Few people who go to medical school go on to become celebrated political commentators. Few conservatives write for the Washington Post. Yet Charles Krauthammer somehow did both despite being paralyzed from a devastating injury while in his first year of medical school. His life was amazing and his dedication, wit, and power of perseverance should be an inspiration to us all.
But that’s not what Things That Matter is about. It’s not an autobiographical screed meant to “set the record straight,” a self-pitying life of a man paralyzed by a chance injury, or the ramblings of a RINO talking about the lessons learned from his career at the Washington Post and why we should just get along. Were it any of that, it would not be enjoyable or interesting to read.
Instead, it’s a collection of essays that show Krauthammer’s views on life, politics, and foreign policy. They’re organized by subject and show the amazing intellect and beautiful writing style of a man with much to say and a masterful ability to say them. His timeless essays touch everything from Israel to medical school, America’s role in the world to how he transitioned from being a doctor to a political commentator. They’re witty, oftentimes quite funny despite the serious subject matter, and generally brilliant. Even if you don’t finish this review, I highly recommend you order a copy of the book.
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Summary of Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer
Krauthammer’s essays in Things That Matter, as I mentioned in the introduction, touch on everything. His oldest writings, generally from The New Republic, show his liberal roots as a young man, but most present a conservative perspective. Some are short and funny, others are long, penetrating works that discuss such heavy topics as how the American hegemon should behave and what the dangers of stem cell research are. He effectively rebuts Democrat talking points, attaches a heartfelt appeal to writings that touch on emotional subjects, such as gun control, and often presents novel points that I hadn’t considered.
That’s not to say Trump Republicans will agree with everything in the book. He was certainly a proponent of America involving itself abroad in the same vein as Niall Ferguson in Colossus (although he would disagree with Ferguson in the use of the word “empire” in regard to the American position), is not as strong on gun rights as he should have been, and his writings on Israel and why America should get involved in the Middle East often seem like the radically pro-Israel sentiments skewered in The Israel Lobby.
But, whatever his point, he presents it effectively, usually drawing on his obvious command of history and the English language to make his point in a convincing way. His beautiful telling of the story of the Jewish diaspora and Israel being the last redoubt of the Jewish people and Jewish culture, his long-form policy discussion on stem cell research and the moral and ethical dangers of growing cells for research purposes, and his penetrating article on the true state of Chinese power all call on history, philosophy, and (what were) current events to make their points and his arguments are, without fail, well-constructed.
And the breadth of the arguments made is just as impressive as their depth. There are a smattering of articles on, as I previously noted, most any subject. Israel comes up multiple times. The justification for our invading Iraq and his view on why the arguments against doing so come up multiple times in the foreign policy section. He also skewers the left and its support, after the fact, for Reagan’s Cold War policies after mocking and trying to stop them during that long struggle.
The domestic politics section occasionally touches on touchy medical issues such as assisted suicide and stem cell research while also covering everything from affirmative action to women in the workplace, whether statues of FDR should present him in a wheelchair to how the US should handle the illegal immigration situation, if the left’s conception of the “angry white man” is rooted in reality to why negative campaign commercials are causing us to lose faith in the politicians. It is stunning how much he could write about in such a powerful way.
The first section, the section on personal issues, is also about varied and diverse topics. Krauthammer included obituaries and in memoriam articles he wrote, articles on manners, articles on space, and even articles on the stupidity of natural childbirth and the necessity of modern medical innovation. As with the policy sections of Things That Matter, Krauthammer’s breadth is is impressive as his breadth.
One think Things That Matter does not contain is articles that skewer the other side. His tone is significantly more Romneyesque than Trumpian. Little time is spent demolishing opposing viewpoints as the overwhelming majority of the book is spent building up moderate conservative viewpoints rather than attacking the other side for the wrongheaded nature of their views.
However, that is not without explanation. One chapter, as already noted, describes what he sees the problems as being with negative campaign ads: they erode our faith in the republic. Another describes how conservatives see liberals/progressives as being wrong while leftists view us as evil.
