Charles Krauthammer Back With More Things That Matter
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The transcript of yesterday’s interview:
HH: I love it when a plan comes together. Two weeks ago, Dr. Charles Krauthammer joined me to begin a conversation about his amazing new book, Things That Matter, which is presently the number one bestselling nonfiction book in America. And then, in what I can only consider to be a display of roundsmanship, I have beat Prager and Medved and Bennett by inviting him back to do two hours of radio with me today, which I will then package with the first hour from two weeks ago and replay on Thanksgiving in what is a complete decimation of the Bennett-Gallagher-Medved and Prager effort to match me in Krauthammer minutes. Dr. Charles Krauthammer, welcome back.
CK: I hope that your audience has buckled its seat belts in this marathon, because not very many will still be there at the end.
HH: You know, I don’t think that’s true. I think this will actually build audience. We’re pretty convinced after the first one there is a great appetite for it. Are you surprised by the success of your book?
CK: Well, I have to say to some extent, yes, because after all, it’s a collection. It’s got, you know, an original introduction which is autobiographical, which for me is fairly unusual. But no, I didn’t expect it quite to have this resonance. But I guess I’m the new Downton Abbey, so…
HH: (laughing) Well, there’s that quiz pretty soon. People will be taking that quiz online.
HH: Now you’ve been on with my colleagues on the Salem Radio Network, and I mentioned roundsmanship, because that’s a term I discovered in Things That Matter, and I love it and I embrace it, and it applies to radio. It probably applies to television commentary as well. Would you explain to the audience what roundsmanship is?
CK: Well, that’s one of my favorite columns in the book. Well, you do rounds. Rounds is what you do when you’re a medical student. You follow around a senior doctor, bed to bed, patient to patient. Then a senior doctor discusses the conditions, and you learn that way about each of them. And then during the visit to the bedside, he’ll ask questions of each of the students. So a roundsman is the one guy in the gaggle of students who has to show off to the professor by raising obscure questions about impossibly obscure diseases. So you go to a bedside, the guy’s got a rash after taking penicillin. It’s obvious what he’s got. And he’ll raise his hand quietly and say could this not be a case of Schmendrick’s Syndrome as reported in the latest journal of ridiculously obscure tropical diseases? Now when you hear that, this guy trying to ingratiate himself with the prof, we’ve been out all night at the bar. We’re totally hung over. This guy’s been studying all night. And we decide quietly among ourselves that we must have him killed. There’s no other answer. And a physiology major in the group suggests a clean injection of potassium, because it leaves no trace. We all agree that this would be just. But then, we realize that it would do no good. Kill him and another one become a roundsman.
HH: Of course. Of course.
CK: There’s always the roundsman.
HH: Well, in radio, roundsmanship, especially among colleagues, is immense. Does roundsmanship find itself on a television set? You’ve done thousands of hours of the Fox News Channel now, and you’ve had marvelous colleagues and hosts in the form of Brit Hume and now Brett Baier. But surely, it must break out among competing talking heads.
CK: Well, every profession has its roundsmen. There’s somebody who will raise something ridiculously obscure as a way to show off their erudition. And I mean, I remember once we were doing a show, it was around, we were doing a primary election coverage, it was way late in the night. It must have been almost 2AM. So we were already giddy and kind of losing it. At a certain point, Steve Hayes, and he did this with total sincerity. He wasn’t showing off at all. It was a Wisconsin primary, and he made reference to a 1968 Senate race, a primary, about the most obscure thing you’d ever heard, among two people who were probably dead. And we just broke up laughing, thinking about this, because it could only have happened at 2:00 in the morning. And we teased him mercilessly, we teased him mercilessly about this for the rest of the night. Now that was unintentional roundsmanship. But I’ve seen the other variety.
HH: Now there’s a third category. It’s not really roundsmanship if that kind of thing happens with Michael Barone, because he just knows it.
CK: That’s true. Well, Barone, as you know, has said, I remember hearing him in his acceptance speech for the Bradley Award, that while the other kids were out playing baseball, he’d be memorizing results in every county election in the entire United States. And he couldn’t quite understand why he was the only one doing that.
HH: Okay, so you just mentioned baseball, which gave me the bridge to probably the most important question of the day. I’ll come back to Rick Ankiel later in the conversation. But would you, Charles Krauthammer, like to be the new commissioner of baseball?
CK: No, because there’s too much bureaucracy, and I don’t want to have to make all those decisions, although I think I would like the $17 million dollar salary. No, I think what I would like to be is the color commentator for the Washington Nationals. It’s basically what I do now. I’m the color commentary. But instead of covering Obama, I’d be covering Bryce Harper. Can you imagine how much more fun that would be?
HH: But doesn’t the commissioner, you could delegate most of the daily, you could become almost the lieutenant governor of baseball and delegate everything away to your serfs.
CK: You mean like Obama, who’s never heard of Obamacare, who has no idea that the IRS was going after conservatives, I mean, who doesn’t even know where Libya is? Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I think I could do an Obama presidency. That’s a very good idea for Major League Baseball.
HH: As commissioner. Now, in our last conversation, I talked with you about your mother and your father. I talked to you about your brother and your son. I only mentioned your wife, Robyn. And I felt the omission when the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt looked at me and said moved pretty quickly past that one, didn’t you? So I want to go back and ask you to tell us a little bit more than we can glean from the Afterwards and your obviously loving acknowledgement of your wife of nearly four decades.
CK: Well, we met at Oxford. She came from Australia. She actually is from Hobart, Tasmania. The only other person you’ve ever heard of from Tasmania is Errol Flynn.
HH: I didn’t know that.
CK: So she came from Tasmania on a scholarship. She came by ship, you know, on a very long voyage to England. We met there when we were students. She was a lawyer. She was, in fact, the first female law clerk in the history of Australia. She was the associate clerk, she was a clerk to the chief justice of her state on Tasmania.
CK: She came to do graduate studies. I was studying political philosophy. And around the same time, about ten years later when I quit medicine to be a writer, she quit law and has become a painter, a rather distinguished painter and sculptress. And in fact, I’m looking at one of her sculptures right now. The sculpture’s right now in my office.
