The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
By David Frum
Random House -- 303pp -- $25.95
Being a Presidential speechwriter is sometimes like being a CIA covert operative: The public isn't supposed to know you're responsible for your best work. After all, it's FDR, not the speechwriter, who gets credit for "nothing to fear but fear itself." And JFK penned the famous lines: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Right?
Well, of course not. That brings us to David Frum. A White House economic speechwriter from January, 2001, until February, 2002, Frum became famous (or infamous) in Washington social circles after it was reported that his wife had sent out an e-mail attributing to her husband the famous (or infamous) phrase, "axis of evil." Media reports falsely declared that Frum had been sacked. In reality, he says, he had proffered his resignation weeks before, on the grounds that there was little need for an economic speechwriter when security issues were dominating the agenda.
Now, like a spy coming in from the cold, Frum has a hot new book detailing his adventures in Bushland. Currently a fellow at American Enterprise Institute, he obviously admires President George W. Bush but is not a Kool-Aid-drinking member of the cult of W. The result is The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, a work that is occasionally critical without seeming disloyal. Frum's rich anecdotes and smooth writing contribute to a work that provides more insight into Bush's personality than any since Bill Minutaglio's 1999 book, First Son.
While Frum paints a predominantly positive portrait of the President, his criticisms are sure to draw attention-- in part because so few former Bushies ever acknowledge any of the man's shortcomings. "He has many faults," writes Frum. "He is impatient and quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader should be."
That kind of talk is sure to irritate many of Bush's--and Frum's--friends on the right. But if Frum sends conservatives into occasional fits of apoplexy, he will anger many others, too. He's a proud, hard-right conservative who thinks Colin Powell (whom he compares with indecisive Civil War General George B. McClellan) and John McCain are squishy soft. An unequivocal supporter of Israel, he harshly criticizes Yassir Arafat, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the European nations that he sees as hotbeds of anti-Semitism, and a U.N. he views as a pawn of Muslim extremism.
Like his former boss, Frum is certain of the righteousness of his cause and happy to take the heat for it. He writes that Bush's "moral vision is not occluded by guilt or self-doubt." The same could be said for Frum. Still, while some will see the book as smug and ideologically extreme, open-minded readers will discover that Frum gives them a lot to think about, whether they end up agreeing with him or not.
A onetime neocon boy wonder and the author of Dead Right, a well-regarded 1994 book on the conservative movement, Frum came to the White House with impeccable right-wing credentials. But that doesn't lead him to try to portray the Bush White House as one big, happy family. Without choosing sides, he describes its foibles and factions--notably the two dominant groups led by political strategist Karl Rove and Bush counselor Karen Hughes. Rove is depicted as the leader of those who see the electorate as composed of numerous segments that can be targeted separately. This approach led to a major blunder, says Frum: pushing to overturn a Clinton Administration regulation limiting arsenic levels in drinking water. Rove had thought the proposal would help the President carry New Mexico in 2004.
Meanwhile, the author also finds fault with Hughes, who, along with her followers, views voters as a vast "undifferentiated mass of people." Frum fingers Hughes as the author of an ineffectual September 11, 2001, speech to the nation--one later dubbed by colleagues the "Awful Office Address." Observes the author: "At the center of the speech, where Bush ought to have explained who the enemy was--and then pledged to destroy him utterly--the public was offered instead a doughy pudding of stale metaphors. `America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining."'
While Frum talks about these fiefdoms, he rejects any notion that Bush is not in charge. He portrays the President as a strong leader for difficult times and a principled man uncomfortable with political small talk and diplomatic niceties. "There is a Holden Caulfield streak to Bush's personality: a deep distaste for the necessary insincerities of political life," Frum writes. "From this streak come many of his best decisions--and from it have come some of his worst troubles."
Some might argue that Frum's "axis of evil" formulation has complicated the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein. The Administration is tying itself in knots trying to explain why the U.S. might invade Iraq to remove a dictator who might or might not possess weapons of mass destruction while using diplomacy to counter another dictator who proudly claims to possess nuclear weapons. In the end, Frum's book could be remembered as a more constructive contribution to the nation's well-being than his (in)famous phrase. By Richard S. Dunham