In the flurry of century retrospectives that practically snowed us under in 1999, I read a gem of an essay making the case that Churchill was the Person of the Century.
What? Not Einstein, as proposed/nominated/chosen by Time Magazine? Not according to the author. If Einstein hadn’t discovered the laws of relativity, someone else eventually would have: That’s how science works. But if Churchill hadn’t been there to understand the menace that Nazi Germany represented and to lead the mortal fight against it, we don’t know whether anyone else would have stepped up in time. Whether we would have seen his like in anyone else.
It was an elegant argument, compellingly written by someone I’d never heard of and whose name I didn’t retain. That didn’t stop me from mentioning the piece to any number of people over the years.
Fast forward about 10 years, and I began to see Charles Krauthammer doing political commentary on American TV. I liked him immediately and soon was waiting, not very patiently, through all the partisan silliness for Charles to speak. He always brought his distinctive blend to the issue of the day: a deep knowledge of practical politics, a clear thinking style, a gentle communication style, and gravitas leavened with a twinkle.
When he announced an upcoming book collection of his newspaper columns spanning several decades, I was delighted. When I read it, I was amused, for here was the lovely essay on Churchill that I remembered. I was both surprised and not surprised: It certainly made sense. All the traits that I admired in the man as-seen-on-TV were on display in that essay.
Charles Krauthammer died on Thursday, aged 68. The NY Times published an excellent tribute to him:
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.
I can’t begin to match that piece, written by a colleague and friend of Charles, but I also mourn his loss. Without getting caught up in sentimental hyperbole that Charles himself likely would have ridiculed, albeit gently, I believe that we need him, especially now.
Well, we no longer have him. All I can do now is to search, through all the partisan silliness, for those like him. Those who hold positions, sure, but principles even more so. Those who push back on outbreaks of outrage with some historical perspective on the crisis du jour. Those who speak with wisdom, humility, and generosity.
And by searching for those voices, by expecting or even demanding them, I can help them thrive.
I will not see Charles Krauthammer again. But it’s partly up to me whether I see his like again.
Here’s a link to the Churchill essay.
Here’s a link to his collection of columns.