HH: So where did you first meet? And how did you both decide? And David Brooks’ wonderful book, The Social Animal, says we sort and decide these things in a matter of literally minutes. How did you guys…
CK: Well, those things have gotten me serious. I do remember how we met. It was, we met at the laundry in Holywell Manor. Holywell Manor was the only coed dorm in all of Oxford in the year I was there. It was the first. I remember, in fact, when I was accepted to Oxford, I was at McGill as an undergraduate. And I got a form from my college, Balliol College, saying where do you want to live. And it gave a multiple choice – do you want to live in college, you want to live in these apartments, you want…and then it said at the bottom, Holywell Manor, coed. So I immediately checked the box. I didn’t need any more information. So I checked the box. It was the first coed dorm. And I was examining a washing machine. Having never actually operated one in my life, I asked for advice from this lovely young woman from St. Anne’s College, who became my wife several years later.
HH: Oh, that’s wonderful. Now when you were over there at Oxford, who was your principal preceptor?
CK: Well, I had two choices. It could either have been Isaiah Berlin, whose book on liberalism I mention in my book…
CK: …as one of the most influential I had ever read. But the problem is Isaiah was teaching only Marxism that year, and I had studied it for two years at McGill, and I never wanted to read another word of Marx again. So I studied with another political philosopher who’s less well known today, but who wrote one of the great political theory textbooks called Man And Society. His name was John Plamenatz. And Man And Society is a survey of the great political philosophers. So I would go see him every week, and we would study. He’d give me to study another political theorist, and we’d go chronologically. We’d do Hobbes and Rousseau. And then as we were going along, I remember the second week I came in. So the way it works is you meet with him, you talk, he tells you what books to read, you come back with an essay that you hand in, or you had it in a day before and then you meet and you talk over the essay. That’s how the system worked. But I remember him saying I don’t know about your ideas, Krauthammer, but your spelling is very creative.
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HH: Charles, earlier this afternoon, I’m a little ashamed to admit it, I watched the entire arraignment of George Zimmerman, from beginning until end.
HH: There’s a certain glory in watching the reading of rights by a judge in the arraignment and the reading of charge.
CK: Yeah, right.
HH: Are we going down that rabbit hole again?
CK: How do you mean?
HH: Are we going to be obsessed, that it was aired from start to finish on CNN.
CK: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting how we seem to have a requirement of one ongoing trial at all times. It’s almost as if unless there is one, we feel there’s something missing in our national life. Now remember, you know, cable news is an open maw. It requires 24 hours to be filled. And trials can, you know, are very dramatic, and they do that very well. So we always have something going on. There’s nothing terribly gripping right now, so we’re going to for, you know, this is the sequel. This is the Zimmerman story, part two. Sequels, you do when you don’t have any original material. I guarantee you that within a month, somebody is going to do something awful to somebody else, and we’re going to have another trial for entertainment. I’m a little bit wary about this, because it’s kind of ghoulish. I can never follow the ones where you’ve got the mother killing her children, and these really terrible crimes, which as a psychiatrist, I often look at and think that this shouldn’t be, there shouldn’t be a trial here at all, this is clearly psychosis. But so I often think we ought to be treating this in a different way, in the medical rather than in the legal system. But there is a fascination, and I’m with you. There is, you know, even when you’re watching a fictional show, any cop show, and even though I’m a little bit wary about the Constitutional basis of the Miranda rights, when you hear it, there’s a bit of a thrill. You know, what other country would have, I mean, a lot of them do now, but what other country would have come up with this. When they grab you in other countries, they whack you over the head, they make you confess, and they toss you in jail for a while. Here, the first thing the state does is to try to protect you.
HH: You see, the contrast…
CK: And that’s an amazing thing.
HH: The contrast is with last week. North Korea executed 80 people, many of them Christians, simply because they possessed a Bible, by machine gun in front of thousands of people assembled.
HH: Almost the greatest display of barbarity I can recall, something that sounds like it came out of a World War II novel.
HH: And they exist, and we consider normalizing with them every now and then.
CK: Well, you know, this is part of, it’s amazing how in the same historical period, we, certain sets of humans coexist with others. I often think, I’m often feel myself blessed to have been born after the Second World War. I cannot imagine living on this Earth, even if I were a continent away, say, as a child, during the Holocaust, of that actually going on. It’s almost as if all of human life is tainted when something of that enormity happens. Or let me think of something even more, just on a very, very small scale. There was a report a couple of weeks ago of the assassination by the Taliban in Pakistan of polio workers in the Swat Valley. Is there anything more depraved, anything remotely as depraved as killing people whose mission is to save children from paralysis? Yet this is the Taliban. This, these are the people, and their allies, we have been fighting for 12 years in Afghanistan. We are justly exhausted, we’re not going to succeed there, so we are leaving. But there is nothing ignoble, there is nothing to be ashamed of in the fight that we have put up against people of this kind of depravity.
HH: Now there is some good news on that front today with the announcement that there will be a status of forces agreement apparently negotiated. But that’s going to simply establish containment. I mean, we’re going to divide the country into…
CK: Right, right.
HH: We’re ceding control to the Taliban of a lot of the country. I want to go back to Things That Matter. You write a lot in the book about genius. And you remarked at one point you lacked it, so you didn’t pursue theoretical physics, a fine choice, I might add. But you write about a math genius. I’m not sure I can pronounce his name. Erdos?
CK: Erdos. The Hungarian, Erdos.
HH: What an, I had never heard of this story before until I read Things That Matter, and he did not die that long ago.
HH: But did you ever meet him? It’s implied that you may have in the essay.
CK: No, I never met him, but I met, I spoke to, I was in contact with his closest friend. And his story is such a magnificent story, such a poignant story. It’s a mathematician who was the ultimate in the distracted professor. He had no home, he had no family. His twin sisters died on the day he was born. They died of diphtheria. And he was doted upon by his mother, the rest of the family wiped out in the Holocaust. He was a solitary man wandering the Earth carrying two suitcases, both of which were half-full. One had clothes, and the other had manuscripts. And wherever he went, he would seek out mathematicians in that town at the university, and he would knock on the door and say my brain is open. He was the greatest mathematical collaborator. His name is on more papers than practically any in the history of mathematics. And he had a hand in the life and the discoveries of hundreds of other mathematicians. And they knew to take him into their house. They would have to organize his stuff, because that was hard for him to do. He never carried more than $30 dollars. And in fact, as a young man, he’d made a great discovery, a theorem that between every number and its double lay a prime. That’s a pretty hard proposition to crack. It’s a simple idea, but he cracked it. So he was a genius, and that he was a collaborative genius, which in mathematics is unusual, because they generally operate in a solitary way. And when he died, there was an obituary that just caught my eye, and I began to look into his life. And I was utterly captivated by it. And there was one story that I end the column with. There was one point where a young man came up to him. He was studying at Harvard, and he said he needed some money to be able to pay his tuition. So Erdos, who never carried more than $30 dollars, scraped together a thousand dollars and he gave it to that student. In the 50s or so, that was real money. So one day, the student graduates. He goes on to get a job, and a few years later, he writes to Erdos, and he says you know, I’m now in a position to repay you for your kindness. Where should I send the thousand dollars? Do with it what I did.
