The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, January 27, 2003  

The New York Times Book Review on David Frum

It’s helpful when a good book review saves one the time and expense of a trip to the bookstore. Such is the case with Jeff Shesol’s review of The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, by former speechwriter David Frum. “‘The Right Man’: The ‘Axis of Evil’ Guy,’” January 26. Note: Shesol was deputy chief speechwriter to former President Bill Clinton.)

A few brief excerpts:

For Washington gossips, there is precious little dish here: no court astrologers; no powers behind the throne; no stories that truly surprise. More disappointing, for the rest of us, there are few insights that enhance our understanding of Bush or his presidency. Of all the candid comments that Frum attributes to Bush, only six appear to have been collected firsthand. . . . Frum, the author of three other books and innumerable essays, has an instinct for the telling anecdote and clever simile: “The Enron news,” he writes, “hit the Bush White House like a death in the family.”

That’s pretty strong language, and I’ll admit to being at least slightly interested in Frum’s elaboration on this point, if there is any. What about the demise of Enron was so painful: The lost jobs, the rampant criminality, the enrichment of a few at the hands of the many, the disgrace of Kenneth Lay & Co., or something deeper than that?

Frum’s previous books have been praised -- rightly -- for their nuanced and unconventional outlook. So it is surprising that his analysis here is often glib and ungratifying. “The Right Man” frequently resorts to the type of cant one encounters on talk radio: according to Frum, global agreements like the Kyoto Accords and the international convention on land mines are simply the schemings of “ill wishers”‘ -- some of them our fellow citizens -- who “oppose American power.” Not much nuance there.

Perhaps that’s because nuance isn’t valued particularly highly by this administration.

The evolution of “axis of evil” is one of the book’s highlights. What’s missing, unfortunately, is much discussion of what such explosive pronouncements mean in practice. Bush’s mention of North Korea -- ‘‘added to the axis last’’ -- merits only a few sentences here, mostly concerning Frum’s pleasure at Pyongyang’s pique. North Korea’s near absence from this book makes its inclusion in the dishonor roll seem what some critics have feared: a provocative afterthought with profound consequences.

Consequences that, to this day, appear not to be taken seriously by the White House and the Defense Department.

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