We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Surprise Presidency

The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
David Frum
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

It would be nice to think that a lot of people will read this book and have their perception of and attitude to George Bush altered for the better, but given the relentless negativity of the media, I’m not too hopeful.

David Frum, a not very “observant” Jew, was offered a job of speechwriter to GWB shortly after his election. Though a Republican, he was not a strong supporter of Bush in particular, but grew to be impressed by him, mainly from his straightforwrd character and his persistence in trying to do what he considered right, rather than expedient or merely strategic.

It is clear that GWB’s character was radically altered for the better by his Christian conversion, and the White House ambience reflected his beliefs. Those chosen to work with him tended to be notably pious. Indicative of this, the book opens with “Missed you at Bible study,” a remark made to Frum’s companion, it’s not clear by whom, as they entered the White House together. Mutual courtesy and consideration extended to restraint to any rivalry. Profanity (even “damn”) was out, sober suits, jackets and ties in and all stood when the President entered a room, unless waved down. “Yet sometimes I found myself wondering whether there was not a danger of overdoing this solid and sensible business … my colleagues reminded me of the sort of girl my grandmother’s friends encouraged me to take out … Nice – and what else?’ [he’d ask] Just nice – what else do you want?'” With notable exceptions (Donald Rumsfeld was one) “conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House.” Perhaps a British reader (wary of someone who is “too clever by half”) will be more sympathetic to this feature, especially when Frum seems to suggest that it is such people that are the source of trouble and leaks. Chief of Staff Andy Card, “the nicest of all the administration’s nice guys”, was much concerned to prevent that sort of thing (p. 23).

The Clintonites left the place rather grimy, apparently because the cleaning had been franchised to a firm staffed by the “mentally impaired” – no kidding, p. 19 – which may have given credence to the tales of sabotage attributed to the departing staff.

Frum discovered that GWB was far more articulate and appeared more commanding when addressing people live, especially in small groups, than on TV (which is, of course, how most people see him). Recruited as a speech-writer, Frum is interesting in his descriptions on how the process of putting together presidential speeches works. There were two top ones: Karl Rove, risk-taker and Karen Hughes, risk-hater. Frum compares them to Grant and McClellan.

Frum makes it quite clear that from the start it was Bush that was leading the White House team, though he was at first uncertain where to (p. 27). The critical point in the Bush presidency was of course Sept. 11, 2001, and Frum gives a good description of the fear, anger, bewilderment and grief that afflicted him, along with all other Americans (though he was at the time still a Canadian). The White House was quickly evacuated but its staff left in the street, until a generous ad hoc offer from Daimler/Chrysler gave them the use of its offices: “I was pointed to an office and told it was mine for the day. Its regular tenant gave me his long-distance dialling codes, showed me how to work his e-mail, packed his briefcase and shook my hand on his way through the door (p. 117).”

It is quite possible that, but for the heroic action of the passengers on the fourth doomed plane, the White House, with Frum in it, would have been destroyed. Bush himself was in Florida, of all things “reading to the second-grade class at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota . . .(p. 118)”

Bush’s first speech (for which Karen Hughes was responsible), Frum admits, was poor and banal, but his handling of the situation, and the speeches he made, improved thereafter. Frum claims that he “made one of those mysterious connections with the public that some leaders make and others … simply cannot (p. 124).”

Bush also bent over backwards to exculpate Muslims in general from the crime and prevent any reflex anti-Muslim violence – which didn’t stop lies being told about its prevalence. This line seems to have done no good at all (p. 162). Bernard Lewis is quoted as sarcastically suggesting that the media were “all of them seemingly determined to convince the American public that Islam was a religion like Quakerism, only less violent (p. 153).” The reason why Muslims had voted so heavily for Bush in the presidential election turned out to be almost certainly because Gore had a Jew, Lieberman, running for Vice-President. I suppose everyone will say that Frum’s scepticism about any such thing as Muslim goodwill stems from the fact he is a Jew but it seems pretty well grounded from my own observations.

In late December 2001 Frum was asked “Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?” I suppose it was news to me that Bush’s thinking had already turned to Iraq, but it was from this assignment that the phrase “axis of evil” emerged, originally coined by Frum as “axis of hatred”, in either form likely to set the teeth of purists on edge.

By this time, Frum was feeling his time of relevant usefulness was coming an end and he resigned, disappointing any dirt-diggers by his consistent praise of the President. A pleasant, rather reassuring book – but perhaps not to such as Gerald Kaufman who, “a venerable leader of the British Labour Party [eh?] grumbled that “Bush, himself the most intellectually backward American president of my political lifetime, is surrounded by advisers whose bellicosity is exceeded only by their political, military and diplomatic illiteracy.’ (p. 278, ref. to: The Spectator, 31/8/02)”

Frum now writes the back page for National Review.

10 comments to The Surprise Presidency

  • George Atkisson

    It would seem that it takes “an intellectually backward President assisted by a staff with “political, miltary, and diplomatic illiteracy” to actually accomplish something in this world.

    In America, it’s called “thinking outside the box.”

  • Simon Jester

    George, your last sentence has additional implications if you realise that Kaufman is nicknamed “Hannibal Lecter” in Britain.

    Though he likes Pterry, so he can’t be all bad.