HH: And see, it’s a beautiful essay, and it’s really one of the great gifts of Things That Matter, is that you roam fairly free over the range of human subjects. You did not write, that you made a nod towards Howard Hughes and a nod towards Bobby Fischer, but Erdos is really the most eclectic of your subjects. Have you written about Fischer? Have you written about Hughes?
CK: I wrote a ton about Fischer. I must have written five columns about him. I must have written about twenty columns, maybe thirty in my life, about chess, including that eccentricity of mine, and that I twice, not once, but twice, Hugh, drove from Washington to New York to see a chess match. One involved Karpov. I never saw Fischer play. And I saw Kasparov and Karpov, and then I saw Kasparov and Anand, who is the world champion who’s in a match right now, losing it to a newcomer from Norway. So that’s, I mean, if you follow this stuff, it’s rather interesting. So I’ve written a lot about chess, but I didn’t want to have a book about chess, because I would have had no readers.
HH: Very well put. And there is not that much chess in Things That Matter. But that which there is, you will very greatly enjoy.
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HH: Charles, in the book, as I said, we were talking about a lot of different kinds of genius. Is there such a thing as political genius? And in the next hour, I’m going to talk to you about Israel. And I made on my list Ben-Gurion, and then I added Churchill, because he was the indispensable man, and he was obviously a genius. But I’m talking about people that are not so obvious. And was Reagan a genius? Do Ben-Gurion and Reagan qualify as political genius?
CK: Well, political genius, I sort of, to me, it means the ability to connect well in a democracy. If we’re talking about Alexander the Great, he’s pretty high on that scale. He conquered the damn world by the time he was 30 and then he got bored. That’s genius. And Napoleon, in some sense, artillery officer who ends up the master of Europe, well then, he blows it, but he was ambitious. So you could say the military geniuses are the ones who are pretty obvious. Political geniuses are people who can, in a democracy, where the rules are different, you’re not using artillery, you’re using speeches and words and handshakes and encounters. And in that sense, I would have to say it’s kind of a degraded genius. It’s not meant to be compared with the exalted geniuses of physics or of the military kind, like a Robert E. Lee, for example. But I would say a Clinton was a political genius. He had very few assets, but he was able to ingratiate himself or to make himself something in a democracy in a way that is really quite remarkable. I remember Fred Barnes once saying he went in to talk to Clinton, and when he came out, he kind of checked his wallet like it had been taken. I mean, with Clinton, you never know. How did he do that? And he had this way, if you ever watch the body language of how he presents himself, how he wraps his arm around a colleague, there’s just something about his way of connecting with people that was quite remarkable, and I think he achieved, he lived in our holiday from history in the 90s. He never had the challenges of a Reagan or the challenges of a W. Bush. But in that sense, he had the skills, the genius. But when you’re talking about Reagan, I wouldn’t use the word genius. I would say he had the character. I mean, he was able to withstand, you’ve got to remember, the early 80s, I remember it well, because as I write in the book, that was the beginning of my journalistic career. And the very beginning of the 80s was a Reagan panic. People were really afraid this guy was going to push a button and blow up the world. You know, today, he’s sort of avuncular and you name airports after him. So nobody can even remember that. If you lived in the early 80s, you know, there was a book called The End Of The World…
CK: …by Jonathan Schell, and everybody was afraid that the nuclear era was on us. The only thing that had changed was Reagan’s election. So this was purely a reaction to Reagan. He was a madman, he was a Strangelove. There was a film by ABC that was played called The Day After about a fictional nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas. They actually had to have counselors in schools the next morning to console the children who were traumatized. So we’re living through this, huge demonstrations against American nuclear weapons.
HH: Yeah, the freeze. You write about the freeze at length.
CK: The nuclear freeze, which, and here’s what happened. Reagan said I don’t care, I’m going to do what I have to do, the nuclear build up. Thatcher stood with him. Helmut Kohl stood with him in Germany. They faced down the demonstrators in London and Berlin, in New York, in Washington. They faced down all the sophisticates in the arms control community who said oh, we have to find some compromise, and he said we are not going to compromise. If the Russians will take their missiles out of Eastern Europe, we will not deploy ours in the West. Otherwise, we’re going to deploy, and we’re not going to be deterred. He stood up, and then he called them the evil empire. Again, he was disdained. You remember Clark Clifford, when he called Reagan an amiable dunce?
HH: Amiable dunce, yeah.
CK: And Reagan had this kind of, the fortitude and the character. He once said I don’t care about critics. I care about box office, meaning the response of the people in whom he trusted, rather than the intellectuals. And that, I think, was Reagan’s strength. And that’s where I’d put him. Ben-Gurion was a different kind. He had a sense of the moment, a sense of history. Ben-Gurion was a great leader. He was, I should explain to the viewers, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine under the British occupation, and then when it came time when the British left on the 15th of May, 1948, they had to decide, the U.N. had said there should be a Jewish state and an Arab state, and everybody said don’t declare a Jewish state. The Arabs are going to invade you. They’re going to wipe you out. You’re outnumbered 100-1. But he knew it was the moment, the moment, one moment in history, and he declared independence, and that was it. And that was his genius.
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HH: I made some notes. This may be my favorite essay in here, Charles, and it’s about Rick Ankiel. Now I am an American League guy. I’m an Indians fan…
HH: …and so I don’t know much about Rick, and Duane was telling me he watched him a lot. He still played this year. He had sixty-odd at bats this year. You wrote your essay in 2007. Being a phenom is different from being a genius, but tell people why you chose to write about him and his career, and especially in your essay, you say it made La Russa happy that he returned more than anything other than a World Series win. And meditate a little bit on why that would make La Russa happy.
