Klein on Krauthammer

There’s quite a bit of outrage brewing in the blogosphere over Joe Klein’s alleged insinuation that Charles Krauthammer would be a better columnist if he weren’t a cripple.  The offending passage is in a profile by Politico’s Ben Smith:

“He became ground zero among the neo-cons, but he’s vastly smarter than most of them,” said Time’s Joe Klein, an admirer and critic who praised Krauthammer’s “writing skills and polemical skills” as “so far above almost anybody writing columns today.”

“There’s something tragic about him, too,” Klein said, referring to Krauthammer’s confinement to a wheelchair, the result of a diving accident during his first year of medical school. “His work would have a lot more nuance if he were able to see the situations he’s writing about.”

A bizarre and outrageous line of attack, prompting responses from many on the Right:

  • Michael Goldfarb: “Klein’s attacks on neoconservatives usually center on their religion, but in Krauthammer’s case it seems his paralysis made for an easier target.”
  • John Podheretz observes “The self-infatuation this quote reveals about Klein’s own celebration of his own passport stamps—the words of a lesser author and thinker about one who so surpasses him in clarity and insight that a wiser Klein would have been better off  just admitting that he can’t hold a candle to Krauthammer and let it go at that—is striking enough. But let’s face it. This is simply disgusting, no matter how you slice it” and adds: “Klein means small in German. Trollope could not have come up with a more apt name for a character.”
  • Jules Crittenden coins a new word: “I think, due to the neo-con references, its actually a sort of modified chickenhawk argument. More of a cripplehawk argument, I guess.”
  • Betsy Newmark snarks, “Can you imagine if a conservative said that about a disabled liberal? Is he saying that all people confined to wheelchairs have narrow, unenlightened views? Usually liberals want to say that the obstacles that someone has personally overcome broadens their views. How many times have we read that FDR’s polio made him a more sensitive and caring leader? I guess he was also lacking the nuance that Joe Klein admires.”

For his part, Klein denies saying what is being imputed to him.

Obviously, I didn’t mean to imply second-class status for disabled people. On the contrary, the distance and perspective that comes with physical deficits often leads to enhanced insight and abilities. The greatest President of the past 150 140 years–(Thanks, commenter flownover!)– sat in a wheelchair.

So it is possible to write brilliant, nuanced commentary—on the war in Iraq, for example—without visiting there. But it sure does help to understand a complicated situation in an unfamiliar culture if you can see it for yourself. Indeed, I believe the leavening effects of direct experience are especially valuable for those who are blinkered by ideology and debilitated by extreme views.

Upon first reading the quote, I was prepared to believe that Smith was reading between the lines about what Klein meant.  But in his non-apology apology, it’s clear Klein is in fact referring to Krauthammer’s inability to travel to conflict zones, a byproduct of his disability.  That’s not quite the same thing as making fun of Krauthammer for being paralyzed but it’s dangerous territory.

Crittenden’s “cripplehawk” comment and Podhoretz’ bit about the “passport stamps” come closest to capturing the essence of Klein’s argument.   Is it a fair one?   Do those, like Bill Roggio and Michael Totten, who actually travel to war zones that they’re writing about have an added perspective that those of us who write from the confort of our armchairs don’t?   Sure.

It’s a rather strange leap, though, to argue that there aren’t other avenues for gaining information about a subject.  And, indeed, when people do in fact go to the field and write stories or issue statements supporting the war effort, they’re often accused of having swallowed the propaganda of our military and having seen only the “good” things on their guided tours.  There’s really no winning.

Aside from the controversy at hand, this paragraph from Klein’s defense of himself is actually far more outrageous:

[W]hile Krauthammer’s skills are impressive, his commentary has been dangerously bellicose, arrogant and wrong.  Given his influence with the Bush Administration, his unflinching support for American unilateralism–his invention of the notion of  a unipolar world–did extensive damage to our nation’s security and reputation overseas, and caused the unnecessary loss of  life.

First off, Krauthammer “invented” the idea of a unipolar world nearly two decades ago.  It was a straightforward argument about the implications of the end of the Cold War and the usefulness of international organizations during the heydey of George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order.”  Second, he’s a pundit, not a policymaker.  The idea that he’s somehow weakened the nation’s security and gotten people killed by writing polemics is idiotic.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. floyd says:

    Klein is wrong on two points…
    1] Krauthammer is no cripple.
    2] No great U.S.President has ever been confined to a wheel chair.

