The dean of conservative commentators Charles Krauthammer’s new book is flying off the shelves -- and nobody knows exactly why.
Sitting atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for two months now, the conversative Washington Post columnist’s Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, a collection of his writings, is not the kind of fiery, rash conservative commentary that generally climbs to the top of the bestsellers’ lists.
And yet, the collection has sold enough to make publicists and pundits alike scratch their heads. It is, as conservative publisher Adam Bellow told Newsweek, “a phenomenon.”
Published October 22 by Crown Forum, a Random House imprint that specializes in conservative authors, it first hit the Times bestseller list in November. Within two weeks, it had surpassed the latest works of conservatives Glenn Beck and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade to climb to No. 1. And there it remains.
It ranks No. 8 on Amazon’s list of best-selling books of 2013. According Nielsen, the book has sold 601,000 hardcover copies in the United States alone. Crown says Things That Matter is in its 18th printing, with 970,000 copies in print.
“Was I surprised? I was surprised,” said Bellow, who runs HarperCollins’s conservative imprint Broadside Books. “The collective wisdom in publishing is that anthology collections don’t sell.”
The Krauthammer compendium appears to be surfing a particularly virulent wave. The conservative publishing industry has flourished in recent years and books by conservative authors routinely make the bestsellers’ lists.
But few books sell as many as Krauthammer’s, particularly anthologies of previously published work. “Anything at that level is largely serendipitous,” Bellow said.
Success, it seems, begets even more success. “Once a book becomes number one on the best seller list, it functions as a form of advertising,” Bellow explained. “More copies are stocked at Barnes & Noble. When consumers walk into the store, they see big piles of them and, like in some experiment created by B.F. Skinner [the American psychologist who argued that free will is an illusion], they reach out and buy it.”
But when you get to the heady level Krauthammer has reached, it begins to look as if it is far more than just the marketing machine at work. And there are almost as many theories about Krauthammer’s success as books sold.
How you feel about the book’s popularity largely depends on how you view the author. To many, Krauthammer is a thinking conservative, in contrast to the bluster of the modern-day Tea Party and quick-fire figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who have become heroes of that movement.
To those who are trying to make sense of the rise of the conservative movement, Krauthammer’s success is a triumph for temperate, smart conservatism. Americans thirsty for a nuanced, intellectual debate are buying his book in droves.
Krauthammer himself put forward a version of this theory in an interview with Newsweek.
In late October, he went on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on Comedy Central and had an extended conversation about the merits of liberalism versus conservatism. In defending Republican ideas today, Krauthammer diplomatically began by praising two historic successes of liberalism: Medicare and Social Security.
“If it was ever presented in that fashion, the way you just presented it, I think the conversation we would be having in this country is very different,” Stewart said, noting that Republican talking points don’t generally include paeans to the social safety net they are trying to either reform or abolish.
“That’s why you have to buy this book,” Krauthammer responded.
Krauthammer, who described himself as both “baffled and grateful” over the book’s success, ventured a guess based on this exchange. “I think it could be for that [Daily Show] audience -- people who think of conservatives as extreme or ad hominem, or specializing in epithets, particularly young liberals have that image, or whatever [idea] they have of conservatives -- they find at least in my style a different tone,” Krauthammer said.
“And maybe that’s what has given it a broad appeal. My source for that is Jon Stewart.”
It’s a theory also put forward by progressive commentator Robert Zimmerman, who praised Krauthammer’s more contemplative style while disagreeing with his conclusions. “There’s a real national hunger for an intelligent discussion of the issues,” Zimmerman said. “I think that’s what’s significant here.”
This optimistic view of the American public would help account for why a more mild-mannered book would succeed in the era of passionate, radical, often intemperately expressed Tea Party-style rhetoric, which logically might lend more success to the Becks or Limbaughs than to Krauthammer, whose views fall broadly across the conservative spectrum.
A Harvard-educated psychiatrist-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator, Krauthammer is respected by many on both sides of the aisle and is known to be happy to buck the Republican Party line when he disagrees with it.
A few months ago, for example, he came out against the government shutdown led by freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R- Texas and the Tea Party wing of the GOP.
“I don’t agree with current Republican tactics,” he wrote in October. “I thought the defunding demand impossible and, therefore, foolish.”
A few weeks later, he came out in favor of the Washington football team abandoning their offensive Redskins name -- a position he shares with President Obama.
