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Charles Krauthammer, a Great Thinker and an Even Better Friend

Irwin M. Stelzer

Charles Krauthammer, who died Thursday at about 5 p.m. ET, announced his impending departure from this world in the straightforward, clear-eyed, elegant manner that fans had come to expect from him. The loss to America is dwarfed by the loss to his family and friends, but nevertheless it is enormous.

Especially at this time. The nation is deeply divided. Americans are having difficulty separating fact from fiction. Today’s debates lack the intellectual rigor and civility that Charles championed in his columns, his appearances on Fox News, and his many speeches and essays. When Donald Trump emerged on the political scene, Charles was no cheerleader. But after the election, Charles insisted on treating Mr. Trump with the fairness and respect due the president of the United States. Still, he kept watch for dangers to the institutions the Founding Fathers put in place—the “guardrails” that constrain any president’s behavior.

Those of us who knew Charles as more than the nation’s premier analyst of domestic and foreign affairs will miss a man as delicious in private as he was essential in the public square. If you doubt that, pick up “Things that Matter,” a collection of his columns and essays. His love of baseball is well known. To attend a game with him was to be captured by his enthusiasm, awed by his easy recall of myriad statistics, informed by his eye for the game’s customs. He would spot the umpire brushing off a spotlessly clean home plate so as to give a catcher, hit by an errant pitch, a few moments to recover. Charles also had an insatiable appetite for the culinary wares of Nationals Park.

Only those who experienced Charles’s kindness know how lavish he was in making it available, for he was reluctant to advertise it. Educated as a physician, he was the medical gatekeeper of choice for more people than he ever revealed. On one trip to Washington I took seriously ill and had to head for the emergency room of a local hospital. En route, I called his office and left a message. His secretary relayed it to him in his car, and by the time I reached the ER, Charles had called to make certain that the proper facilities would be at my disposal. He frequently visited and sat with friends who were hospitalized, to share his medical knowledge and interpret the jargon of attending physicians, as well as to comfort the patients and their families.

Charles traveled often to speak at fundraisers for charities important to his colleagues. When in some city to give a speech, he always found time to meet one-on-one with veterans whose spinal injuries would leave them wheelchair-bound for life.

His advice: Forget about hope—this is how it is going to be, so learn to adapt. He then offered detailed suggestions on how to do just that. Given Charles’s own life, this advice carried weight. Even some of his followers may not know that he worked from a wheelchair, having broken his neck in a diving accident during medical school.

He was equally generous with his knowledge of subjects unrelated—or seemingly so—to politics. To attend a Passover Seder at the Krauthammers’ was to enjoy a feast for the palate, thanks to his wife, Robbie, and for the brain. His deep knowledge of the Hebrew texts and commentaries, along with his own interpretations of the real meaning of the Haggada, were told with his special brand of humor, turning those evenings into joyous tutorials.

Life was a serious business for Charles. He had to overcome the effects of his injury, which he did with a calm efficiency that allowed him to keep a schedule of writing, speaking, family events and plain fun that others would find daunting. Instead of telling audiences what they wanted to hear, he preached the gospel of reason, civility, fact-based policy making. He challenged his listeners: At one event, sponsored by a super-conservative organization, he slyly introduced the idea that FDR was a great president, a view most present had probably never considered seriously.

Charles knew, although he never acknowledged it in conversation, the weight that Americans, including active policy makers, accorded his columns and Fox commentary. People would approach him at Nats games to thank him for sticking up for them in the media and in the halls of power. Others would shyly hand him notes. All were politely received, with sincere thanks.

Yet Charles didn’t take himself too seriously. His humor more often than not was self-deprecating. When aimed at others, it was gentle, unhurtful, designed to persuade the target to have a second thought.

Without him, the nation is the poorer. Perhaps the hereafter is the richer. Charles often insisted that when people stop believing in God, they will believe in anything—including totalitarianisms of all sorts. Thus he once wrote that even if atheism “is (God forbid) true, it is dangerous.” It leads to utter desolation.

Charles never was one for a life of desolation. Reread his final note if you believe otherwise.