The Example of Charles Krauthammer

by Henry Farrell on June 22, 2018

There’s a case to be made, though a limited one, for de mortuis nil nisi bonum. There isn’t any such case for actively misrepresenting the public record of a writer, as Peter Wehner does for Charles Krauthammer in today’s New York Times. Wehner says:

In an age when political commentary is getting shallower and more vituperative, we will especially miss Charles’s style of writing — calm, carefully constructed arguments based on propositions and evidence, tinged with a cutting wit and wry humor but never malice.

None of this is true. Krauthammer’s writing was a wasp’s nest of chewed over paper, spittle and venomous indignation. It employed spleen as a poor substitute for critical intelligence, characteristically and systematically misrepresented the evidence to the point where it was impossible not to think that he was deliberately lying, and was thoroughly riddled with malice. His vicious insinuation that Francis Fukuyama was an anti-Semite is one example of the last. His mendacious vendetta against Hans Blix, who had the impertinence to be right about WMD in Iraq (Krauthammer later preferred to brush his own WMD claims under the carpet), is another. There were many more. The best that can be said is that Krauthammer was a clear writer, not in the sense that he was usually a clear thinker, but that it was clear who his enemies were; that he was intelligent enough to have known better, and that very, very occasionally, he did. While his personal qualities may have made up for his faults as a writer to those who loved and admired him, as a public figure and as a public intellectual, he was and will remain an example to be avoided rather than emulated.



Xavier 06.22.18 at 1:31 pm

I agree that his style of writing is calm, carefully thought-through arguments but….not always based on evidence. Good to read coz of its cutting wit and humor though.


Jonathan Gilligan 06.22.18 at 1:36 pm

Krauthammer was also predictably awful on global warming, where he boldly refused to allow factual accuracy to constrain his rhetoric.


roger gathmann 06.22.18 at 2:17 pm

I think this about sums it up. I have a soft spot for some conservatives – William Buckley, for instance – but Krauthammer never displayed any sense of complexity. If his opinions represented the man, than he was really a terrible person. If they didn’t, then he was a terrible influence who should have known better. Krauthammer, we should remember, was a legacy Marty Peretz person. It is a small, a tiny thing, but today, I am grateful that the old New Republic no longer exists.


AcademicLurker 06.22.18 at 2:21 pm

At least we’ll always have Krauthammer day.


WLGR 06.22.18 at 2:25 pm

The “socially affable reactionary monster” trope seems like enough of a cliché in mainstream political/media discourses to cry out for general explanations, as if the most important test for rising to elite respectability is to prove your capacity to ignore or excuse atrocious deeds, and demonstrating this callousness in your explicit ideological orientation helps relieve your obligation to compensate by demonstrating it in your immediate social life (or vice versa). You can either prove the shallowness of your commitment to political decency through interpersonal cruelty, or prove the shallowness of your commitment to interpersonal decency through political cruelty, but one way or another, those who can’t prove a certain baseline comfort level with evil don’t make it past their first unpaid internship.


Brett 06.22.18 at 3:11 pm

It makes you wonder if Wehner ever actually read any of Krauthammer’s pieces, or if he just pretended to have read them because it was the It Thing to do in his social circles.


Faustusnotes 06.22.18 at 3:31 pm

He supported the Iraq war but wrote “I leave this life with no regrets.” No doubt he believed in hell, and no doubt that’s where he would go if such fictions were true. What an arsehole.


Wild cat 06.22.18 at 3:33 pm

Yes to all that, but can we still celebrate Krautmas?


Philip 06.22.18 at 4:48 pm

‘…as a public figure and as a public intellectual, he was and will remain an example to be avoided rather than emulated.’
Well that really depends on what someone who is, or wants to be, a public figure hopes to get out of it


e julius drivingstorm 06.22.18 at 5:42 pm

@4 Krauthammer Day, @8 Krautmas. An ad hoc committee should be convened to award a token to any pundit who achieves the kind of credibility Krauthammer exemplified. I’d say Tom Friedman should have his own category every six months. Perhaps the trophy should be one of Jim Inhofe’s snowballs from hell.


john crowley 06.22.18 at 7:37 pm

Thank you very much for this. Your description is exactly right. I could always understand the admiration of those he chose to sit with on television — how many fluent and plausible speakers do those people ger to sit with? — but I apply to him Mary McCarthy ‘s description of Lillian Hellman: Every word he wrote was a lie, including “and” and “the”.