CK: And it made him almost cry. In the press conference after the game I describe, La Russa, who’s known as a machine, he’s like an android, he’s more Spock than human, he was close to tears, and here’s the reason. Ankiel had come up as a pitcher, a phenom. He was unhittable. And he got the honor as a result of his fantastic performance in his first year, La Russa put him as the starting pitcher in the playoff game. So the whole country is watching. And in this game, Ankiel cannot find home plate. He walks, I think, four guys maybe in one inning. He throws five wild pitches, like the most since 1890. I think he hit the backstop. It was like Nuke LaLoosh hitting the mascot in that movie. And he just, he obviously, something happened to him where he couldn’t find home plate. So La Russa had to come out in this terrible humiliation, takes Ankiel out. And Ankiel never recovered either psychologically or whatever it was as a pitcher. He ended up declining as a pitcher really badly, quickly, ends up in the minors, gets arm injuries, for years kicks around the minors, and finally, five, six, seven years after this, meltdown, he comes back to the major leagues, same team, same manager, and is introduced at the beginning of the game as the starting center fielder. He had turned himself into a hitter. So this is the story of the Natural. You remember in the movie…
CK: As a pitcher, he gets shot, whatever it is, fate, and then he disappears. He comes back years later as a hitter, because he can’t, because of the physical wound, he can’t pitch. For Ankiel, it was, whatever it was, psychological. So Ankiel comes back, and in this game, he hits a home run. This is at home in St. Louis. Everybody knows his story. This is The Natural. They’re watching it. He blasts a game-winning home run. And the other thing is, I think it was a day later in the game, where he still’s sort of the toast of the town, no, it was in the first game, there was a screaming line drive hit over his head, and he makes this spectacular catch. But if you watch it on replay in slow motion, you can see that he actually, he did it slightly incorrectly. He tailed to his left where he should have been tailing to his right. So he made this lunge at the end to catch it, because he wasn’t trained as an outfielder. He was trained as a pitcher. So that added to the poignancy of the scene. So at the end of the game, I mean, this guy, they’re practically carrying him on their shoulders, and La Russa is asked about him, and he’s near tears. And at that point, I thought he should just walk out of the stadium, into the arms of Glenn Close, you know, out to that wheat field somewhere in Nebraska and never return. Of course, he stayed in the major leagues and he had a reasonable career. But that story, that story of redemption, coming back from, I mean, total collapse, was so sort of inspiring to me that I’ve always, you know, and he was a Washington National a year ago. And I used to love watching him in the outfield. I actually, I mentioned him in another column in the book where I talk about the beauty of the artistry on the field. He threw somebody out from deep center field.
HH: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
CK: At third base, that the Washington National color commentator, who was a major league player once, said was the best throw he had ever seen in his life. And I saw it as well on TV, and it was simply astonishing. So I’ve always been sort of thrilled to watch this, because it’s a story unlike any other.
HH: It is, and you quote La Russa as saying it made him so happy, as happy as anything except a World Series.
CK: Yeah, I love the way he says except for a World Series. You know, I’m sentimental all right, but I want to win a Series, which of course, he did.
HH: Are you sure you don’t want to be the commissioner of baseball?
CK: No, I want to be the color commentator.
HH: All right.
CK: I want to be explaining all this on the air as it unfolds.
HH: Do you want, now Duane asked me to specifically call this question to your attention. Instant replay is being introduced. He thinks, Duane does, that it’s a terrible thing. Given that the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, I think it can’t hurt. What in the world do you think about it?
CK: I’m with you. It’s the Indians’ only chance.
CK: You’ve tried everything else. You know what Churchill said, the Americans always do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else. So I think you Indians have tried everything. I think you should try instant replay. I think it can get really complicated. You’ve got to be very specific and very spare. It can’t be like football. There’s so many variations in baseball. The rule book is the size of the Bible, that I mean, it’s too complicated. You have to just say it’s going to be for a play at first, perhaps. It’s not going to be balls and strikes. The boundary calls, perhaps trapping, but you can’t do it on, you know, in a double play, you know how they do the proximity play where if you are the second baseman and you’re taking the relay in a double play, you often just skip the bag, because otherwise, you’ll get your ankles crushed by the runner coming in. You’re going to call that or not? On a replay, it’ll be shown that you didn’t actually touch the bag, you only were in proximity, which everybody accepts as okay. So I would leave those traditions alone. I trust the obvious.
HH: But they are in the, they’re in the new rule. It’s callable. It’s up to the manager.
CK: Yeah, I know.
HH: It’s a bad thing. It’s a real, I think this is why we need you to be the commissioner.
CK: Well you know, I may have to reconsider now.
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HH: I’m going to close this quick segment by asking you, Charles, about baseball. George Will has now gone over to Fox. The only time I’ve ever met George Will in person was on the field in Philadelphia when I was invited to throw out the first pitch, but knowing that I would put it in the dugout, I had Duane throw it out. He threw a strike on Phillies All-Star day. But George Will was there writing about the umpire. And I’m wondering if the two of you when you sit together in the green room, does talk inevitably go to baseball?
CK: It always starts with baseball. And it usually ends with baseball. We are now in the void, that is the six months of darkness between the last game of the World Series until pitchers and catchers report. We will tolerate football, we might take a glance at basketball. Hockey, I’ll watch if it’s outdoors on New Year’s Day. But we’re just waiting for the dawn to return.
HH: Other than baseball, what makes you and your family happiest?
CK: Oh, well that’s, oh, what makes us…getting away from Washington. We have a little place, I won’t say where, but it’s on the water not far from D.C., and we try to get there every weekend, because I have no newspapers, no television, no radio. I do have the internet, but other than I try not to stay on it too much. And it’s total quiet, total isolation, and total communion with what really matters. And that’s sort of what I live for, to get away.
HH: Do you always read endlessly in that period of time?
CK: Yeah, I read and I do an enormous amount of thinking. But the other part of it is I do a lot of taking in, which is just going around the grounds, going for walks, and I mean, it’s the best place to think. It’s very hard when I’m in D.C., when I’m in my office, when I’m in the green room. I mean, I do think about political things, which are, you know, the important, of course, in that sense. I write in the book about how are the things that are the larger issues in life, and then there are the political things. So I’m really occupied with that here. And you’ve got to do a lot of dicing and slicing. You’ve got to know the inside, you know, you’ve got to know the inside of Obamacare on these crazy laws and regulations. But when I go out there, all of that kind of melts away, and you get to think about the larger things.
