June 26, 2018
On June 8, I was shocked to hear Charles Krauthammer telling America he had only “weeks to live,” and I was more shocked when he didn’t even last two weeks from that date, dying last Thursday at age 68.
From 2010 to 2016, I had the honor to moderate a series of political panels at the New Orleans Investment Conference featuring Charles and others. These panels began as a political debate between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, then we added a “Summit on America’s Future.” Charles was on each of those Summits as I recall, until 2017, when he missed the conference for health reasons. He said he would return but that didn’t work out. His cancer returned and claimed his life far faster than anyone expected.
Over the weekend, I went over some of my notes from those panels with Charles. Considering the current anger and emotionalism saturating the media’s political polarization, I find it refreshing that Charles never indulged in name-calling or disrespect for the other side of an argument. His sense of humor was always refreshing. I find it interesting that the person most qualified to comment on the mental health of some of our leaders refrained from doing so. (Before turning to political writing, Krauthammer went to medical school and became a psychiatrist, rising to Chief Psychiatry Resident at Massachusetts General.)
Krauthammer once told our panel that back in 1964 Fact Magazine conducted a poll of psychiatrists, asking if the Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was fit to be President. Half said “no.” That ethical lapse caused the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to add “the Goldwater Rule” to their Medical Ethics guidelines in 1973, calling any diagnosis of candidates “irresponsible, potentially stigmatizing, and definitely unethical.” But that, of course, doesn’t stop amateurs from slinging their psycho-babble daily. Still, I dared ask Charles to diagnose Obama after his re-election victory in 2012:
Alexander: Charles, as a trained psychiatrist, how would you diagnose President Obama?
Krauthammer: I took a pledge when I left psychiatry to avoid publishing any psychiatric insights into public figures. In fact, I have been critical of those who diagnose public figures from afar. The American Psychiatric Association once labeled Senator Goldwater as “disturbed.” So I won’t answer your question with specifics. All I will say is that Obama, like all politicians, has a high opinion of himself, but his self-love is excessive, even among Presidents. Before turning 45, he had written two books – both about himself. And remember, this is the man who said in 2008 that history will remember the day he secured the Democratic nomination as the day “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
Krauthammer’s Common-Sense Solution to the Entitlements Crisis
One of Charles’ greatest contributions to our “Summit on America’s Future” was a common-sense series of solutions to our most intractable problems. One of our most frustrating challenges is the entitlements crisis, in which Medicare and Social Security may become insolvent by 2026 and 2036, respectively, due to aging Baby Boomers and fewer young workers (and immigrants) paying into the system. The resultant cost overruns threaten to run up trillion-dollar annual budget deficits for as far as the eye can see.
Charles told us, “The solution is not that complicated. With Social Security, you must raise the retirement age and index it to longevity. When Social Security was introduced, life expectancy was just 62. Now it is 82. You have to change the cost-of-living formula and you have to “means test” the benefits. If you’re rich, you shouldn’t collect benefits. To contain medical costs, we must have tort reform. Malpractice suits account for 25% of medical costs, yet the 2,000-page Obamacare bill didn’t mention tort reform once.”
In one panel, former Republican House Majority Leader (1995-2003) Dick Armey exploded at Charles, saying, “If any pension manager proposed that cockamamie scheme of ‘means testing’ one’s pension benefits, he would be thrown in jail,” but Charles calmly responded, “It’s not fair, but it’s the only way to balance the budget. Social Security will become like any other welfare benefit – only for those in need.”
I particularly enjoyed the sharp repartee between Democratic gadfly James Carville and Krauthammer:
Krauthammer: The 10th Amendment has essentially been liquidated through the use of the Commerce Clause to allow the federal government to do anything and everything it wants.
Carville: Ah, the 10th Amendment, every conservative’s wet dream. I’m a proud supporter of the 16th Amendment (income tax). It was this country’s finest hour.
Krauthammer: The biggest problem with the income tax is in the area of civil liberties. The greatest intrusion into the life of the average American is the IRS (audience applause).
Carville: I see the audience is against me. I feel like a fireplug at a dog show…
Krauthammer: Then allow me to lift my leg.
As we approached the 2016 election, the New Orleans political panel seemed muted. Nobody wanted to vote for anybody! The libertarian P.J. O’Rourke didn’t even like the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. Steven Moore was pro-Trump but didn’t like some of his policies, and Charles was adamantly anti-Trump. I pinned Charles down on this subject, and he gave one of his classic answers in our final encounter:
Alexander: Charles, you have said that you will vote for neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, nor the Libertarian. As a public figure, how can you defend not voting for even the “least of three evils”?
Krauthammer: This election reminds me of when I was a clinical psychologist in a locked psychiatric ward in the 1970s. Trump won the nomination on his name recognition and antagonistic rhetoric. He is a liberal posing as a conservative. He is no Christian but won their vote by vowing to “defend Christianity.” Hillary Clinton carries more baggage than Delta Airlines. She couldn’t legitimately beat a socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union (and never came back, politically). She lies badly (Bill lied well).
Charles said he would probably write in “Paul Ryan” for President, but either way, it was his last vote. We all miss Charles, and I’m sure we will hold a special tribute to him this November in New Orleans.
Most of us don’t get to write our last words, but Charles did, and they were characteristically profound:
“I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.
“I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life – full and complete with great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”
– Charles Krauthammer, June 8, 2018
For further reading, I recommend his 2013 book, “Things That Matter,” dedicated to his wife and son:
“This book is dedicated to my son, Daniel, whose incisive, brilliant mind has kept me intellectually honest and at my keenest since he was about ten years old. And, to my wife, Robyn, who urged me 35 years ago to follow my calling without looking back. With extraordinary intelligence, humor, grace and loving kindness, she has co-authored my life, of which this book is but a reflection.”
Next week, I’ll return to a mid-year review of the markets, but I had to take a pause for Charles this week.