Book Review: The Hurrahs and hand grenades of Charles Krauthammer and James Wolcott

krauthammerMore than 30 years ago, Charles Krauthammer left the world of medicine for political journalism, evolving into a prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning pundit and conservative voice (despite once being a speechwriter for Walter Mondale).

The extensive anthology “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics” (Crown Forum) collects his work on a variety of subjects, and shows he’s a thoughtful, provocative and compelling essayist.

Despite being featured nightly on the Fox News program “Special Report,” Krauthammer is far from predictable. His writing and commentary is in the tradition of William F. Buckley, George Will and William Safire rather than the ravings of reactionary talk radio hosts, or even many of his fellow Fox News hosts and commentators.

While frequently contemptuous of liberal ideas, he’s seldom disrespectful to fellow pundits or their followers beyond feeling they are grossly mistaken on most issues.

He’s certainly in line with right-wing orthodoxy when it comes to the Obama administration (though he rejects the noxious excesses of the “birther” crowd). There are several columns devoted to what he considers presidential sins. These include failure to properly acknowledge and respond to the threat posed by “radical Islam,” the extension of the welfare state, misplaced domestic priorities, and of course, the menace of Obamacare.

But he departs from hard-right doctrine in other areas. He opposes capital punishment, feels affirmative action and abortion should not be decided by courts but state legislatures, thinks the stem cell debate has been oversimplified, and disavows any views with racist tinges. Krauthammer defends Columbus Day celebrations, but acknowledges the nation’s misdeeds towards Native Americans.

While his suggestion of building a huge fence to stem Mexican immigration seems xenophobic, he’s open to the idea of gradually providing citizenship to people currently in the country illegally. Krauthammer pens a poignant tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the King Memorial but is extremely agitated by what he deems the overreaching, unnecessarily combative tactics of contemporary militants like Rev. Al Sharpton.

He’s also a huge fan of baseball and chess. While his praise for former St.Louis Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel in retrospective proved exaggerated (Ankiel has bounced all over both leagues), his columns on chess grandmasters and matches are delightful even if you don’t know a pawn from a queen.

Likewise, he makes columns about math, physics and biogenetics seem intriguing. These columns reveal his extensive training and knowledge, but they don’t require a science background to appreciate. Krauthammer says he would prefer to concentrate on baseball, chess, and science, but feels politics is too important due to ignore.

“Things That Matter” is clearly conservative opinion, but it’s not the toxic rant that passes for political discourse in other arenas. Krauthammer won’t convert liberals and leftists, but they can read him and disagree, while often learning something of value in the process.

Critical retrospectives

wolcottMy introduction to James Wolcott came via his television commentary in the Village Voice during the mid and late ’70s. He would later move into other areas and write for numerous publications, most recently “Vanity Fair,” where he’s currently a cultural critic and blogger.

“Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs” (Doubleday) is an entertaining mix of subjects done for magazines that provide the prolific Wolcott ample room for his engaging, sometimes confrontational or controversial and comprehensive profiles, reviews, appreciations, and assessments.

While he would no doubt recoil at being labeled an “elitist,” Wolcott has no interest in dumbing anything down. He doesn’t tailor coverage to reflect box office grosses, best seller lists, or ratings. This book isn’t aimed at those whose idea of culture is a Stephen King novel or a Michael Bay movie. While both may get referenced somewhere in a review, it probably won’t be in a favorable manner.

At the same time, like any good critic, Wolcott will champion an unorthodox view or two. He’s a booster of Doris Day films for one, and not particularly enamored of Johnny Carson for another. “Critical Mass” has caught some flack due to Wolcott’s subject choices. The absence of specific pieces on people of color and the scant attention devoted to women authors have led some to fire charges of “Eurocentric” (polite term for racist) and sexist (no way to lighten that word) at this collection.

But that’s a gross distortion. Wolcott certainly knows the work of Richard Pryor, Toni Morrison, Morgan Freeman and James Baldwin, even if he doesn’t choose to write extensively about them. He’s far from the type who dismisses the 20th or 21st centuries, despite his wide range of knowledge regarding past periods.

“Critical Mass” represents criticism as literature, and is reflective of earlier eras in journalism, when this approach was the norm rather than the exception. It’s enjoyable and informative. While personal favorite sections are the ones on books and movies, the others (TV, comedy, music) prove equally valuable. I’m no fan of “Vanity Fair,” but I always look for James Wolcott’s column, and “Critical Mass” offers an ample number of them.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.