The New Republic claims with some pride to be schizophrenic: it infuriates both the right and the left, while claiming subscribers from the elite of both wings. It has published one of the most damning articles yet on the Sandinista government, while likewise exposing the atrocities of the Contras. And what other magazine offers both the amusement of seeing Congressman Stephen Solarz twist reality, logic, and his own radical principles and the delight of watching Charles Krauthammer marshal fact and reason in his thoughtful analyses of domestic and foreign affairs?
As Krauthammer’s first collection of essays, Cutting Edges constitutes a career landmark. A senior editor at The New Republic, before that a speech writer for Walter Mondale during the 1980 campaign, and before that a psychiatrist, Krauthammer considers himself an old-style Democrat, the kind that told Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you” instead of “What can I promise to you today?” In short, Krauthammer is neither a liberal nor a conservative but a kind of reactionary whose essays contain a mixture of hopefulness for the future and pining for the days when America was pledged to “bear any burden” in defense of freedom and when poverty seemed as capable of eradication as smallpox.
Yet Krauthammer apparently survived the collapse of Camelot with his wit and sense of humor intact. In a piece entitled “Stretch Marx” he recommends Jane Fonda’s Workout Book for those who missed out on limited editions of Pumping Iron With Engels or In Sneakers: Michael Harrington Speaks Out. Similarly, he punctures the pompous use of “Marxists” as a euphemism for those whom we once called communists: “One imagines the [Salvadoran] guerrillas sitting around the campfire in their mountain redoubt reading Das Kapital.” Neither comparable worth, the nuclear freeze, the “New Ideas” fad, nor the Sandinistaphiles command much more reverence in his essays.
Humor is ingratiating, and no doubt Krauthammer, like The New Republic, wants to appeal to as broad a spectrum of readers as possible. He bashes the right less frequently than does George Will and often tries to sympathize with the intentions of the left, even though the left bears the brunt of his criticisms far more often. Usually Krauthammer defends his centrist position successfully—but not always. His essay on abortion refutes both Geraldine Ferraro’s and Mario Cuomo’s public stands on abortion by showing that at the very least doctrinal consistency requires an earnest effort to persuade others to oppose the evil of abortion. But then Krauthammer muddles the issue by invoking John Courtney Murray’s theory of the civil peace: “So many [Americans] believe—however wrongly—[abortion] to be a right, that even if one could muster a majority to ban abortion, that would constitute a grave violation of the civil peace, which both supports and is itself supported by religious pluralism.” Who can accept the argument that abortion is murder but we must allow it anyway? More disturbing, Krauthammer never explains what moral calculus makes the mass extermination of human beings less horrible than “disturbing the civil peace.”
But with few other exceptions, Krauthammer’s arguments do appeal to both sides on the issues he covers. In his heart, Krauthammer wants to revive the old center of the Democratic Party, a combination of welfare-state compassion and cold-war willingness to bear the burden of being the leader and guardian of the free world. But (as he admits), that part of the party died the same day as Senator Henry Jackson, Nor, to judge by the Democratic frontrunners in the 1988 race, is there hope for its immediate resurrection. Perhaps it is some consolation that in a party without credible leadership, at least one writer remains to testify of a betrayed heritage.
[Cutting Edges: Making Sense of the Eighties, by Charles Krauthammer; New York: Random House]