WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, I was talking with Charles Krauthammer in the Fox News green room when the news that someone famous had passed away flashed on the television screen. Charles told me the way he hoped to go when his time came. His dream, he said, was to be assassinated during the seventh-inning stretch at a game at Nationals Park. He wanted to die in what he once called “my own private paradise,” where “the twilight’s gleaming, the popcorn’s popping, the kids’re romping and everyone’s happy.”
Alas, fate has different plans. Charles’s announcement that he has only a few weeks to live is heartbreaking. But in writing it, he gave all who love and admire him a wonderful gift -- the opportunity to tell him what he means to us and how he changed our lives.
Charles was the first person I turned to for advice when I was offered the opportunity to write a weekly column for The Post.
I did not know him at the time. Like so many others, I had long admired his work from afar. The first time I saw him speak in person was in 2004, when I was a young Pentagon speechwriter and Charles gave the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award lecture. He was introduced by Vice President Dick Cheney, who noted that Charles had been a speechwriter for one of his predecessors. “I now wish I had paid more attention at the time to the speeches of Walter Mondale,” Cheney said.
Charles delivered an enthralling lecture, which, to this day, is the best expression I have ever heard of America’s role in the world. He dismissed the idea of American empire, declaring, “It is absurd to apply the word to a people whose first instinct upon arriving on anyone’s soil is to demand an exit strategy.” Unlike Rome or Britain or other classical empires, he said, Americans do not hunger for territory. “We like it here. We like our McDonald’s. We like our football. We like our rock-and-roll. We’ve got the Grand Canyon and Graceland. ... We’ve got everything. And if that’s not enough, we’ve got Vegas -- which is a facsimile of everything. ... If we want Chinese or Indian or Italian, we go to the food court.”
We are not an imperial power, Charles said, but a commercial republic that, “by pure accident of history, has been designated custodian of the international system.” How to meet those responsibilities? Charles systematically took apart the competing schools of foreign policy: isolationism (which he called an “ideology of fear”); liberal internationalism (which supports force only in cases “devoid of national interest” and seeks to constrain American power through “fictional legalisms”); and realism (which believes in American power but “fails because it offers no vision”).
In their place, Charles offered what he called democratic realism, which “sees as the engine of history not the will to power, but the will to freedom.” America, he said, “will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity.” Put another way, he said, we will intervene “where it counts.” Germany and Japan counted. So did the Soviet Union. So does the battle against Islamic totalitarianism.
I realized that night: That’s not only what I think; that’s how I want to think. That’s how I want to write. I want to be like Charles Krauthammer.
A few years later, when I asked his advice for my new Post column, Charles invited me to his office. What a thrill to finally meet him in person! He was exactly as I expected: gracious, funny and kind. He shared with me his writing process, how he came up with ideas and wrote -- and rewrote -- his columns, until every word was perfect. And then he gave me one last piece of advice. “One day, they are going to ask you to write two columns a week,” he said. “Don’t do it. No one can write two good columns a week.” I followed his advice ... until this year. (Sorry, Charles).
In the years that followed, I was blessed to spend countless hours with Charles waiting to go on the air at Fox News, talking about everything from conservative philosophy to the rise of President Trump. He is so brilliant, so immersed in the debate, that he has never needed to prepare very much. One day, I asked him what his topic was. “I have no idea,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I had to spend hours preparing to be half as good as Charles. I’m still working on it. Even before I knew him, he was my lodestar -- and he always will be.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter @marcthiessen.