HH: When we come back in Hour number three of my conversation with Dr. Charles Krauthammer, we will talk about the larger things, including the fact that Israel is on the brink, actually, as Iran thrusts for a nuclear weapons. And as we speak, on the front page of the New York Times website, there is word that the Obama administration is grasping for a deal that Benjamin Netanyahu is absolutely opposed to. We’ll talk to Dr. Krauthammer about that when we return.
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HH: I want to begin with a headline, Charles, which comes from the New York Times this afternoon, a blast at Iranian Embassy in Beirut kills at least 23. And in the course of reporting this terror, which occurs, you know, it’s an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, basically, Hassan Nasrallah is quoted as saying in a speech last week that his group, Hezbollah, would continue to fight in Syria for as long as necessary. Hezbollah says it is doing so to protect the region from an insurgency that is dominated by takfiris. So he referenced a radical Islamic, usually Sunni, that regard Shiites and other opponents to be apostates. And I immediately thought of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which I consider to be the book of the last 12 years on these crazy people. And I thought to myself, the menace that you describe in your essays about the Jews, especially the longest one about Whither The Jews, is growing closer and closer, almost daily, and people seem largely unaware of it.
CK: Yeah, you get that sense, and I’ve heard this from people who have lived through the Second World War, that we are sort of in the late 30s in terms of the Jewish Problem, which is what it was called, and the world was indifferent, and the world was sort of tired of the Jews. It had been many centuries, and they weren’t terribly concerned. Then you got Munich, and then the fate was sealed. I mean, I think people are more aware now. There’s a lot of residual Holocaust guilt. But the parallels are so terrible. The fact is there are six million Jews living in Israel, which is precisely the number who were wiped out in the Second World War in the Holocaust. The only difference is it took Hitler six years to kill six million Jews. And Iran or any other terror state which got its hands on nuclear weapons could do that in six hours. Israel is a very tiny state. For Americans who live on a continental nation, it’s very hard to even imagine the scale on which Israel lives. You sort of have to visit. And the first reaction you will get from any American who goes to Israel for the first time is I never knew how small it was. Israel, if it were to give up the West Bank, is eight miles wide. You cross the Chesapeake Bridge from Washington to across the Chesapeake Bay over to the eastern shore, you cross it and return, and you have driven eight miles. You’ve driven across the waist of Israel. This is a tiny country where the largest Jewish community on the planet, and this, Hugh, is the first time since Jesus walked the Earth when more Jews are living in Israel than any other place on Earth. They were disbursed after that. And this is the great return. So you have the largest Jewish community on Earth, the only sovereign Jewish state in two thousand years, the third Jewish state ever, the third commonwealth, the first being destroyed in 586 by the Babylonians, and the second in 70AD by the Romans. This is the third chance the Jews have to establish themselves in their homeland, and they are looking at a very real tangible threat. This isn’t theoretical. This isn’t hypothetical. This is not a hundred years away. This could be six months away or six, or a year and a half away. And this could mean the end, I mean, the utter desolation. And you know how Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, describes Israel? He once called it a one bomb country.
CK: It is so concentrated in its cities right hard by the Mediterranean, one bomb, two bombs, one afternoon, and you have solved the Jewish Problem in a way that Hitler could only have dreamed.
HH: And I would encourage people, if you’re not going to buy Things That Matter, and you’re just going to do the bookstore read, you should read the introduction, and then you should read the essay, Zionism And The Fate Of The Jews, which is a somewhat long essay, and I think you wrote it 15 years ago, but it has endured remarkably well, because it does illustrate the stakes here, that the previous strategy of dispersion, you had to conquer the whole world to kill all the Jews.
HH: Now, you basically, as you point out, you just have to destroy Israel, and what will be left will be a charming remnant that’s not really a people.
CK: And that’s the great terrible irony. The Jews in their dispersal were very vulnerable in each of their communities. So in all of Europe, you could round up the Jews, you could shoot them, kill them, send them to camps, and then you’d kill them all en masse, but because the Jews were dispersed around the globe, the Jewish people as a whole would survive. There were massacres in the 1600s. There were massacres during the Crusades. There were massacres of Jews all through European history. By being dispersed, the Jewish people as a whole could survive. But then the Jews made a fateful, and I think correct decision after the Second World War. They said we refuse to live any more on the goodness and the generosity and the goodwill of others, because it doesn’t work. The world abandoned us in the Second World War, and we were destroyed. All of European civilization, European Jewry wiped out, thousand years old wiped out in six years. So the Jews decided we’re going to have our state, we’re going to have our army, we’re going to defend ourselves, and we’re going to stand or fall on our own strength. The irony is, though, the Jews are stronger than ever. They have this tremendously advanced and very, very courageous military, has never lost a war, defended itself without anybody helping it ever. But the irony is it’s now in one place, so even though the Jews can defend themselves and are not helpless as they were in dispersion, as a people, all the eggs are in one basket. And the Iranians know it, the jihadists know it, the anti-Semites know it. This is the place. You destroy Israel, and you have essentially ended three thousand years of Jewish history.
HH: Now do you think the President, and you’ve met him, and let me ask a first question. How many presidents have you actually spoken with while they held the office or were president-elect?
CK: Every one since Carter.
HH: All right, so you’ve had a chance to sit with presidents and know that on their minds are a lot of different things. Do you think this president gets this, what an existential threat really is as opposed to just another problem? Can he even conceive of the ideology of Shiia extremism and the Hidden Imam and the whole nine yards of that?
