The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush . by David Frum. Random House, 384 pages, $25.95.
A year ago, in one of the first mini-scandals of the Bush administration, a speechwriter was publicly defenestrated for having the audacity to claim that he had written a phrase for the 43rd President. It didn’t matter that the writer claimed to have resigned, and may actually have done so, though almost everyone believed he’d been fired. It didn’t matter that the phrase in question-”axis of evil”-was widely derided as simplistic and inaccurate (Mary McCarthy might have said that all three words are lies, including “of”). It didn’t matter that the culprit was his wife, who bragged about the phrase in a widely copied e-mail sent to her cocktail-circuit friends. The simple fact that he had admitted to the world that he wrote the speech was enough to ensure his demise. He had violated the code of Presidential speechwriters, who never reveal the secrets of their guild, and he had betrayed the omertà of the Bushes, who never reveal their thoughts or explain their decisions to the press, for fear that an open dialogue might somehow compromise their quest for “freedom.”
A year later, a mildly contrite David Frum has written a book about the experience, and of course he’s milking it for all it’s worth. There are ceaseless interviews and media “availabilities.” There’s the self-promoting Web site inviting the reader to check in with his fascinating thoughts about publishing a memoir and going on a book tour. There’s the soft-focus photograph of Bush on the back cover, strolling toward the agricultural horizon (away from Mr. Frum?).
It must be very strange to be David Frum-or, if you prefer, davidfrum.com. A former journalist and author (he has written on the conservative movement and the 1970′s, two topics that go together better than you’d think), he was put to work as an economic speechwriter for an administration with no clear economic policy. A Canadian, he was expected to write movingly of American patriotism, even as he was being incessantly investigated by guardians of the national-security apparatus, who were worried (perhaps justifiably) that there was something fishy about the foreigner working alongside them. Most compellingly, Mr. Frum was a rare and lonely Jew in an administration that thrilled to the sounds of its fundamentalist pronouncements. (The book opens with the first words Mr. Frum overheard on the day of his interview: “Missed you at Bible Study.”) A poignant scene describes a service for Jewish staffers at the White House and Mr. Frum’s blinking awareness that if one woman had not brought her five kids, the total number of children in attendance would have been in the single digits.
The most interesting parts of Mr. Frum’s book are the moments when these pressures weigh on him, when he confesses-barely-to the understandable feelings of alienation that ensue. But those moments are few and far between, and most of his book reads instead like a too-eager display of piety by a prodigal son who has been cast out of the garden: Please like me-I’m as patriotic as the next guy! There’s a bit of Whittaker Chambers in David Frum-the sense of a troubled wanderer seeking rigid orthodoxies, only to find himself uncomfortable when smothered by their embrace. There’s a telling line posted on his Web log: “Was it Otto von Bismarck who said that nothing should be taken as true until it has been officially denied?”
Still, there’s much to value in The Right Man . Obviously, the chief draw is voyeurism. All the while professing absolute loyalty, Mr. Frum lifts up the window shade so his readers can peer into the Executive Mansion. We learn some new facts: Mr. Bush is an Eisenhower groupie; he calls environmentalists “green green lima beans”; he wants Americans to drive electric cars powered by nuclear energy. The description of the compound is accurate-more so than a West Wing episode-and generally engaging. The particular accounts of daily life in the White House after 9/11 are vivid and arresting. There are scenes of welcome humor. I loved his description of the bland Air Force One menu, another sign of his ethnic alienation from the Bush team: Serving creamed corn has always been an effective way to screen out possible non-Christians.
Like Mr. Bush himself, the book has some impressive strengths. Mr. Frum’s White House experience has given him one very good habit: He writes in short sentences, easy to see on the teleprompter. The result is a relaxing read that should take most Republicans no more than a few hours to get through before petting the golden retriever, going off to sleep and dreaming of tax-free dividends.
