The Unconfined Life of Charles Krauthammer
Charles Krauthammer once told me, “The way I look at life is that it's all an accident. Everything.” We were in the lobby of the Hall of States, blocks from the Capitol, having finished the “Special Report” panel upstairs at Fox News Channel. I was somewhat taken aback, though I knew immediately it would stay with me forever. Charles, after all, was looking up at me from his motorized wheelchair, confined to it for life after a freak accident at age 22 paralyzed him from the neck down. None of this is meant to be and there is no design, he said. We are all along for the ride, no matter the turns.
News that Charles now has weeks to live, that cancer will take him, was beyond my imagination. The rightful, peaceful ending was not in store. For Charles, whose life was forever altered by a knife-twist of fate, there would be yet another tragic accident. Speaking directly in a public letter, Charles was valiant as ever. He acknowledged a vicious and arbitrary cancer, which had been there but was gone a month ago, had returned for good, and said, “This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”
Charles, like all heroes, leads us by his example. In Bret Baier’s extraordinary 2013 Fox News special on Krauthammer, “A Life That Matters,” Charles’ describes his diving accident, and his refusal to dwell on it. His staggering resolve led him to finish medical school on time, while recovering in the hospital, with his lessons projected on the ceiling above. Putting off his studies would have been “fatal,” Charles told Bret. Years later Charles would begin driving again, while sitting in a wheelchair. He once explained this miraculous development to me, citing the man who engineered a customized car for him, in riveting detail. His retelling revealed just what this path back to freedom meant, and what it felt like. Charles was smiling and exuberant and I held back tears, hoping he wouldn’t notice me choke up.
Being on the “Special Report” panel every week with Charles, from May of 2009 until August of 2017, was an honor and a privilege. He had a singular presence there, a towering intellect free of arrogance. But alongside his warmth and calm and ease, Charles concentrated intently because he cared deeply about his contribution to the topic at hand and the words millions would hang on. To focus himself, sometimes he mumbled quietly in French before we went live.
Seated to his right, or the left for viewers, I tried to limit the number of times I agreed with him, at least out loud. Off camera he unleashed the more mischievous side of his humor, some that almost disrupted our few minutes on the air. I remember the first time he made me bust out laughing, when a rather homely Obama administration official was eagerly talking up the stimulus in a clip Bret played during our discussion. Charles said, in pure deadpan, “Look at her, she’s just left a yard sale. She has a Mr. Coffee under her arm.” I lost it, the clip ended, and we were live, with me hunched over the table trying to control myself.
In nine years the only debate I ever won with Charles was about the 2011 debt reduction super committee that ultimately admitted failure and yielded the sequester. Charles, who had written a column touting its potential, conceded it was one of the rare instances when he had “not been cynical enough.” Roll the tape, the only -- and very rare -- moments Krauthammer ever backed down on “Special Report” were never due to a weaker fact arsenal but rather a temporary lapse of cynicism that affected his analysis.
Though we both love politics it was our discussions of parenthood that I savored the most. The most poignant anecdote involved a former friend of Charles’ beloved son Daniel turning on and bullying him, causing Charles such acute pain he couldn’t eat a full meal for a month. Charles did all he could to not allow his paralysis to alter fatherhood -- taking Daniel skiing though he couldn’t join him, sharing themed movie marathons locked in a room every Christmas Day while asking his devoted wife, Robyn, to “throw food at us,” and imparting a love of learning that Charles was raised to embrace by his own father. I loved the story of him driving a young Daniel to New York, and pulling up to the hotel just as the climax unfolded in the audiobook they were listening to. “Keep driving,” the enthralled Daniel commanded his father, who did just that. I hold it up to this day with envy as an unrivaled parenting triumph.
Charles respected the hard work of parenting, that it wasn’t supposed to be easy. Many years ago, when my three teenagers were young, Charles encountered me before the show one night in one of my traditional Christmas collapses. Why so morose he asked me? I lamented the burden of keeping the magic alive -- I was tired, broke, out of ideas for presents, out of time to buy them and wrap them and decorate and pack for whatever trip we were taking the day after and, I admitted to the entire makeup room, I hated Christmas. Dr. Krauthammer didn’t even pause -- he said he was taking over my case, for which he would prescribe: 1) conversion to Judaism, 2) bedrest; and 3) sedatives, if necessary. I will forever cling, as I have each jolly season since, to his prescription that makes me smile through my Christmas grimace.
Charles and I spoke a lot about the importance of imprinting memories in our children. He loved to hear about our beach vacations the most. I knew he loved the beach, but I didn't know how much, until I read about it -- somewhat by accident. One night, leaving a “Special Report” dinner at Union Station, Charles and I were headed back to the garage at the Fox bureau when we were approached by an African-American man in his 50s who was leaving work there. He sprinted up to us to tell Charles he had always admired him, that he didn’t agree with him but that Charles always had the facts and he was always fair. Charles thanked him and we said goodbye. Then the man added that he had loved Charles’ column on his brother the most. Charles wore a straight face and thanked him again. I was stunned, sheepish that I had not only not read the piece but had never even heard about it. As we got out to the street, Charles said that of all the hundreds of columns he had written in his life it was that one, from 2006, that still prompted the most response.
I wasn’t carrying an iPhone then, so I read it as soon as I got home. “Marcel” is a masterpiece. In it I learned about a devoted older brother, and their shared passion nurtured by their father, who would insist on taking them out of school early each year in Canada in order to have three full months at a small cottage they had at the shore in Long Beach, N.Y.
“For those three months of endless summer Marcel and I were inseparable -- vagabond brothers shuttling endlessly on our Schwinns from beach to beach, ballgame to ballgame. Day and night, we played every sport ever invented, and some games, like three-step stoopball and sidewalk Spaldeen, we just made up ourselves. ... It was paradise.”
Charles and I would later discuss Marcel’s cancer battle when my father began his own, in 2011, at the same hospital at UCLA. Charles was That Doctor Friend we all need, but few have. He checked in regularly on my dad’s journey from diagnosis, to dreadful treatment rollercoasters, to the end. Charles’ knowledge, and his comfort with all of it, was uniquely comforting to me.
Charles and I weren’t fated to become friends or colleagues, it was an accident -- and one of the greatest blessings of my life. In the days since Charles wrote his public letter I have wept over the moments we all shared with him, the things I remember him telling me, of the many I can’t recall, and the fact that there won’t be any more of them.
But as Charles has always done, we must face forward. Read his book “Things That Matter” and watch Bret’s special. If you are a student of Charles, share his gift as far and as wide as you can. If you were his friend and he inspired you and graced your life as he did mine, count this blessing and then try to create more students of Charles. We need them, desperately.
We don’t take the ride, it takes us. But we can take him along.