies to LA:

I see your point. If it is put to him that he is a conservative, and he lets that stand without qualification, then he is obviously wanting to exploit the label for personal gain. Not necessarily for political gain, because the process makes politics meaningless. This is parasitism. But it also makes these people a mystery to me: why do they do it? Why do non- or anti-conservatives allow themselves to be called conservative? If somebody called me a leftist, I would defend myself. I would have an aversion to that. It would just rub me the wrong way. But these people have been involved in politics arguably their whole life, and this is the mental universe in which they live. Fancy living like that: a disingenuous, false life, for years on end. I wouldn’t have the energy.

Clark Coleman writes:

What if you went to speak before an audience unfamiliar with you, and the host introduced you as a liberal? What would you do? Would you correct them, or would you think quietly to yourself, “This mis-labeling might help me be accepted by this audience. I think I will keep quiet about it.”

I think that answers the question of what Krauthammer is obligated to do.

Derek C. writes:

In fairness to Krauthammer, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he wrote a piece admitting that neither Mondale nor Dukakis would have seen the Cold War out as successfully as Ronald Reagan. He got into a bit of a tiff with Strobe Talbott over this. He’s been highly critical of Obama’s government expansion and the healthcare reform. However, on social issues, he’s—at best—impatient with the arguments and wishes they’d go away. So his ideological movement has been from what could be called a Truman Democrat to a Bushian neoconservative, maybe with a bit more realism than someone like Bill Kristol.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 09, 2011 08:36 PM | Send

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