When David Frum’s first and best book, Dead Right, was published in 1994, William F. Buckley Jr. blurbed it as “the most refreshing ideological experience in a generation.” That was a bit much, but even Frum’s critics might agree that Dead Right was a crisply written indictment of everything its author disliked about conservatism in the early ’90s. “Optimists” like Jack Kemp and “Moralists” like Bill Bennett occasionally irked him; “Nationalists” like Pat Buchanan he hated with a passion. But passion wasn’t the only thing fueling Dead Right. Its author hit the mark with at least some of his analysis and predictions: “conservatives plainly do not feel the same zeal for minimal government they once did,” he wrote, noting that “social conservatism is potentially more popular than economic conservatism. But severed from economic conservatism, social conservatism too easily degenerates into mere posturing.” The next 12 years of Republican rule on Capitol Hill would bear out both points.
Frum’s latest book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again is also getting lavish praise from his friends, but this one is much less likely to win respect from critics, not least because “conservatism that can win again” turns out not to look much like conservatism at all. Among the bold ideas Frum offers conservatives: give up on tax cuts, tone down the talk about abortion and stem cells, and get ready for war with Iran. The bulk of the conservative agenda falls by the wayside, but war remains: “American voters need to know: Republicans will never allow a rogue nation like mullah-ruled Iran to gain nuclear weapons,” he writes. “Whatever it takes to prevent that outcome, we will do. Whatever it takes. That is what we stand for as a party.” Try to read that without hearing the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” as sung by John McCain.
Conservatives reading Comeback might wonder what it would profit them to gain the world—or at least retain the White House—and lose their principles. Where Frum is concerned, however, that question may be moot: he appears never to have had any principles. What he does have is modus operandi. From his undergraduate days at Yale to his “Unpatriotic Conservatives” screed of 2003 to his postings today in his National Review Online “diary,” Frum has advanced himself by tearing down traditional conservatives, often by assailing high-profile targets who are nonetheless powerless to damage his career.
As a columnist for the Yale Daily News in the early ’80s, he joined his liberal editors in a campaign to urge the university to seize control of the Yale Literary Magazine, at the time owned by a 25-year-old alumnus named Andrei Navrozov. According to the New York Times, Navrozov had acquired “the financially troubled magazine” in 1978 and “turned the modest undergraduate journal into a handsome journal with a national circulation.” Frum and his allies said they simply wanted the Lit returned to the undergraduates. But Navrozov detected a political subtext to their efforts, the existence of which the Times, in its coverage of the Lit controversy in 1981, confirmed. “Privately, these same people talk about Mr. Navrozov’s politics,” the newspaper reported, “his ‘raucus, antiliberal, new cold war’ politics.”
Navrozov described the magazine’s orientation as “against totalitarianism and pro-freedom” and expressed the ambition to make the Lit resemble the London Poetry Review. He still occasionally published Yale undergraduates. But that did not satisfy Frum or Daily News editor Jacob Levich, who wrote a joint letter to the Times denouncing the newspaper’s story and expressing the hope that “all Yale alumni who remember the Lit as it was” would press the university administration to take control of the publication. This prompted a letter to the Times from a 1977 Yale alumnus, Richard Brookhiser:
Whatever its past glories, by the mid-70’s the Lit had become moribund. Its current editors have at least made it interesting again. That’s one reason I write for it now. I can’t speak for Lewis Lapham, William F. Buckley Jr. or Philip Larkin, but that may be one of their reasons too.
Like Navrozov, Frum was a professed anti-communist. A Yale near-contemporary, John Zmirak recalls, “Frum had made himself well-known among the amazingly intolerant leftist students of early 1980s Yale by loudly espousing Reaganite foreign and budgetary policy.” That notwithstanding, “there was a sense” that attacking the Lit “was a good career move,” an unnamed ally of Navrozov’s told Toronto Life in 2001, “a sense—and a resentment—that [Frum] was trying to establish himself as the acceptable conservative voice on campus—not with other conservatives, but with the powers that be.” The record of Frum’s career lends credence to that interpretation.
Frum was born in 1960 in Toronto to Murray and Barbara Frum—he a dentist, she a Canadian television personality. After Yale, Frum attended Harvard Law School before returning to Toronto in 1987 to become associate editor of Saturday Night, which was bought by Conrad Black shortly before Frum started work there. From Saturday Night he moved to the Wall Street Journal, where he worked as an assistant editor. While at the Journal, Frum accepted the freelance assignment that would make his name: a 1991 cover story for The American Spectator attacking Pat Buchanan.