Omega Centauri 06.22.18 at 9:04 pm

As one who tries not to speak ill of the (newly) dead. I was surprised by the description of his writing, but I avoided reading him so I didn’t know. But, I’d seen him too many times as a talking head. But, there was one time I was pleased. It was just after Obama had been elected. and he had invited the conservative talking heads to dinner with him. I was anticipating that the Republicans would go into hyper-partisan obstruction mode, but Charles very nicely said “he’s my president too”. But only one conservative having a reasonable moment did not a zeitgeist make, and we ended up in hyper-partisan hell anyway.


Boiled Coffee 06.22.18 at 9:17 pm

I think it is important that one must also not forget his penchant for diagnosing his political enemies with mental disorders, which is all the more troublesome considering he was a trained Psychiatrist and sometimes alluded to that fact in his diagnoses. As a medical doctor, for him to make such diagnoses certainly falls afoul of medical ethics. And to claim that those were in keeping with a “calm, carefully constructed arguments based on propositions and evidence” is utterly preposterous. Brendan Nyhan, among others, has publicly rebuked him over this.


bekabot 06.22.18 at 10:49 pm

None of this is true.

“If we say it, it’ll be part of the record, and in these days of the internet, the record is forever.

If we say it, it’s sure to be recycled over and over again. So, it won’t matter so much if it’s true or not.”


PeterL 06.22.18 at 11:06 pm

The NYTimes Friday Evening Briefing describes Krauthammer as one of America’s most cogent conservative voices. I suppose he’s cogent in the sense of ex falso sequitur quodlibet.

I’m hoping for a final Brad DeLong Why Oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps? on this, but it’ll probably just quote crookedtimber.


Ebenezer Scrooge 06.22.18 at 11:07 pm

Yeah, Krauthammer was a real sweetie as a person. The kind of guy who would bellow at a rabbi in shul on Yom Kippur:


Peter Hovde 06.23.18 at 12:19 am

Nothing in his life became him like his name-I shall persist in my fantasy that the name was only one generation old, that his father was an ace US artilleryman in the WWII European theater, and so became known as “The . . .” This would at least partially explain, if not excuse, his enthusiasm for (advocating, if not participating in) war.


Glen Tomkins 06.23.18 at 2:15 am

You left out the part about his going straight to hell.


Glen Tomkins 06.23.18 at 2:44 am

The only objection I have to saying bad things about someone like Krauthammer after he’s dead, is that the living are a more useful object of vituperation. Krauthammer deserves a dyslogy, but he is beyond it doing him any harm

Why waste time contemplating Krauthammer’s passage from this mortal coil, when Kissinger has yet to pay for his crimes. The advice that David gave Solomon about Joab is something that applies here, “Let not his hoary head go down to Sheol in peace.”

In these matters, better to look forward to cases in which we can still hope that justice might be served.


roger gathmann 06.23.18 at 8:44 am

I like Henry’s reasoned pursuit of Krauthammer. But sometimes, you need a satiric headline from the Onion.


Brenda Johnson 06.23.18 at 3:04 pm


afeman 06.23.18 at 5:50 pm

I think one can take comfort in (as somebody on Twitter pointed out) that his death was overshadowed by that of a gorilla.


PeterL 06.23.18 at 7:32 pm


linnen 06.23.18 at 8:42 pm

As the joke about not saying bad things about the dead goes;

Charles Krauthammer is dead.


J-D 06.24.18 at 4:14 am

There’s a case to be made, though a limited one, for de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

On reflection:
What is it?


LeeEsq 06.24.18 at 12:09 pm

J-D-, on a purely practical level it prevents the creation of evidence to be used against you. When you speak ill of the dead, your enemies get something that they could point to and tell people “see, I told that this person or this group are really horrible. They are insulting a dead person who died horribly. They are hypocrites.”