CK: Well, I won’t presume to go inside his head, because I don’t practice psychiatry anymore. I’m in remission. I haven’t had a relapse in 25 years. But I will say from his actions, the way he refuses to call this by its proper name, Islamic extremism, Islamism, he refers to it as violent extremism, as if these people wake up in the morning and decide I’m going to be extremist, and I’m going to be violent, rather than identifying what the source of this extreme violence is. So I think his very reluctance to pinpoint and lest he be seen as casting aspersions on the great religion of Islam, there’s no reason why you can’t have reverence for Islam as a religion, for its history and culture, liturgy, et cetera, and at the same time be willing to say openly and plainly we have an enemy in the world. Unfortunately, it is a sliver, it is a sect of, it is a portion of the more radical interpretation of Islam, which is at war with the world, and at war with human decency, as I tried to explain before. They go around killing polio doctors in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. His unwillingness to say that is disturbing. And also, there’s kind of a naïve feeling that if you only get him in a room with, say, the mullahs, and this happened during the Green Revolution of 2009 trying to overthrow the oppressors, you remember the graffiti on the walls. Obama, Obama, are you with us or not? How can any revolution for freedom against this kind of religious totalitarian clerical oppression even wonder whether the United States is on its side? Of course, we should be on their side and declare so openly without shame like Reagan did. The very fact that it was questioned, to me, is disgraceful.
HH: The long piece in the Times today by Sanger and Jodi Rudoren suggests that there’s this deep, deep split. Do you think any of the presidents that you’ve met, from Carter through Reagan through both Bushes and Clinton, that any of them would agree to this deal that the President seems on the verge of agreeing to, the Iranians?
CK: You know, it’s very hard to say, but I can assure you that I wouldn’t, and I don’t think any, you know, any hard-headed analysis would be able to pass on this. I think the French, of all people, were right. You know what the French foreign minister called it? He called it a sucker’s deal. And it is. And I just hope that there’ll be something to prevent us from going ahead with this, because if we do, we have essentially legitimized Iran as a threshold nuclear state, a state where we bless them, we bless their ability to enrich uranium, which up until now we had said should not be allowed, otherwise the world will experience hyper-proliferation and live in nuclear terror for the next hundred years.
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HH: Charles, were you bar mitzvahed?
CK: Oh, yes, I was, about 120 years ago.
HH: Do you recall what you read?
CK: Oh, yes. I read the last two portions of Exodus.
HH: And so what do you believe about the God of the Torah?
CK: You’re asking easy questions today, aren’t you?
CK: This is very hard to explain, and I’ve been asked about this several times. Look, one way to put it is to say, and to quote, I’m not the first to say it. I don’t believe in God, but I fear Him greatly. Now I have a very complicated view of deity. And not to in any way compare myself to Him, but if I had to, I’d have to say, to compare, to whose theology do I have the most affinity? I would say probably Einstein. Einstein had this sense of this fantastic mystery and lying behind ordering, and creating beauty in nature. I mean, he was so struck by the elegance of nature, his ability to put the ultimate mysteries of science into a single line, E=MC2, indicates a kind of harmony in the cosmos which cannot be accidental, or that it cannot be sort of unwilled in some sense. And you know, he said things, for example, in his rejection of quantum mechanics, he said God does not play dice with the universe, meaning he refuses to accept the physics that depends on probability. That’s not how God works. And he had this sort of reverence and awe. The other analogy I would use is what Newton used to describe human, you know, the capacity of the human mind. He said our ability to understand is about akin to that of a snail on the shore of an ocean trying to work out the tides through physics. And that, to me, is our position vis-à-vis understanding the workings of the universe, and the wonderful mysteries, awesome, I mean, literally awesome mysteries, are full of mysteries that lie behind it. So it doesn’t make for a traditional religion. I have enormous respect for it, and in some sense, I’m not a terribly religious Jew, but I follow some of the rituals, and I do attend on the important days. But when it comes to the relationship to what is out there, to me, it is rather complicated and mysterious. Let me just end with one other theology, and that is the greatest of all the Jewish theologians was a man called Maimonides, who was a medieval scholar. And in his theology, we can say nothing positive about God. All we can say is what God is not. He is not this, all the finite things that would constrict Him and define Him in a kind of human anthropomorphic way. That, He is not. But it’s impossible to say what He is. And to me, that’s sort of the finest definition of it. That is a kind of mystery that wraps itself around the world and that inspires awe. I mean, of all the theologies or anti-theologies, I think atheism is the least plausible of them all.
HH: Oh, that’s why I liked your essay on Chernenko’s funeral.
HH: I mean, I loved your essay, of course, I can remember Chernenko’s funeral. But it was absolutely desolate, and they kept dying, and they were all absolutely desolate. And you summon from that the antithesis, which this can’t be all there is.
CK: Right. I mean, and they pickle their leaders and they put them in Red Square in a box with, surrounded by a lot of flowers. That is sort of the ultimate rejection, to me. It’s not only the irrationality, but it’s the coldness, the soullessness of atheism that strikes me. But as to what lies on the other side, I’m the snail on the side of the ocean. I don’t even presume to even be able to begin to understand it. All I know is that it’s far beyond me, and it deserves reverence and awe.
HH: Now I’ve been troubled since our first conversation of two weeks ago about your bringing to my attention the Fermi Paradox, which I didn’t know anything about, and it made me upset. And I began to think that maybe you hadn’t watched enough Star Trek, and you didn’t know anything about the prime directive.
HH: And so I’m curious, isn’t that the answer?
CK: Well, the Fermi Paradox, this is one of the columns in the book that I think I like the most. And he asked a very simple question. This is Enrico Fermi, great physicist. And he said look, we know there are tons of planets out there, and today, you know, just a couple of weeks ago, we got an estimate. 40 billion habitable planets just in our galaxy.
CK: I mean, big number. So there are 40 billion of them, right? And the nearest one I read in this study is no more than 12 light years away. So tell me how it will, and this is Fermi speaking, tell me how it is possible if there is this much possible life in the universe, how is it that we’ve never heard a signal, never heard a word, never gotten any kind of radio wave? And there are a lot of explanations, but the one that to me is the most convincing came from Carl Sagan, and that is yes, there’s probably infinite amount of life in the universe, and there’s a fraction of those that develop intelligence, and a fraction of those that develop high science. But then what happens? And the reason we don’t hear from them is because intelligence is invariably fatal, and that these worlds, these civilizations, their science so outstrips their social and cultural organizations that they end up extinguishing themselves.
HH: But there is that Star Fleet General Order number one where you’re not allowed to interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations.
CK: I understand, and I’ll give you Star Fleet Directive number two, which is the Cuban Missile Crisis, all right?