But The Right Man also contains more than a few land mines, most of which are left accidentally by Mr. Frum in his haste to prove his centrality to the party line. They should worry anyone concerned about the aimless and contradictory rhetoric of Bush foreign policy. One of the most fascinating sections describes the work leading to the “axis of evil” formulation in the State of the Union speech of January 2002. The first disturbing sign is that chief speechwriter Michael Gerson asked Mr. Frum to come up with the government’s justification for war with Iraq. This is bizarre no matter what your politics: Either the decision had been made to invade, but no one knew the reason, or-even worse-the Bush administration was genuinely interested in Mr. Frum’s opinion about whether or not to go to war. Last I heard, speechwriters are not supposed to determine the policy of the United States.
At this point, we’re treated to a gurgling, conspiratorial screed against Nazis, Arabs and even Mussolini; it lurches chaotically from one decade to another and lumps the entire Muslim world into a single odious category (“the whole stinking bowl,” he calls it at one point). Afterward, you want to gently replace the cover on the terrarium so that the snakes and lizards inside Mr. Frum’s mind will not escape again. The obsessively anti-Muslim cast of the book does not augur well for the so-called Middle East peace process, which has apparently vanished from American foreign policy for the foreseeable future (Mr. Frum repeats and enlarges Ari Fleischer’s Dadaist claim that by building peace, Bill Clinton actually caused war).
Though he tries to be the benign host, Mr. Frum displays a withering sarcasm toward Colin Powell and the State Department, who do not share his view that the world’s problems can be easily solved by naked military might. Secretary Powell is an appeaser; Donald Rumsfeld has the only mind that “sparkles.” In a flight of historical fancy that’s strange even by his standards, Mr. Frum compares Mr. Powell to the timid Civil War general George McClellan. Which makes Mr. Rumsfeld the manly Ulysses S. Grant. Mr. Frum apparently hates the U.N. and the idea of the United States entering into international treaties. If he had his way, we’d soon invade Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Indonesia to root out terrorism-because the whole point of a strong military is to use it.
Quite a few of Mr. Frum’s foreign-policy assumptions are naïve, particularly in relation to Russia, China and, of course, North Korea, whose presence in the axis of evil propelled us into the lovely scenario we are enjoying at the moment. One of the first things you learn as a White House speechwriter is that words have consequences, and should not be tossed around lightly. Mr. Frum’s friends at the American Enterprise Institute may have enjoyed his authorship of the famous phrase, but the rest of us now have to sort out the mess.
It’s striking to see the extent to which Bush policy is still controlled by the memory of Bill Clinton. There are the usual distortions of the Clinton record (including the ridiculous claim that Clinton staffers did not have to wear business attire-if you believe that, then I have five ugly suits I’d like to sell you). Mr. Bush and his people, it seems, still feel an abiding insecurity about his predecessor (one wacky moment has Mr. Frum claiming that Mr. Bush has a more powerful id than Mr. Clinton, but has it under better control). Did you know that the prosperity of the 1990′s was not because of Mr. Clinton, but the Enron scandal was? Even more implausibly, Mr. Frum tries to link the soaring majesty of Mr. Bush’s rhetoric to the speeches of John F. Kennedy. Thanks, but I don’t think so.
Strangely, Mr. Frum soft-pedals some of Mr. Bush’s best moments; neither his reaching out to Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 nor his leadership of the war in Afghanistan are ever described in meaningful detail. Mr. Frum also ignores the great tragedy of White House speechwriting over the last 16 months: No speech has been given that asks Americans to make meaningful sacrifices toward the rebuilding of their country or explains to the world what we truly stand for, beyond a few platitudes about freedom and democracy. There’s a sympathetic audience out there, billions strong, waiting for that argument to be made.
In “Politics and the English Language,” the best essay ever written about speechwriting, George Orwell warned against people whose muddled words add to the muddle of their ideas, and who fail to think through the consequences of the things they say. Beware the euphemism, the boast, the catchy phrase, the tired cliché, the lazy thought that temporarily makes an audience feel snug but ultimately resembles “a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Reading this book, Orwell would smile knowingly, but hardly feel comforted.
Ted Widmer directs the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College. He was director of speechwriting at the N.S.C. under President Clinton.