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My Early Days With Charles Krauthammer

That Charles Krauthammer was an extraordinary oracle who enriched us all so remarkably is indisputable; what is sometimes lost is how it was ever thus.

When I first encountered Charles Krauthammer in the winter of 1967, he was already a local legend, having demolished the Québec-wide “Junior Matriculation” high school leaving exams. This was no small achievement; the province was then the most populous in Canada and Montréal rivaled Philadelphia for fourth-largest city on the continent. It was taken for granted no one would ever surpass the impossibly high 94% achieved years earlier by a young man named Chaim Goldberg, a product of the Protestant schools (as nearly all Jews were; public education was confessionally organized and Jews and Orthodox Christians were “Protestant” by law). No one, it seemed, had explained this to Charles Krauthammer, graduate of a small parochial Jewish high school, who recorded something over 97%. The communal pride was enormous.

Québec was then in the first throes of what would quickly grow into a violent confrontation between Francophone nationalists and the more economical and cohesive but self-destructively timid and reflexively apologetic Anglo community. Few people dared speak up for our rights and history. The flashpoint had become the McGill University campus, where a weak and groveling student government had withdrawn from the bilingual Federation of Students and joined the radical, ultra-leftist, unilingual Union Général des Etudiants de Québec. In this, they were supported by the powerful McGill Daily, the local version of the MSM, edited by a self-proclaimed Communist (an actual Party member), Patrick McFadden. I led a small group from the law school ready to brave accusations of racisme by demanding a plebiscite to reverse the decision and it fell to me to confront the Red Menace and his cavalier denunciation of “racist!” to any who dared challenge him.

So, on a particularly grey Montreal evening I headed to the offices of the Daily to debate McFadden, a loud, vicious man who relished destroying people with sickening (and invariably false) innuendo and name-calling. I arrived, having steeled myself for the much-awaited confrontation, to find the Daily offices crammed -- and the debate already in progress. A tall, muscular, strikingly handsome young man was facing McFadden down and clearly had him (a permanent student probably in his 30s) befuddled.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked Arnie Aberman, an ally from the med school.

“Charlie Krauthammer.” (We all soon learned it was “Charles” not “Charlie.”)

“Get outta here! This is Krauthammer’s freshman year! He can’t be that good!”

But he was. It was a stunning performance. It wasn’t that Charles was breaking fresh ground -- the issues on both sides of the Québec debate were well-known and already quite tired -- it was the sheer elegance with which he presented his ideas, his extraordinary ability to parse McFadden's platitudes and insults, turning them back on the man, reducing him to ultimately whining or shouting. But it was more than brilliant debating finesse; Charles was -- as he would always be -- in complete command of the facts, displaying the grasp of the history of the province and its linguistic strife going back to the conquest in 1759. The facts and figures of the economy, of the society, of the entire commonweal were at his fingertips, deftly presented in ways that gave substance to his argument and confidence to people who might otherwise be fearful of agreeing with him even though that was their intuition.