CK: Here we have the human species, we get out of the trees, you and me, Hugh, we descend from the trees, we’ve been eating, you know, we’ve been eating fruit for like 500,000 years. We start to walk around on two feet. We have 200,000 years of homo sapiens, right? And then we discover the bomb, and 17 years later, just put that number 17, and juxtapose it with 200,000. 17 years later, we come within an eyelash of self-destruction. So what Fermi is saying, what Sagan is saying is if it takes 17 years to come to the edge after a millennia, endless millennia of human existence, four billion years of the age of the planet, 17 years of intelligence and we’re on the brink, what are the chances of a civilization existing indefinitely. Now that makes you a pessimist.
HH: It does.
CK: And that’s why as a psychiatrist, I’m here to write prescriptions for anybody who’s truly depressed by what I just said. So I have a remedy for you. But that, to me, was the most profound and disturbing of all the sort of philosophical conundrums that I deal with in the book.
HH: Oh, sure, especially when you think about the last segment when we were talking about the people who are this close to having those weapons, and they think…
CK: And we’re looking, we’re seeing it right now, Hugh. I mean, the one thing that I know I’m going to bequeath to my son’s world, you and I, is a world of hyper-proliferation.
CK: And I ask you. Can we deal with it?
HH: Highly unlikely, but we’re not going to have to worry about that. I do have to worry about going to break.
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HH: I only have a half hour left with Dr. Charles Krauthammer about his new book, Things That Matter. And so I want to ask my rapid fire round, Charles. Are you a rock and roll fan?
CK: Yeah, but I sort of stop at the Moody Blues. What do you got?
HH: Okay, did you ever go, do you have a favorite concert of rock and roll that you attended?
CK: Believe it or not, even though I’m a child of the 60s, I never made it to the, the only concert I can ever remember going to is to a very obscure group called Jay and the Americans that I saw in a Beach Club once that I can’t quite remember. You know what they say, Hugh? If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there?
HH: Well, that brings me to lightning round number two. What was your attitude towards recreational drug use when you were at McGill and Oxford?
CK: On advice of my counsel, and on example of Lois Lerner, who at the same time defends her innocence and then takes the 5th and refuses to answer, I rest my case.
HH: Are you a fan of Broadway?
CK: Yes, I love Broadway, but I don’t get up there often enough to enjoy it.
HH: Mark Steyn, of course, began his life as a theater critic, his first book about that. Do you have a favorite show?
CK: I can’t say that I’m enough immersed in it to say a favorite show. I do, I am more a movie person than theater living in Washington. So I’d have to defer to my betters on that.
HH: I asked you in the first hour, two weeks ago, what the most sacred place is in America. You said in front of the Lincoln Memorial looking towards the Congress.
HH: And you mentioned at the beginning of this hour how you really have to go to Israel to understand it. I went two years ago, and I went into the tunnel next to the Western Wall, which I think may be the most sacred space on the planet. What do you think is, where ought people to go if they go outside of the country? Where would you have them go?
CK: I do think if you’re from Western, I mean, if you’re a child of Western Civilization, which is what we in America call Judeo-Christian, I do think you have to go to Israel. You really have to go to Jerusalem. That is sort of the crossroads of spirituality. You just stand on one of the hills, you stand on Mt. Scopus, which means in Latin, you know, the observation, and you look out on the Judean desert, and you can almost feel what it would have been like to be out there for the forty years. You can feel the spirituality, the connection with the Transcendent that must have occurred in those places. You go to Masada, which was the last stand of the Jews in resisting the Romans in 70AD, and you have a sense of the majesty of that kind of resistance and how impossible it was. And then as you say, you go to the Western Wall, and you go down to the tunnel, what people don’t understand is when you’re standing on the concourse of the Western Wall, you are standing halfway up the original wall. The rubble of so many destructions has raised the level of the street so that you are essentially, all the wall above you is matched by a wall below you. And that’s what you see when you go down in the tunnel. And it digs all the way down to the original level at the time of Herod, because Herod is the one who established it. And you see in almost geological layers all the stones laid down by the different conquerors. You’ve got the Romans, and then of course you have the Byzantines, then you have the Arabs, then you have the Mamluks, then you have the Turks. You can see the layers of rock going all the way up. And it is a most astonishing experience of that crossroads of the world where all of these great spiritual events happened, and how the three great religions are all centered on that one space as sort of the center of the intersection of the Divine and the human.
HH: Yeah, it is, I would agree with that. Now back to my lightning round. Are you a movie guy?
CK: Love movies.
HH: Have you seen About Time, yet?
CK: Have not.
HH: I would recommend it highly. Of your movies, what’s on the top three or four list for Charles Krauthammer?
CK: Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca and probably A Man For All Seasons, the greatest script ever written.
HH: Oh, very interesting. All right, one word descriptions or reactions to our list of presidential probables – Christie?
CK: Christie, frontrunner.
CK: Interesting, possible.
CK: Young, ambitious, brash. I like him.
CK: Jindal? One pratfall, but very strong, very deep, could be a contender.
CK: Cruz, a lot of energy, very strong constituency, great orator, he has to show himself, he’s got to show himself in the mud. He can run when the Sun’s out. Is he a mudder, as they say in racing?
HH: All right, hold the rest until after the break.
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HH: Jay and the Americans courtesy of Adam for Charles Krauthammer, our guest.
CK: That was great. I can remember hearing that. I was 17 years old.
HH: Now Charles, I want to continue by lightning round, but that brings me up. After you were young, you were injured. And after you were injured, not many people know how you went about your recovery. How did that happen to you? I mean, what happened and how did you recover?
CK: I was a first year medical student, and I had a diving accident actually in a swimming pool right on the grounds of Harvard Medical School, off the diving board, my third dive of the day and hit the bottom with my head. And my head wasn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even have a scratch. But it severed my spinal cord, and I was hospitalized for 14 months. And most of it, the first four months was spent in intensive care right on the edge there. And then I got up and spent the rest of the time getting my strength back, lifting weights, pushing around, and then I rejoined my class after the 14 months.
HH: How did you fight off hopelessness or despair? Or was that not even a problem?
CK: Well, you know, it’s not really an option. Either you get two choices. You can be hopeless and despairing, or you can live your life. And to me, there was basically no option. It wasn’t, I didn’t make a conscious choice. The only choice I made is in the first couple of weeks, the dean of the medical school came to me at the beside, and said we’d be happy to give you a leave of absence for a year or two to come back. And I said I ask you only one favor. If I take a leave of absence, I’m never coming back. And I will be lost. This will turn disaster to ruin. So give me a shot. I want to stay with my class. So they let me study at night for that 14 months, take my exams orally, because it took me a couple of years to relearn how to write. And so I got through my second year while my class was going through the second year. And then I rejoined my class from for my third year. So that kept me busy.
