David Frum, after receiving a law degree from Harvard in 1987, flourished as a writer, mainly for journals of a conservative persuasion. With several books under his belt also, he was ready for more heady work. As a result, from January 2001 to February 2002 he labored in President Bush’s speechwriting corps, primarily on economic topics, his major interest. He quit when national security issues pre-empted the need for economic speeches. The new Republican control of Congress makes more possible now Bush’s conservative domestic agenda, but I suspect that Mr. Frum has blunted his pick with this book, as far as ever again working for a republican administration.
Frum has a subtle and passionate insider’s tale to tell of the administration’s early doldrums, of the White House’s 9/11 experience, and of Bush’s commitment to the War on Terror. He admired the President but disliked Bush’s White House. He found the staff bland and non-intellectual, the tone set by evangelists. “If you looked around the Bush cabinet table, you saw … only one, Donald Rumsfeld, whose mind could truly be said to sparkle.” (pg.21) Only one staffer smoked, no one overindulged in alcohol or swore. Promptness was a rule and pizza-fueled late nights too Clintonesque to consider. No leaks, no back-biting—until internal enviromentalists had to be squashed—coats and ties must always be worn. Days started for most staff with a joint Bible session. Machiavellian Karl Rove ruled the policy shop, idea-less Karen Hughes controlled the communication of that policy, while Bush himself, not Cheney, was definitely in control. The President believed he had a mission from God.
Sounds like something out of Orwell’s 1984, doesn’t it?
On economic matters, Frum is a radical conservative and against taxes. He glories in the initial Bush tax cut, although he reports that winning it exhausted a minority presidency. Seeing little hope for other accomplishments, he prepared to leave just before 9/11 occurred. With this event, a stumbling president changed into a great war leader, as even most of we Democrats must grudgingly concede. Frum began writing parts of national security speeches.
After the sixty-day conquest of Afghanistan, the major internal issue of the administration became: rely on intelligence and police action to counter terrorism, or pursue a big victory by reforming Islam. He tags Powell with the first philosophy and Rumsfeld, assisted by Cheney and Rice, with the second. Frum is a radical conservative in national security policy, also. To him, Powell is the villain and the loser of this fight.
Interestingly enough, Bob Woodward in his Bush at War (reviewed recently on this site) makes Powell the winner and hero of the national security world series. Of course that later book, unlike Frum’s, includes most of 2002 and thus covers the initial defeat of unilateralism. It is yet to be seen whether Iraq is conquered and reformed by the U.S. or only disarmed by international agreement, and what affect that result will have on the Muslim world. The argument is not decided.
Unlike Woodward, Frum did not benefit from policy interviews with the great. We receive little analysis of alternatives, either of domestic or foreign policy. We read only one side of the deficit/supply-side argument, little to nothing of the damages caused to civil rights, only a turned-back to Kyoto. Frum does not discuss the dangers of the new imperialism he advocates. What we do receive are the sensitive observations of a relatively low-level staffer and the political worship of George W. Bush. Frum’s story of the impact of 9/11 on himself and other staff, and on the country, brought tears to my eyes, but his rhetoric about Bush’s virtues in the last third of the book bored me. Still, an ensnaring peek under the curtain.