  • S. Weasel

    Brrr. Just to wash the taste of sanctimony out of our mouths a bit, let us not forget this is the president who, as a candidate, was rather famously caught on-mike referring to journalist Adam Clymer as “that asshole”. (To which Dick Cheney replied, “big time!”).

    If I recall correctly, Bush’s popularity took a bit of a hitch upwards after that.

  • Joe B

    The left has always conveniently fallen back on the shibboleth of attacking the intelligence of conservatives. Obviously, if a man were intelligent, he’d be “progressive”, ergo, if one is not progressive, then onew must be stupid.
    We heard this about Reagan, and now Bush II. In each case, it has been proven false.

    Let’s start with the “Gore Smart/Bush Dumb” meme of 2000:
    “In his sophomore year at Harvard,” according to The Washington Post, ” Gore’s grades were lower than any semester recorded on Bush’s transcript from Yale.On to graduate school. In 1971, Gore enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School. The Washington Times says, “It is said that Mr. Gore failed to hand in his book report on time. Thus, his incomplete grade turned into an F, one of five Fs Mr. Gore received at divinity school, which may well be a worldwide record.” He later dropped out.

    Gore then enrolled in law school, but also failed to finish. The Boston Globe said, “Nor did Gore graduate from Vanderbilt Law School, where he enrolled for a brief time and received his fair share of Cs.”


    Of course, anyone who’s tried to read “Earth in the Balance” already knew that Gore was a lightweight. He reminds me of those who try to impress with big words, but always use them incorrectly and so embarrass themselves.

    Of course, the left also wants us to believe that not only is Bush stupid, but that he’s a mastermind who’s pulling the wool over our eyes and installing his “junta” of neocons.

    I guess he’s Rain Man.

    Of all the left’s conceits, it’s their casual elitism and condescension that will prove to be their downfall, as it always has. When the Lord Mayor of London calls GWB “the most dangerous man on the planet”, he should know that he only adds votes to Bush’s pocket come election time.

  • Calamity Jane

    Joe B – I enjoyed your post and good for you! I know it’s ridiculously confusing (and I am not being sarcastic here), but “Red” Ken Livingstone is *not* the Lord Mayor of London.

    Briefly, what we all think of as London is actually the city of Westminster. (Hence Westminster Abbey.) The ancient City of London is actually an area 1 sq mile and is the financial power engine of the UK. The bankers, insurance companies, traders, etc choose a Lord Mayor annually among themselves, from their own clique. This man will always be a Capitalist with a capital C and will have made a tidy bunch of booty. He is the one who has the historic gilded coach and the annual parade. The City basically closes up at night. It’s not a residential area.

    Ken Livingston is the elected mayor of London (actually Westminster and surrounding boroughs). This congomeration of boroughs never had a mayor before. It was one of Tony Blair’s neat ideas that backfired. He thought his handpicked Labour candidate was going to get in, thus proving that the capital was “Labour”. But rebel Ken Livingstone, benefitted from the voters’ irritation that Blair thought he was going to put a placeman in to the office he’d specifically created for the purpose. So they voted for Red Ken, who had been expelled from the Labour Party, to teach Blair a lesson in democracy. Unfortunately, now they’re stuck with him.

  • jk

    I liked Frum’s book quite a bit. I was a W fan to begin with, but it was good to read about Frum’s coming in, not as a true believer, but discovering the President’s general sincerity and honor.

    His description of the White House staff’s fleeing from the building, past all of the statues of famous — and courageous — heroes as the building was evacuated on 9-11 is stunning. A perfect page of prose.

    I guess the back page is going to Mark Steyn, but Davis Frum writes every day for the online magazine at http://www.nationalreview.com.

  • Chris Josephson

    This is one book I’m going to make sure to read.

    I was never a Bush supporter. I think I may have loathed him at one point during the elections. I bought into all the negative hype about him. He just impressed me as a sleazy idiot.

    My opinion of him has changed a great deal. I don’t think he’s the best president we’ve ever had, but I see I misjudged his motivations and intelligence.

    I am glad he is our president for this time we’re in. I could never imagine Gore handling things as well as Bush has.

  • Cydonia

    Chris J:

    What’s to praise about a president who’s embroiled you in a war of dubious utility that’s costing hundreds of billions of dollars and expanded the size of the State at home and abroad?

    Of course I’m not saying that the arch-statist Gore would have done any differently. But dislike for Gore should not translate into admiration for Bush.

    As for brains, the left are fools for thinking that George W is stupid. But then again, being clever is no guarantee of anything except the ability to do IQ tests.

  • KenS

    I agree, Bush has been a fantastic president.

    His actions after Sept 11 has made him a modern day Churchill in my opinion. I have endless admiration for him.

    He also adminstred the largest tax cut in US history, fueling a record economic growth last quarter.
    As for govn’t spending, that is the fault of truly awful Democrats in Congress and some of the moderate-leaning Republicans would seem to not adhere to true Republican principles.

  • sumol

    I was wondering where the Anti Bush protesters were when Sadam and many like him were murdering their own people. Torturing them etc.
    All right they come out to protest against the war, are they saying that what saddam did was good. Why don’t they protest against the atrocities done to human kind by may men like him. Saddam and other like him might have killed more than people than the number of people lost in the Iraq war on both side. If you are protesting against the war in Iraq why don’t you protest against all the other atrocities done to people around the world. Why just pick on “Bush”. Do you guys just have a one track mind???