The article, “Conservative Bully Boy,” described Buchanan as “everything couth conservatives want to escape” and took aim not just at Buchanan himself—then contemplating a run against George H.W. Bush for the 1992 Republican presidential nomination—but also at his paleoconservative and libertarian supporters, including Paul Gottfried, Murray Rothbard, and Thomas Fleming, among others. Frum accused Buchanan of “sly Jew-baiting”—so sly, evidently, that it slipped past Jewish intellectuals Rothbard and Gottfried, but not the ever vigilant Frum. And he defended neoconservatives against criticisms Buchanan had made: “There is in fact nothing particularly ‘neoconservative’ about the pro-internationalism, pro-immigration, pro-democracy ideological position Buchanan has set himself against,” Frum insisted while attacking Buchanan’s views on trade as at wider variance with conservative orthodoxy.
The hit on Buchanan earned Frum a book deal with The New Republic’s imprint at Basic Books; indeed, Frum reused much of his material on Buchanan and the paleos for Dead Right’s chapter on “Nationalists.” He reprinted the Buchanan piece in full, along with other essays that had been reworked into Dead Right chapters in his second book, the 1996 essay collection What’s Right. Frum had not yet triangulated his way toward environmentalism, one of the issues he embraces in Comeback, but already he was a dedicated recycler. Readers who had seen his criticisms of paleos twice before would eventually see them again in “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
In 2000, Frum published an original book that was not devoted to attacking anyone to his right. It was called How We Got Here: The 70s—The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse). The book, which pins on the 1970s—a lousy decade, to be sure—evils conservatives more typically associate with the 1960s, received scant notice. The uninitiated might suppose that How We Got Here read like a book written by a paleoconservative: it’s a curmudgeonly, joyless thing. In fact, that isn’t how paleoconservatives actually write, as anyone familiar with the prose of Rothbard, Bill Kauffman, or Chilton Williamson can attest. At age 40, neoconservatism’s brightest young thing seemed to have grown old.
Not that How We Got Here was devoid of insight: ironically, given his later role in the Bush White House, some of Frum’s best material in this book was about the social consequences of war and militarism. He framed the 1970s in the shadow of World War II and Vietnam, suggesting, “The turmoil of the 1970s should be understood … as the rebellion of an unmilitary people against institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war.” He acknowledged what he thought of as socially useful qualities in war and preparation for war: “War inspires faith in the political leaders who bring victory,” he wrote, “war reinforces sex roles,” and “war gives rise too to feels of spiritual equality.” But he also wrote that war “demands taxation, regulation, and control; hierarchy, centralization, and secrecy; conscription, obedience, and authority—none of them easily reconciled with the American constitutional scheme or the American national character.” Frum would soon be denouncing paleoconservatives for writing lines just like that.
He pivoted away from the critical and commercial disappointment of How We Got Here into a career as speechwriter for the newly elected President Bush in 2001. Out of his one-year stint at the White House would come another book, The Right Man—not the most frank of memoirs. Its opening chapter describes the lengths to which Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, had to go to recruit the reluctant Canadian. While being interviewed for the job, Frum later wrote, “I had to keep my attention focused on the business at hand: explaining to him [Gerson] why I believed I was unsuited to the job he was offering me.” Marci McDonald, in her comprehensive 2001 Toronto Sun profile of Frum, had a very different take: “Certainly, he appears to have wanted the job,” she wrote. “During [2000’s] Republican convention, he sought out Mike Gerson … and devoted an entire column to him that might have been mistaken for an audition.” Reflecting on Frum’s transition from media to government, his former editor at Saturday Night, John Fraser, told McDonald, “he’d love being at the centre of power. He was never really a journalist; the journalism was in the aid of a cause. He was a zealot.” But a zealot for what cause?
Frum had long been known as a fiscal conservative—indeed, his books showed at least a casual acquaintance with the work of Ludwig von Mises—and his White House title was “special assistant to the president for economic speechwriting.” But Frum didn’t make his mark as a free-market man in a Big Government administration. Instead, his tenure with Bush is best remembered for a foreign-policy slogan, arguably the most pernicious one of the Bush years: “axis of evil.” Asked by Gerson in December 2001, “Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going to war with Iraq?” Frum drew up an Iraq memo that was incorporated into the president’s 2002 State of the Union address, along with the phrase “axis of hate,” later refined by Gerson into its more familiar formulation. So proud was Frum’s wife Danielle Crittenden that she sent around an e-mail to friends boasting of her husband’s authorship. Word got out, and as Frum prepared to leave the administration in February 2002, Robert Novak reported that he had been fired for his wife’s indiscretion. In The Right Man, Frum says this wasn’t true; he left because “a war presidency had decreasing need for an economic speechwriter.” Maybe so, though even then Bush and Karl Rove had plans to privatize Social Security. Surely they would need a persuasive economic speechwriter before too long?