CK: And there wasn’t, with all the exercise in the day and the study at night, there wasn’t a lot of time for meditation.
HH: A couple of times a year, I spend the program with the men being assisted by the Semper Fi Fund, and they are all significantly injured. Many have lost two, three, sometimes even all of their limbs, or they’re paralyzed, or they have PTSD. Are you often approached by people who have suffered great traumatic injury for advice or encouragement?
CK: I am, and I like to do it privately and quietly. But I, yes, I have been, and I try to do the best I can to counsel them.
HH: Now I want to go back to the political round, and I left off. Cruz, you said we have to find out if he’s a mudder. What about Marco Rubio?
CK: Attractive, articulate, young, ran into a bit of trouble with that immigration bill, but he’s a contender.
HH: John Thune?
CK: He’s got the best jaw in the United States.
CK: And I mean, he looks presidential, and he’s a real smart guy. And you know, I think he thought he was a little young to run last time. I think he eventually runs. He may not run in ’16, but I think he will be a candidate.
HH: And Paul Ryan?
CK: I love the guy. I mean, he’s, you know, he’s got courage. The Ryan Medicare plan, there aren’t a lot of guys who come up with that. And I think he might decide he can serve conservatism and the country best as House Budget chairman. But if he runs, he’d be a very strong choice, and I’d be delighted to see him in the race, and I would add Mitch Daniels. I hope he reconsiders.
HH: Rand Paul?
CK: Rand Paul, we just had him on our show the other night, very interesting, very smooth, very articulate. He represents a different kind of conservatism, not exactly my kind, but I have great respect for it. I’ve always said that libertarianism is indispensable as a critique of conservatism. I’m not sure it’s a governing ideology, but you never know. He’s attractive enough. He could prove me wrong.
HH: So I ran through all of these candidates – Christie, Kasich, Walker, Jindal, Cruz, Rubio, Thune, Ryan, Paul, and you mentioned Mitch Daniels, and I probably have missed someone. Can any of them beat Hillary?
CK: Every single one can beat Hillary. Hillary’s a paper tiger. Hillary was inevitable in ’08 and what happened to inevitability? I don’t think she’s that, I think she can win, of course. And I think she’ll get the nomination by acclamation for religious reasons.
CK: She’s worshipped by the Democrats. But I don’t think that translates necessarily. The idea that she’s a shoe-in for the presidency I think is just ridiculously wrong. I don’t think she’s a great campaigner. You know, she’s got her strengths, but let me ask you this. You know the hyperbole about her being Secretary of State? Name me one thing she achieved in the four years. One. I’m not asking for Kissinger-China-Middle East, I’m not asking for a Baker, I’m not asking for a George Schultz or a George Marshall. Tell me one thing she achieved in the four years.
HH: No, that, I have posed that question to Politico reporters before, and they can’t come up with anything, because there isn’t anything, Charles.
CK: She traveled a lot.
CK: Well, so do I.
HH: Okay, so, but you mentioned the genius that is her husband. He will have a role in this. I’ve got to also read to you, Hillary was out at a speaking seminar. She was introduced this way. My friend sent me this. Served as the 67th Secretary of State from 2009-’13 after nearly four decades in public service. Her “smart power” approach to foreign policy repositioned American diplomacy and development for the 21st Century. Clinton played a central role in restoring America’s standing in the world, reasserting the United States as a pacific power, imposing crippling sanctions on Iran and North Korea, responding to the Arab awakening, and negotiating a cease fire in the Middle East. And then it goes on to say she’s traveled to 80 countries as a champion of human rights and democracy.
CK: Is that from the Onion?
HH: No, that is from her introduction that she sends out.
CK: Oh, I mean it sounds like the Onion. Every one of those is hilarious. Our standing in the world? Even the Germans won’t talk to us. Our standing in the world? Good grief.
HH: So she can’t sustain a…
CK: In Egypt, Egypt, there’s nobody, both sides in Egypt hate us. How do you achieve that? That takes a lot of work.
HH: It does.
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HH: Charles, first, let me thank you for your profligate grant of time so I could talk with you about Things That Matter. I want to close by talking about Benedict, maybe the greatest public intellectual, certainly the bestselling author in the world over the last ten years. And what did you think of him and of his role in the world and his messages to the extent that you followed them at all?
CK: Well, it seems to me that it’s a little bit, and you know, I’ll just be humble, because that’s, this requires some effort, and as you know, I’ll do it on your show, because I really think I, I mean, it’s a little bit hard for one to understand inside the role of another great man, of someone inside of his own theology and where his standing is in Catholicism. I can’t begin to pretend that I would understand that. I do think he had a tremendous effect on the Church. And I do think what’s quite remarkable to me is that an institution so venerable has not only survived, I love the way everybody has advice on how the Church ought to reform and do X, Y and Z when they are speaking from the perspective of a country that’s one-eighth, I think, is it one-eighth or one-sixth the age of the Catholic Church?
CK: There are certain respects due to an institution that endures and that has such a profound effect over life. So I would defer to your judgment as to where he stands. You know, to an outsider, to a sort of Westerner, I would say, John Paul is the one who stands tall because of his effect on the flow of secular history.
HH: Well, John Paul rebuilt the house, Benedict redecorated it, and now Francis is asking everyone in.
HH: But it was my transition to asking you about Francis…
HH: …and whether in our minute left you are impressed or alarmed by him.
CK: Well, again, as an outside, I would say I’m impressed. There’s something truly touching about the Franciscan approach, the humility, the humanity, unadulterated, unfiltered. There’s a sort of a warmth. Now whether that can be the center of a living institution with so many adherents and so many structures, that’s a different question, because usually, that kind of, for that Franciscan ethos, lives outside in the monastery, and here he is at the center of this great institution. So I don’t know how it will play out as a functioning authority, but as an example, particularly to people outside the faith, I think it’s quite remarkable.
HH: Charles Krauthammer, congratulations again. Things That Matter is linked at Hughhewitt.com, the number one bestselling book in America, whether you’re listening to this, to the original broadcast on the 19th, or the rebroadcast on Thanksgiving, I’m sure you enjoyed the last two hours as much as I did.
End of interview.