The dinner guest that night at George Will’s house in Chevy Chase was intellectually nimble, personally formidable and completely baffling, recalled columnist Charles Krauthammer – who was getting his first up-close look at President-elect Barack Obama.
"We sat around and said, 'Does anybody really know who he is and what he wants to do, now that we've had this?'" Krauthammer recalled of Obama’s January sit-down with conservative columnists. "And the answer was no. We don't know."
"I didn't understand what he was up to until he just unveiled it openly, boldly, unapologetically and very clearly within two weeks of his inauguration," Krauthammer told POLITICO in an interview in his corner office off Dupont Circle. "That's what was so stunning."
Since then, Krauthammer has emerged in the Age of Obama as a central conservative voice, the kind of leader of the opposition that that economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman represented for the left during the Bush years: A coherent, sophisticated, and implacable critic of the new president.
Obama, he has written in his syndicated Washington Post column, is committed to "radical health-care, energy and education reforms," central to a "social democratic agenda" that promises deep - and ominous - transformations to American life. The columnist has offered, in five installments, a "unified theory of Obamaism."
At a moment when the right is decimated and divided, and unsure what to think of the new administration, Krauthammer's confidence is much in demand. His columns circulate widely on conservative e-mail lists and blogs, and even his utterances on Fox News are received as gospel: National Review Online's group blog, The Corner, posts long transcripts of his remarks without comment, under the heading, "Krauthammer's Take."
"He's the most important conservative columnist right now," said Times columnist David Brooks.
Yet even as he lays out the case for Obama’s radicalism, Krauthammer holds another view – respect, even admiration, for the "formidable" new president's raw ability to accomplish his agenda. Right now, says Krauthammer, his side is fighting a losing battle against Obama's attempt to European-ize the American economy.
Krauthammer has not always spoken for the right or the Republican Party as a whole. He has fought running battles with critics who loathe his defense of torture, and he parted bitterly with old allies among Republican foreign policy realists who tired of his defense of President Bush's intervention in the Middle East.
But the key to Krauthammer’s appeal is the clarity of his opposition to Obama, which began soon after a December, 2006, column during which he urged Obama to run for president, and guaranteed that he would lose.
The campaign began, and Krauthammer didn't believe the hype. Where others were moved by Obama's mass appeal, Krauthammer found his campaign "cult-like." His broad statements of purpose made him a cipher on the specifics. The famous race speech was, Krauthammer's headline declared, a "brilliant fraud." His friendships with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers showed his "cynicism and ruthlessness."
The Politico 44 Story Widget Requires Adobe Flash Player.
"Obama is a man of first-class intellect and first-class temperament. But his character remains highly suspect," Krauthammer wrote last October, summing up his critique.
Krauthammer, 59, is well-prepared for a term or two in opposition. A Harvard-trained psychiatrist who handed out leaflets for the presidential campaign of Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1976, he left practice to work for Jimmy Carter and then write speeches for Walter Mondale. But he was impressed with Ronald Reagan's Cold War policies, and became one of the key voices of what would become thought of as neconservative foreign policy.
He has spent the last decade as a reliable, if not automatic, ally of the Bush administration, particularly on matters of foreign policy - though not limited to it. One Krauthammer column provided a roadmap the administration seemed to follow to the letter on the withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. Later, Krauthammer's call on presidential candidates to put Israel under the American nuclear umbrella found its way almost verbatim into speeches by candidate Hillary Clinton.
"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."
"My writing speaks for itself," Krauthammer responded in a curt email.
Krauthammer's politics are, more than anything, shaped by the familiar course of a hawkish former Democrat toward neo-conservatism.
"What's important about Charles is that he began life as more of a liberal," said the liberal Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who likes Krauthammer, and noted that he writes with a level of restraint absent from the works of conservative firebrands like Glenn Beck and Anne Coulter.
"Charles is not a hater, but he can be an intense disliker," he said.
Krauthammer's formative departure from liberalism came in response to the anti-nuclear movement of the early Reagan years. In 1981, he wrote a scathing attack on the massive Nuclear Freeze movement, which he now describes as "hysteria." The editorial, New Republic editor Marty Peretz told him at the time, cost the magazine more cancelled subscriptions than any before.
By coincidence, Krauthammer shares that formative moment with the president he criticizes. As a student at Columbia University, Obama wrote his senior thesis on nuclear disarmament. His first published prose, in a student magazine, discussed student efforts to prevent nuclear war, and criticized the "narrow focus of the Freeze movement" as insufficiently radical.
"I don't get caught in enthusiasms," Krauthammer said of the nuclear freeze movement, and of Obama's mass appeal.
The columnist says he doesn't hold any personal animus for Obama.
"This is a formidable, impressive, interesting man," said Krauthammer, wearing reading glasses around his neck, a black turtleneck and black jeans. "It's a privilege to live in a time where there's this kind of ferment."
The columnist is less impressed by the current state of the conservative resistance.
"It's completely incoherent, fractured and inconsistent," he said, calling the recent anti-tax tea parties "a perfect example."
"They were ostensibly about taxes. Obama hasn't raised taxes as of now by a penny. So what was all that about? It was a natural pushback by people who have sense of the government expanding rapidly in its size and control," Krauthammer said. "It was simply an inchoate reaction, the sort of thing that happens very early on in a very important and consequential presidency."
Leaving the verdict on the Bush Administration to "the next generation's David McCullough," Krauthammer also told POLITICO that he isn't rooting for Obama to fail.
"What I want to say is -- I don't want to repeat his name - I don't want Obama to fail," he said, referring to radio host Rush Limbaugh. "I want our country to succeed. And when I criticize him, it's because I think his ideas are misguided."
He does not, howevr, think Obama can be easily stopped. Krauthammer's view is that American politics - unlikely those in Europe - are played out in relative moderation, between the 40-yard lines, as he puts it; he thinks Obama is poised to push those ideological limits.
"He wants to actual stretch that line, which is what I think makes him so interesting, and I've used the word radical," Krauthammer said. "And I think he has the power to bring the public with him in the way that few presidents have."
A White House spokesman declined to comment on Krauthammer's work, and the columnist said he hasn't heard from Obama since the dinner at Will's house, nor has he received any angry calls from the White House about his columns.
"I'm a lost sheep," he said. "That would be a waste of fury."