  2. Christopher says:

    lol good one, floyd. I was gonna say the same thing. Roosevelt is one of the main reasons our govt. is so big & bloated today and we have so many problems. I’ll give him credit for WWII (for delegating to Marshall and Ike) but he never did succeed in creating a strong stable economy.

    Obama may just be a reincarnation of FDR, with his handicap being an absence of a brain.

  3. Anderson says:

    Klein’s explanation founders on the stark fact of the many, many perfectly able wingnuts prowling the earth and penning op-eds. How does he explain them?

    … Which leads to the conclusion that, ham-handedly, Klein was expressing a backward compliment, liberal-style. Liberals think that whoever doesn’t think like them has some problem, and Klein thinks Krauthammer’s smart, so stupidity can’t be it … hm … maybe it’s the wheelchair thingie?

  4. William d'Inger says:

    In my experience, personal attacks are the last refuge of failed pundits. That is, if you can’t match wits with someone, your only recourse is to disparage them. In my opinion, Klein is displaying his own inadequacies, not Krauthammer’s.

  5. Franklin says:

    I agree with most of JJ’s analysis except this:

    Second, he’s a pundit, not a policymaker. The idea that he’s somehow weakened the nation’s security and gotten people killed by writing polemics is idiotic.

    Words mean things. There’s more than one way to incite violence, and courts have upheld that very notion.

    One should take responsibility for what one writes, and Krauthammer’s influence surely swayed more than a few actual policymakers’ minds.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    Krauthammer is no cripple.

    Actually, it was James who refereed to Krauthammer as a “cripple”…

    No great U.S.President has ever been confined to a wheel chair.

    In a certain sense, this does have the ring of truth…FDR never let the fact that he had to use a wheelchair confine him as a person and what he could do as president…

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    those who are blinkered by ideology and debilitated by extreme views.


    The greatest President of the past 150 140 years—(Thanks, commenter flownover!)— sat in a wheelchair.

    like Ive said before it must suck to be dumb, stupid and liberal.

  8. Eric Florack says:

    Klien is no idiot, whatever else might be said about him. He knew damned well he was enetering as you say, ‘dangerous’ ground. All he’s doing here is exactly what I was talking about the other day, when I suggested…

    Liberals will always scream the loudest about what threatens their governmental power the most, and that by nature includes anyone speaking forcefully with conservative values.

    What we are seeing is a fear reaction.

  9. Alex Knapp says:

    Actually, what I find baffling is the notion that Krauthammer is a good writer…

  10. floyd says:

    Allow me to elucidate ….
    FDR … Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was no great President.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    FDR … Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was no great President.

    So sayeth a voice of authority…you will pardon me if I doubt your credibility on the matter…

  12. davod says:

    Krauthammer must be hitting the mark.

  13. Eric Florack says:

    Krauthammer must be hitting the mark.

    … and thus, the fear…. correct.

  14. floyd says:

    I appreciate the affirmation. Thank you!

  15. DavidL says:

    We all suffer from limitations. Charles Krauthammer has limited mobility. Joe Klien has limited intellect. I suggest that the value of Krauthammer’s mobility and intellect exceed that of Klien’s.

    I note, the the democrats are still mad that Max Cleland’s politics were attacking, what 2006.

  16. Steve Plunk says:

    Einstein is considered one of the great scientist in the history of the human race yet he did no experiments. His mind was his laboratory. Krauthammer is similar in that while he can’t go to all the places his mind thinks about he doesn’t need to. His intelligence stands on it’s own without need of the support Klein advocates. Brilliance is like that.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    I appreciate the affirmation. Thank you!

    Who knew that “affirmation” was a synonym for negation? Oh well, to you, I guess…

    I note, the the democrats are still mad that Max Cleland’s politics were attacking, what 2006.

    Yes and conservatives are still mad at FDR…and so it goes…

  18. Drew says:

    Blog commentary as intelligence test:

    “Actually, what I find baffling is the notion that Krauthammer is a good writer…”