Former speechwriter David Frum has authored the first inside account of the Bush White House. It is characterized by Frum's exceptional intelligence, historical fluency and pungent prose. The press -- particularly the foreign press -- has been eagerly mining it for proof of its own presuppositions.
"Bush Dull but Honest," announced the Toronto Sun. "Bush Ill-Informed but has Courage," proclaimed The Statesman of India. And again from the "thanks but no thanks" column comes the Calgary Herald, "Insider says Bush is No Moron."
These headlines are not, ahem, even close. What Frum has produced is an intensely gripping account of his personal experience inside the White House at one of the turning points in our history and a chronicle of the dramatic metamorphosis of George W. Bush.
True, "The Right Man" is not a cheerleading book. Frum, who joined the White House somewhat skeptical about the president, maintains his critical distance and keen discernment throughout. That is what makes his insights so valuable and his ultimate admiration for Bush so telling.
Frum demolishes with a few quick strokes the enduring myth that Bush is unintelligent, or simply profited from good advice. "How often did we hear that in the first year, as if it were obvious which advice was good and which was not? Presidents are inundated by advice, and the very worst of it often sounds as beguiling and plausible as the very best. A president who consistently recognizes and heeds good advice will make good decisions. ... Bush was a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear. And when he perceived new possibilities, he had the courage to act on them -- a much less common virtue in politics than one might suppose."
Long before Sept. 11, Frum had seen that Bush's instincts, even those that conservatives lambasted, like his early embrace of Vladimir Putin, were solid. Bush's praise for Putin after their first meeting provoked howls. Bush had liked what he'd seen in the soul of a former KGB man? But as Frum notes: "Sixty days later, America was at war. And at the head of the queue to help was ... Vladimir Putin. Putin ordered up an increase in Russian oil production to help calm world markets. ... Bush had given Putin words of praise. Putin repaid him with coin more solid than words. And when in December Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with the Russians in 1972 -- and the Chinese and the French and everyone else with an interest in continued American vulnerability looked to the Russians to protest and resist -- Putin mildly shrugged the decision off."
Frum described Bush's private demeanor as "tart, not sweet," and this has been greeted as a stunning revelation. But critics have overlooked the far more interesting examination of one of Bush's most defining traits -- unswerving integrity. The president's honesty reached into the smallest details. He refused to say in a radio speech recorded before a planned visit to California, "I'm here in California." Speechwriters learned never to insert boilerplate like, "I'm happy to be here with you" because Bush would only say it if he meant it. And the last straw for Bush regarding Yasser Arafat was the latter's insistence that he knew nothing of the Karine A, the ship containing tons of military ordnance headed for the Palestinian authority but intercepted by the Israelis.
Though Frum has some less-than-flattering reflections on the first year of the Bush administration, the book as a whole refutes every major myth in circulation about the president. A puppet in the hands of Dick Cheney? Hardly. Bush runs the show -- and a tight ship. Stupid? Bush emerges as both quick-witted, and, what is far more important, wise. Conventional? Bush has shown the independence to ignore the clamor of world governments and his own State Department regarding the Arab/Israeli conflict, and the vision to imagine an Arab world freed from despotism.
Though conservatives tore their hair over Bush's repeated praise of Islam as a "religion of peace," Frum argues that this rhetoric gave Bush latitude for policies that would otherwise have been decried as discriminatory.
Do men make the times or do the times make men? Both. And you will find no more lucid illumination of both than in "The Right Man."