“Maybe it’s because I don’t adhere to a party line,” Krauthammer said. “Maybe there’s a broader appeal than in if I located myself and had views that reflected only one camp.”
Krauthammer underwent a political evolution in the 1980s from Democrat to Republican. As he describes in the book’s introduction, he began at the left-leaning New Republic in the 1980s and slowly moved rightward, beginning with his longstanding preference for more hawkish foreign policy -- a familiar path followed by many fellow neoconservatives in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
By the 1990s, Krauthammer had become a conservative talking head on TV as well as a regular columnist in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Today, his syndicated column runs in over 400 newspapers nationwide and he appears on Fox News every evening in the 6 p.m. hour -- if not more than once -- offering his distinct brand of conservative commentary.
Krauthammer may not fit neatly into a libertarian or Tea Party or traditionally conservative mold, but he does get along with all of them. While some establishment conservatives do public battle with the Tea Party over control of the Republican Party, Krauthammer has largely defended the base and denies the existence of a serious rift in the party.
In one example among many, Krauthammer said in an interview with the conservative paper the Daily Caller in November that the Republican civil war between the so-called establishment and the Tea Party is a figment of the liberal press’s imagination.
“My argument is, there is much less division among conservatives than some people pretend and than the left-wing media, the liberal media, would like us to believe,” he said, referring to Republicans’ unified opposition to the health care reform law. “I think there’s no difference on the objectives.”
Though Krauthammer has taken flak from the Tea Party for opposing the October two-week shutdown of the federal government, he saved most of his criticism for the Democrats. Though he stated repeatedly in columns and interviews that he disagreed with Republican “tactics,” he spends many more words attacking Democrats.
“The most ubiquitous conventional wisdom is that the ultimate cause of these troubles is out-of-control Tea Party anarchists,” Krauthammer wrote in the same October column in which he called Republican tactics foolish. Nearly the entire column was dedicated to blaming Democrats for the shutdown.
“But is this really where the causal chain ends? The Tea Party was created by Obama’s first-term overreach, most specifically Obamacare. Today’s frantic fight against it is the echoing result of the way it was originally enacted.”
Which brings us to one of Krauthammer’s most appealing features to the conservative wing of his party: his harsh criticism of President Obama, both in his writing and in his TV appearances.
The book’s success is “a product of a certain moment in time,” Bellow said. “And the context is the Obama administration, that Charles is the lead intellectual adversary of Barack Obama on the right. And that is the passion that fuels the sales of his book.”
If that’s true, then Krauthammer has hit a sweet spot, a combination of embodying the respect a smart thinker attracts as well as intelligently articulating conservatives’ vitriol toward Obama.
“A lot of my liberal friends read him because invariably they agree with a lot of what he says. They like the way he says it. They are not put off by it. And I think that’s one of the translating points that he has,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who said he wasn’t surprised by the book’s success.
“You take that and you layer on top of it being on Fox every day at 6 p.m or so, and now sort of branching out and doing more Fox appearances on other shows, sort of reaffirms that brand, certainly with the base.”
Krauthammer’s presence on Fox News, including a special on his personal life that aired in October, certainly boosted sales. “I don’t think of Charles as a moderate conservative. I think he’s a hardline conservative,” said Democratic consultant Bob Shrum. “He’s on Fox all the time. He’s a strong critic of the president and conservative books tend to do very well.”
But as Krauthammer himself points out, not everyone who criticizes the president sells hundreds of thousands of books, and neither does everyone on Fox News. Even Shrum admits that, despite these important factors, the book’s exceptional success is still “somewhat mystifying.”
One of the most intriguing explanations for the book’s sales is that Krauthammer is a beloved figure on the right, and now that he is publishing a book for the first time in decades, the public is showing their devotion. Krauthammer has grown to be more of a force on the right than many realized.
For Bellow, this goes back to Krauthammer’s political evolution, beginning with the columnist’s stint as a speechwriter for then-Vice President Walter Mondale, a staunch liberal, in 1980.
“He came by his conservative views as part of an intellectual process as opposed to somebody who is motivated by religious beliefs or social issues or was simply born in a regional or cultural conservative community,” Bellow said.
“This is somebody who thought his way to his positions and as such he tends to demonstrate that conservatism is an intellectual phenomenon and not just, as many liberals think, a collection of unreasoning prejudices.”
“We conservatives like having a smart guy make our case for us,” he continued. “In the absence of a proper memoir or autobiography, this collection of essays is the next best thing.”