Ian Maitland 06.24.18 at 12:27 pm

You say that Hans Blix “had the impertinence to be right about WMD in Iraq.” But, in his book “Disarming Iraq,” Blix confesses that his gut feeling, even in early 2003, was that Iraq still concealed weapons of mass destruction.

The book was reviewed in the Guardian by James Buchan. Here is an excerpt: “President Saddam Hussein of Iraq had stopped cooperating with the weapons inspectors in 1998 and the western powers were convinced he was secretly back to his old ways. Blix’s own “gut feelings, which I kept to myself, suggested to me that Iraq still engaged in prohibited activities and retained prohibited items”. The Iraqis stalled as they had done throughout the 1990s. Then came September 11 2001. It is Blix’s contention that the aerial attacks on New York and Washington “changed the vision” of the Bush administration. Saddam’s ruthless conduct, his use of chemical weapons in the war with Iran in the 80s, his nuclear ambitions, and the cat-and-mousing with the weapons inspectors were seen in a “more ominous and incriminating light”.
Having declared war on terrorism, President Bush needed “to eliminate this perceived threat well before the next presidential election”. The president, Blix feels, sincerely believed that Iraq was pursuing WMD but neither Dick Cheney, the vice-president, nor Donald Rumsfeld at the defence department had any commitment to inspections.”


oldster 06.24.18 at 2:22 pm

What’s the argument against speaking ill of the dead?
I’ll offer one line of thought, anyhow.

And first I should say that I used to be an academic historian, so speaking ill of the dead was exactly how I fed my family. I don’t agree with any very general or stringent version of the conclusion of the argument. But here it is all the same.

The principle that cautions us not to speak ill of the dead is simply an instantiation of the principle that cautions us not to speak ill of those absent from the conversation–in another continent, country, or room:
1) they cannot speak in their own defense, or correct misunderstandings; and
2) they are at risk of injury from our words.
These observations then lead to a third one, that
3) we would not like it to happen to us were the roles reversed.

So we all believe that we all benefit from a general agreement not to slander the absent, however lengthy their absence may be.

I don’t think it’s a decisive argument, by any means, but I think it offers *some* justification for the old saying.

The old saying itself may also have been motivated by an additional line of thought, namely the superstition that the dead may after all be able to visit some evil on their slanderer.

That consideration carries no weight with me, since it seems premised on a falsehood.

By contrast, the general argument from politeness to the absent seems worth consideration, in certain cases and to certain extents. Just as I might advocate for a charitable forbearance towards an absent agent, on the grounds that there may be more to the matter than we know, and perhaps they could explain or justify if they were here, so too I would advocate forbearance towards the dead.

But just as in the case of the absent, a policy of charitable forbearance is not a policy of universal amnesty.

Accordingly, I am happy to condemn absent malefactors in their absence, when their deeds are patent and inexcusable, and to condemn the dead on similar terms.

To wit: Charles Krauthammer was a horrible, despicable human being who used his time on earth to advocate for the deaths of innocent brown people. He typified the self-righteous evil of the “neo-cons” who played such a large role in bringing American hubris to the boiling point where it met its nemesis. He left his country weaker than he found it, and his hands are drenched in the blood of millions of foreigners.


Theophylact 06.24.18 at 8:41 pm

Perhaps snark or vituperation are counterproductive (although satisfying). But encomia are undeserved.


Helen 06.24.18 at 11:18 pm

“Krauthammer’s writing was a wasp’s nest of chewed over paper, spittle and venomous indignation.”

I love that metaphor.


Omega Centauri 06.25.18 at 1:09 am

Oldster @28
I would offer a modification to the injunction about speaking ill of the dead. That is to allow enough time to pass, that those who had been closest to him should be allowed to grieve without
being reminded of his crimes. That time period should pass long before any well researched history is written and distributed.


J-D 06.25.18 at 3:00 am

The dead can’t be harmed, by our words or in any other way. For example, people speaking ill of my parents can no longer do them any harm, although it might cause harm to others still living; for example, it might distress me. People speaking ill of me now might possibly cause me harm, but after I’m dead that will no longer be possible, although speaking ill of me after I’m dead might conceivably cause harm to survivors (say, for example, my daughter). If there’s any kind of case in favour of De mortuis nil nisi bonum on grounds like that, the stronger case is for De vivos nil nisi bonum, or the Scriptural prohibition of gossip (Leviticus 19:16).


