Friday, January 10, 2014

Things That Matter


Charles Krauthammer

Reviewed by Donn Taylor

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer has been pronounced by Financial Times as "the most influential commentator in the nation." This book of his collected essays explains why. His inquiring mind ranges over a surprising number of subjects, from baseball to chess, border collies to solipsism, political history to history of ideas, and many more. And he writes convincingly on each of his chosen subjects. That is the great strength of the book: the play of a superior intellect over a broad range of subject matter.

It is also the book's only weakness as a book: It consists of chiefly of essays written over more than three decades of recent history but grouped "by theme in 16 chapters." Consequently, the reader must check the date of original publication, given at the end of each essay, to remember the political and social situation in which the essay was written. This may prove difficult for younger readers who have no memory of those situations. It also means that the book is best read a few essays at a time rather than in an attempt to digest it in one or two sittings. That said, the rich content of individual essays is rewarding enough to draw one back for frequent explorations. I will mention here one of my favorites and suggest others of equal value.

Krauthammer disagrees with Time magazine's choice of Albert Einstein as the outstanding Person of the [Twentieth] Century. Granting Einstein's position as the "best mind of the century," Krauthammer argues that only Winston Churchill possessed the quality of indispensability. "Without Churchill the world today would be unrecognizable—dark, impoverished, tortured." Krauthammer traces the history of totalitarianism from the Russian revolution of 1917 through the brief and violent years of Hitler's Third Reich to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. He argues that without Churchill in 1940, the fight against totalitarianism "would have been lost at the beginning." But the main fascination of the author's argument is his mastery and summation of the political and intellectual history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Equally fascinating are his treatments of personal values vs. political actions regarding abortion, of the contrasting natures of the 1980s and 1990s, and his concluding 2009 essay arguing that the apparent decline of America (both economically and internationally) is a voluntary choice, one to be resisted "as a matter of strategy and principle."

This an immensely rich book to be savored, in the gourmet manner, through small morsels over a period of months rather than devoured in its entirety during a brief period of a few days.

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