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Axis of Ego

[The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, David Frum, Random House, 303 pages]

Eyebrows were raised in Washington at the beginning of George W. Bush’s administration when a prominent Canadian journalist named David Frum was hired as bottom banana on the new president’s speechwriting team. The reason for that surprise is supplied by Frum himself in The Right Man.

When chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson first made his offer, Frum writes, “I believed I was unsuited to the job he was offering me. I had no connection to the Bush campaign or the Bush family. I had no experience in government and little of political campaigns. I had not written a speech for anyone other than myself. And I had been only a moderately enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush … I strongly doubted he was the right man for the job.”

What’s more, as Frum explains, “I was a Canadian citizen when I entered the White House.” Nor did he represent any wing of the Republican Party. While identifying himself as a conservative, his first book, Dead Right (1994), expressed intense dissatisfaction with supply-siders, evangelicals, and nearly all Republican politicians. He had first attracted major American attention in 1991 with a mean-spirited, unjustified accusation of Pat Buchanan practicing “sly anti-Semitism.”

In a White House unusually suspicious of outsiders, Gerson ushered in Frum apparently because he regarded him as an insightful intellectual (M.A. Yale, J.D. Harvard) and a stylish writer. As Frum tells it, he felt that “if only for a little while, I would like to look out from the inside.”

But not for too long. He was gone in 13 months, soon after Bush’s war against terrorism was launched. It took only six more months to grind out the book, and it was in the bookstores by January. A public hungry to learn more about the president immediately propelled The Right Man to number two on the New York Times best-seller list, in no small part because Frum had won nationwide notoriety as the self-identified author of Bush’s famous “axis of evil” formulation.

Did Frum enter the White House for the express purpose of writing this book, and did he help along that project by breaking the unwritten speechwriter’s code of not advertising your work? That speculation is inescapable, but there is also reason for a darker thought about Frum’s motives.

For much of this book, Frum seems disengaged from Bush’s policies. He refers to the president’s “energy plan fiasco,” calling it “an incoherent mess” and a “pseudoscandal.” He contends Bush “could never quite bring himself to deny that climate change was very likely real and man-made.” He says of Bush’s faith-based initiative, “instead of drawing new people to the Republican Party, it had repelled them.” Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, writes Frum,

I began avoiding parties where I expected the questions [of Bush’s capacity for the presidency] to be posed too persistently by conservative friends, for I was not sure I would know how to answer.

But after the terrorist attack on America, Frum sees Bush in a new light —as “the right man” to lead the nation. The sophisticated, detached journalist becomes the ardent advocate of carrying the war to Iraq and supporting Israel’s position. The wisecracking outsider who belittles his White House colleagues becomes a fervent supporter of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

While Frum calls himself “a not especially observant Jew,” he repeatedly refers to his Jewishness. It is hard to recall any previous presidential aide so engrossed with his own ethnic roots. Frum is more uncompromising in support of Israel than any other issue, raising the inescapable question of whether this was the real reason he entered the White House.

This is a strange memoir in many ways. An aide just off the payroll and hungry for fame might be expected to “kiss and tell,” but the truth is that Frum did precious little kissing there to tell about.

Senior colleagues say Frum had personal contact with Bush on no more than three or four occasions, and he does not seem to understand George W. Bush very well. Of a president who may be more basically conservative than Ronald Reagan, Frum writes, “He was not at all an ideological man.” He contends Bush “does curiously resemble [John F.] Kennedy”; as someone who knew both, I can think of no two more dissimilar men.

Especially at the beginning, The Right Man reads more a Sunday newspaper feature than an insider’s memoir—but written with a tone of condescension. “Conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House,” he writes, especially when compared with the Clinton White House.

Halfway through, the book takes a turn. “There was no domestic agenda” after the terrorist attacks, Frum writes, ignoring Bush’s broad range of policy proposals. He also ignores the president’s foreign policy positions. While Bush took a balanced view of Indian-Pakistani violence in the Kashmir, Frum writes, “The Indians showed amazing restraint in the face of Pakistani-based terror.” While the official position praised Saudi support in the war on terrorism, Frum accused the kingdom of being determined to “incubate deranged fanatics bent on jihad.”

Frum assails “foreign policy bureaucrats” in the State Department and CIA who were “most eager to appease the Arab oil states” and compares Secretary of State Colin Powell’s desire to maintain “the Middle Eastern status quo” with George B. McClellan’s caution in the Civil War. Clinton holdover officials are blamed for President Bush’s endorsement of former Sen. George Mitchell’s (D-Maine) report advocating a mutual cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians. “Since the Mitchell report blamed the war on Israel for not offering even more concessions than it did,” Frum writes, “a ban on contradicting Mitchell was a ban on expressing any meaningful support for Israel.”

Insensibly, the book becomes a brief for Sharon’s Israeli policy. Bush may have decided in favor of a Palestinian state, but not Frum. “One of my speechwriting colleagues put it nicely: ‘Let’s see: they kill six thousand Americans [the best estimate of the casualties at that time], and we give the Palestinians a state. If they kill six thousand more Americans, do we give Palestinians twice as big a state?’“ If Frum purported to present Bush warts and all, Sharon was wart-less. Could Bush, Frum asked, “condemn Israel for doing in the West Bank exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan?”

The climax of The Right Man is what made David Frum a Washington celebrity. His wife, writer Danielle Crittenden, sent e-mails to a wide circle of friends saying, “my husband is responsible for the [axis of evil] phrase” and expressing “hope you’ll indulge my wifely pride” (though Frum’s original words were “axis of hate”). In the book, Frum does not quote his wife’s actual e-mail, pretends its distribution was smaller than it was, and complains, implausibly, about “interception of personal letters.”

The anticlimax was his account of the conclusion of whatever personal relationship we had. He describes me as a “dangerous character” who “menacingly” asked him to lunch as a news source—implying we had no previous relationship. Actually, thanks to his friendship with my future son-in-law, he was a guest at my daughter’s wedding, and later he invited me to a large dinner party at his spacious home, where I was given a place of honor at the host’s table.

On the day that Frum left the White House, I broke the news on CNN and reported “suspicion he’s been kicked out,” while reporting that both he and presidential aides said the move was voluntary. Frum, a man of inherited wealth, disingenuously writes that he contemplated a libel suit to “finance [his] children’s education.”

Before his “axis of evil” coup, Frum at our luncheon expressed restlessness at being low man on the speechwriting totem pole, of seeing his prose discarded, and of losing his feeling as a journalist of performing a honest day’s work for a honest day’s pay. What he did not disclose to me and what he did not disclose to the president were his private plans and his personal agenda. As his book indicates, those are characteristics to be avoided in a presidential speechwriter.


Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a CNN commentator.