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Charles Krauthammer reflects where he can on his Tuesday dinner with President-elect Obama

Saturday, January 17, 2009
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HH: Barack Obama will be inaugurated the country’s 44th president on Tuesday. One person who did not have to wait until then to assess him close up is Charles Krauthammer, the columnist for the Washington Post who had dinner with him two nights ago. Charles, welcome to the program, you’re filling in for Fred and Mort today, I appreciate it very much. Had you met the President-elect before your dinner on Tuesday evening?

CK: Never had. No, I hadn’t seen him except on television.

HH: Now I know it’s off the record. You can’t talk about what was there, but in terms of the atmosphere, was it relaxed? And was it enjoyable?

CK: Well, all I’m allowed to say is that lamb chops were served. But because it’s you, look, it was obviously cordial. And I mean, there’s nothing mysterious about the man. You’ve seen him in action. He’s a man who if you look at what he’s done since his election, he’s invited Rick Warren to his inaugural. He’s going to be hosting a dinner for John McCain. This is a guy who’s trying to show after his election that he reaches out. He’s talked about reaching across the aisle and listening to other people’s perspectives. And that’s obviously why he did it. He wanted, he is a guy who’s intellectually curious, and of course he has a political agenda, which means he wants to co-opt the entire right wing conspiracy, which was well represented in the room.

HH: Now my whole idea for a new TV show for Fox is to take the columnists and pundits who were there and put them on once a week to assess their dinner guest. In terms of Barone and Brooks, et cetera…

CK: Yes.

HH: These are all center-right people.

CK: Yes.

HH: In talking with them after the conversation with the President-elect is over, do you think they are impressed or are they wary?

CK: Well, it’s hard to meet anybody whether in that dinner or elsewhere who meets Obama one on one, or in a small setting, who is not impressed, as the country was with his unbelievable skills. I mean, he’s obviously a very smart man. You saw him in the debates. You saw how he ran a campaign. He came out of nowhere. There’s a reason he won the presidency and destroyed the Clinton machine in sort of one of the most remarkable campaigns ever. He’s a very smart man, and has a nimble mind, and is intellectually curious. He actually listens to what people say. Think of the Rick Warren debate. Remember that event where he and McCain were on the stage at different times…

HH: Sure.

CK: And they threw a lot of social issue questions, a lot of tough one if you’re a liberal Democrat in an audience mostly conservative. And if you remember how Warren, how Obama answered the questions at the time, what he would do is he would begin by framing and restating the conservative argument that he had just heard, showing A) that he respects it, and B) that he understands it, and then he’d give his view, and then he would talk about how you can look for ground in between where one might agree. And that’s his style. It’s Socratic, professorial, thoughtful, and that’s what I saw and what the country has seen over the last, what, eight, nine months.

HH: Now can that style survive, Charles Krauthammer, actual decisions? For example, his colleagues in the House yesterday put forward a “stimulus” plan which is just a fire hose of pork. I have been through it today, it’s available at www.readthestimulus.org, and it’s just a classic kind of left wing carnival of spending. Can all of his rhetoric survive the reality of Washington D.C?

CK: No, I think you put your finger right on it. You know, all the ecumenical stuff, all the great spirit stuff, all the lifting us to higher, higher levels of consciousness, all that stuff’s on Tuesday. Then he’s got to make decisions on grubby stuff. And as you say, this is a grubby, grubby stimulus package. It has got everything in it. Here’s what’s really interesting. When he went to, I think he was in Ohio today, he’s campaigning essentially for the stimulus bill, he’s talking about it as the country should act in a spirit of coming together for a higher purpose, and overcome parochial partisan interests. The bill is as you say, a festival of parochial interest. I mean, it has got everything in it. And there’s some kind of contradiction. Imagine if you want to spend that much money, if you do it and you say I want to go to the Moon, well that’s something, you know, a unified idea that can be understood, and you can rally around, or like Eisenhower, you build an interstate highway system. But there’s nothing here of that sort that can lift you. All you’ve got is the word of Obama that this will rescue the economy. So it’s a matter of faith, but there’s nothing inherent in that bill which would make anyone’s spirit soar. In fact, as you reflected, it fills you with a sense of dismay and déjà vu.