William Berry 06.25.18 at 4:31 am

@oldster: very artful and on point, and pretty much all that needs to be said concerning the late Dr. Krauthammer.


William Berry 06.25.18 at 4:39 am

@Ian Maitland:

Nice end-around. Nothing you say has fuck-all to do with Blix’s ultimate conclusions concerning Saddam’s weapons programs.


PD 06.25.18 at 6:09 am

When told that she should not speak ill of the dead, Bette Davis said: ” Just because someone is dead does not mean they have changed.”


bob mcmanus 06.25.18 at 8:23 am

Having stopped watching US television not long after 9/11, I am not sorry to say that I missed many of speechcrimes of this ineffectual racist neocon. I could imagine naming more powerful and directly responsible US agents and accessories to the recent and ongoing horrors in MENA, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen (Ethiopia recently, for those watching), but apparently that is what-about-ism.

This thread does make question the ways the media spectacles mediate our relationship to our political opponents in apparent mutual high dudgeon, and mediate or erase our relationship to the millions of victims of our domestic competition for the social and economic rewards of self-righteousness expressed militarily.


casmilus 06.25.18 at 9:37 am

Was he one of the “Very Serious People”? I was never really sure what that referred to as I only encountered it via CT.

As far as I could make out, we don’t really have such a thing in the UK – apart from Paul Johnson, who really did seem to fancy himself as a court philosopher available to whoever was in power, and shifted from Wilson to Thatcher to Blair accordingly.


roger gathmann 06.25.18 at 10:41 am

Surely the idea of not speaking ill of the dead goes back to the fear of being haunted by the dead. It is in line with many prohibitions against speaking that would draw the evil eye upon you. To speak ill of the dead would draw the dead up, in spirit. And to the extent this is true, I wouldn’t want to draw up the spirit of Charles Krauthammer. On the other hand, if the spirit is already drawn, we need to exorcize it to get rid of it. This is where I think we need to intervene: to prevent the spirit that Krauthammer embodied from raging around and generating millions of WAPO op eds urging war and war and war.
If the spell for dispelling war is telling the truth about bloody minded Krauthammer, intolerant Krauthammer, ignorant Krauthammer – than lets do it! But more to ward off, say, ignorant Fred Hiatt, intolerant Fred Hiatt, warmongering Fred Hiatt, for instance. Or all the other brethren thumbsuckerati who engage in this kind of dishonest, disgraceful, and inhuman opinion-mongering.


John Ferguson 06.25.18 at 1:16 pm

Chali Cabbagemallet Joins the Iraq Liberation Choir Invisible


hix 06.25.18 at 9:39 pm

During the time right after someones death, the simple argument would be to let everyone mourn undisturbed.


oldster 06.25.18 at 9:50 pm

I’m sure you are right about one of the historical sources of the principle, Roger, and I noted as much in my earlier. But J-D wanted a case to be made, and that meant supporting the principle from premises we might believe in now.

If my metaphysics led me to think that the shade of Krauthammer could do me any harm, I would also think that the shades of innumerable dead Iraqis could defend me from him.
Angels and ministers of grace defend us! says Hamlet.
And Laertes replies, A ministering angel shall Iraqis be, when Krauthammer lies howling.

But that’s not my metaphysics. He already howled, lying, and now he howls no more.


Guano 06.25.18 at 10:04 pm

It is more important to tell the truth than to avoid speaking ill of the dead.

The idea that the USA can invade countries and make the lives of the people of those countries better is nonsense, because the USA has very little idea how to build a new regime after they have overthrown the old one. Each recent attempt at regime change has created a weak or failed state that has attracted terrorists and made the lives of its citizens worse. This needs to be repeated every time any time someone pushing regime change comes into the news, even when they die.


politicalfootball 06.25.18 at 10:15 pm

I bet you could find an obit for Krauthammer that is both honest and laudatory if you search white nationalist publications.

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