Overall, Things That Matter is a book about a huge array of subjects that manages to distill each one to its most essential points. Few words are wasted despite very little of import being left unsaid. And although the material is often weighty, Krauthammer manages to pack a punch in ways that are somewhat funny and always insightful. For example, in an article about why a proposed mosque near Ground Zero should not be built, Krauthammer asks if a German cultural center should be built near Treblinka. Of course not.
His uncompromising honesty and ability to put complex topics in such stark terms is the quiddity of his writing style. It permeates the book and is quite refreshing in these fake news and clickbait-filled times.
Analysis of Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer
My thoughts on Things That Matter are somewhat muddled. On one hand, Krauthammer’s writing is excellent, his points generally well made, and the articles about interesting topics. But, on the other hand, he rarely drives the point home to the extent he needs to; other than the German cultural center at Treblinka comment, few of his articles about why the left is wrong do enough to make the point forcefully felt. They’re well written, but the last paragraph frequently seems missing.
That is, I think, because they’re from a different time. Krauthammer unfortunately died in 2018. His last articles attacked Trump. He was stuck in the past and didn’t get that the situation had changed.
We’re no longer in a time where conservatives can write for the Washington Post or New York Times. These days, real conservatives have to write for the NYP, Breitbart, or Daily Caller. We’re no longer in a time where the battles are small, about weighty but ultimately irrelevant to the average person issues like stem cells and whether political commercials are nice or not. Now, we’re fighting for the the very soul of America. Times have changed and it appears that Krauthammer never caught up.
Now, that’s not all bad, nor should the standards of the day be used to judge articles from the past. As I said previously, most of his articles are great, especially when viewed in the context of when they were written. The 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s were times when America was doing well, not when it had descended into partisan acrimony. Had more people been like Krauthammer, then perhaps things would not have changed so much. But they weren’t. They were ruthless, bitter leftist gangsters like Obama and Pelosi, political thugs for whom all that matters is power and control. Now we’re stuck fighting those thugs and we need to act like it.
Based on his essays in Things That Matter, Krauthammer never got that, even during the years of the Obama regime. He seems to have never accepted the outlook of Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon, or even Barry Goldwater. Instead, he remained stuck in the silk-stockinged Republican mode of thinking, where we all most be honorable knights fighting with a gallant code of conduct rather than vicious Vikings hoisting the black flag and fighting the culture war without restraint or mercy.
What he forgot is that both are needed. In civilized times, men can afford to be knights and fight with a code of conduct. In bitter, barbaric times like ours, a Norse touch is necessary. And as times change, so do men. The Norsemen at Normandy eventually turned into the Normans that conquered Anglo-Saxon England. When the Dark Ages ended, men could become less brutal. But America is entering a political Dark Age where a softer touch is no longer enough. Now is the time to fight, not to make amends.
That’s not to say Things That Matter is a bad book. It’s not. The essays in it are excellent and I’ll recommend Things That Matter to many people. But it is sad that Krauthammer couldn’t grasp the changing nature of American politics. Had he been able to do so, had even one essay in Things That Matter shown a transition toward a harder line, it would have been magnificent. As it is, it is merely good.
Conclusion: Should You Read Things That Matter?
Things That Matter will appeal to a particular sort of person. If you like reading about past political issues, collections of essays in the same vein as Wry Martinis, or general discussions of weighty topics, then you’ll probably like it. Everything is well-written, most of it is fun to read, and Krauthammer’s wit is self-evident.
But it’s not a book for our times. Since it was published in 2013, the American political scene has changed considerably and Krauthammer’s general outlook is no longer relevant. The men who were once moderate Republicans have gradually transitioned into Chamberlains, the left has moved to the left of Marx, and the right is now dependant on Trump. Times have changed and his essays are obviously dated in their inability to twist the knife.
So, should you read it? That’s up to you. I enjoyed it, but there are obvious issues with the arguments in it and Krauthammer’s outlook on politics.
By: Gen Z Conservative