HH: Well, I wonder in two years when the elections come around, and the Republicans are asked so what did we get for the money, he’s going to point to statistics. He’s not going to point to twenty new nuclear power plants or wind turbines built somewhere.

CK: That’s exactly…I agree with you.

HH: But that doesn’t work, I don’t think.

CK: You know, that I think is exactly right. Look, if for some reason, whether it’s because of the stimulus or if it was just incidental we’re out of this recession, he’ll get the credit, he’ll say it was his package, and that’ll be it. Those are the political realities. But if we’re not out of this recession, he won’t be able to, and like an Eisenhower or a Kennedy, say we had a Moon program or we had an interstate highway system that fifty years later, it’s just a magnificent infrastructure that everybody is using. There’s going to be nothing left behind, no footprints. And I think it may end up as a real wreck for him.

HH: A fresh coat of paint on the Jefferson Memorial won’t do it. Now Charles Krauthammer, you had a chance to take his measure as well, we’re watching a war unfold in the Middle East. Israel is fighting deeper and deeper into Gaza. Not based upon what you spoke with him about, but based upon what he said and your assessment of his character, do you think he’ll stand by Israel in the way that Bush and Clinton did?

CK: This man is one of the most mysterious men ever to ascend to the presidency. In fact, I can’t think of a man who’s ever ascended to the presidency where we know less about him and what’s inside him and his political instincts. I don’t think there is any way to know. He certainly hasn’t expressed himself on foreign affairs in the transition, respectfully allowing it to go to Bush. And in the campaign, he’s been opaque and vague. And we don’t know. All we know is he’s got a bunch of advisors, but we don’t know, a lot of them, you know, are on different sides of this issue, who he’s going to listen to. So I think the only honest answer is nobody has any idea, and it is going to be a revelation after Tuesday which way he’s going to go. It may, he may not have to make a decision now because it may be that the Israelis are going to agree to cessation of hostilities. And that would spare him a decision. But if it doesn’t happen, we’re going to see after Tuesday.

HH: Now Charles, I don’t know that you have written this, maybe it’ll come out on the weekend, your assessment of Bush’s eight years and of his farewell address. How are you going to be, how do you think we’re going to be summing up the eight years of Bush eight years from now?

CK: Well in fact, I did have a column today which was a sort of a looking at his legacy. I think he’ll be remembered for three things – he decimated al Qaeda, he turned Iraq from a hostile enemy state into a democracy allied with the United States, huge strategic advance, and he provided the country and his successor with the infrastructure for fighting the war on terror. And that war on terror, and those instruments, I think, are his real legacy. And what’s really interesting is that I think the Democrats are going to retain a large number of them, like the wireless wiretaps, which they railed against, but which they will not let go, because it’s going to be needed in the war on terror. And that is a gift to the nation that will endure.

HH: Last question, why the virulent hatred towards Bush? I mean, sometimes a political opponent gets under your skin, but it dissipates. I don’t think this is going to dissipate. I think it’s genuine, virulent, I mean, you read Joe Klein in Time Magazine, the man’s unbalanced, Charles. What’s the source here?

CK: I think two sources – the election of 2000, there’s always been a sense among liberals, some liberals that it was in illegitimate president, that he was essentially a usurper. And secondly, the war in Iraq. All wars are divisive, but this one was especially divisive. It had a rough interval in ’05-’06. And you combine a sense of usurpation with a sense of illegitimate war and even war criminality in the eyes of some of the loony left, and you get a residue of the bitterness that you are talking about. But I think it dissipates over time. I think it will.

HH: Will that bitterness be directed towards the President-elect if he indeed continues beyond the left’s expectation in the engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan?

CK: No, I don’t think so. I think he enjoys goodwill of the country, a sense of renewal. And even if he continues on the policies, since he didn’t initiate them, I think in a sense, Bush takes a shoe for the country. That incident in Baghdad was a sort of metaphor for his whole presidency. He took the hit, he personalized the venom. And as he leaves, he takes it away, and he leaves, for example in Iraq, a strategic success in the hands of his successor. So I think Obama is the beneficiary and Bush, in a way, politically sacrificed himself.

HH: Very interesting. Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, I’ll go read the column right now. Thanks for joining us on your very special week with your meeting with the President-elect.

End of interview.

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