But free-market economics had only ever been the lowest common denominator between Frum and the conservative movement. None of his books to date had been a work of economics, and his next one, An End to Evil, co-authored with Richard Perle, would not be one either. “Axis of evil” had earned him a reputation as a prominent hawk. An End to Evil reinforced it. Before publishing that book, however, Frum returned to the subject that had served him so well in the past: the need to purge the Right of paleoconservatives. On March 25, 2003, one day before the Iraq War began, National Review published online the latest iteration of Frum’s favorite theme. This time the bull of excommunication was called “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
To the old enemies’ list Frum had drawn up in “Conservative Bully Boy” and Dead Right—Pat Buchanan, Thomas Fleming, Lew Rockwell—he added a fresh litany of foes: TAC editors Scott McConnell and Taki Theodoracopulos, supply-side guru Jude Wanniski, and recent nemesis Robert Novak. He cast a net so wide that there was only one thing that the whole motley assortment of libertarians and conservatives on his hit list agreed upon: all of them, except for historian Stephen Tonsor, opposed the Iraq War. And Tonsor only made the cut because Frum chose to pad his indictment of antiwar conservatives with filler about the domestic neo-paleo squabbles of the ’80s and ’90s. The war furnished a pretext for settling old scores.
“The antiwar conservatives,” Frum wrote, “have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe.” He offered no evidence for this assertion. Specific charges Frum leveled were equally spurious: Robert Novak, a particular focus of the piece—and of Frum’s animus—stood accused of “terror denial” for disputing Condoleezza Rice’s claim that Hezbollah was a greater menace than al-Qaeda; he was guilty of “espousing defeatism” for writing that the CIA “is viewed by its Capitol Hill overseers as incapable of targeting bin Laden,” which, of course, it was. Frum insinuated, Frum misrepresented, Frum quoted out of context; the one thing he didn’t do was grapple with his enemies’ arguments. Truth was not his goal—only persecution.
He has continued in the same vein ever since, in September 2004 accusing Pat Buchanan of “opposition to military action against Osama bin Laden” in 2001 and “repeatedly predict[ing] doom and disaster” in the Afghan War, though in fact Buchanan said at the time, “The Taliban have to be overthrown” and predicted U.S. success.
Frum’s subsequent spinning of “Unpatriotic Conservatives” has been as disingenuous as the piece itself. “The article is often described as an attack on critics of the Iraq war,” Frum wrote in his online diary last July. “In fact, the article opened by welcoming disagreement on the Iraq War as ‘reasonable, indeed valuable.’” But when pressed to mention an antiwar conservative he doesn’t consider unpatriotic, Frum has only ever given one name: Heather Mac Donald, a friend and former colleague from the Manhattan Institute. Frum describes her as “a noted Iraq skeptic,” but before the war began, the only place her opposition to it had been “noted” was the March 3, 2003 issue of the New York Observer, in which she describes criticizing the war from the right as “a futile gesture” and alludes to a friend at the Wall Street Journal who was “anti-war and he won’t even mention it, because there the unanimity is so strong.” The only antiwar voices Frum is willing to tolerate, it seems, are those that remain silent.
In Comeback, Frum concludes that for conservatism to survive, “we must rediscover the most fundamental of all conservative truths: In a world of flux, the only way to conserve is to change.” But Frum’s own views on the desirability of the United States playing policeman to the world have not changed a jot since the disaster of the Iraq War, though Frum acknowledges that “democratization” is now a word in bad odor. Still, he believes “the US needs to expand its military police reserve capabilities and build up a US Office of Peacekeeping.” Comeback calls on conservatives to rein in their traditional opposition to higher taxes and soften their stand on social issues. What’s not negotiable is commitment to war and nation-building.
Fourteen years after Dead Right, Frum, who built his career on denouncing anyone to his right, has yet to develop any positive philosophy of his own. His ideas, and his prose, have long since calcified, and all David Frum is left with, as Comeback shows, is an abiding faith in American empire and a unabating hatred for those with firmer conservative convictions than his own.
Daniel McCarthy writes from Wilmington, Delaware.