Entries from January 2003

Bet On Bush To Take The Bolder Course

David Frum January 28th, 2003 at 12:00 am Comments Off

DATELINE:
WASHINGTON

I’m
getting a little choked up at the thought of President Bush’s State of the
Union address tonight: It will be the first of these big addresses that I won’t
have worked on myself.

Bush’s
2001 State of the Union address was delivered at the end of February 2001. Such
first speeches are not formally known as "States of the Union" at
all: The theory is that a president who has been in office barely six weeks
isn’t yet ready to give a report. Instead, they are titled "Economic
Messages," and they focus on the first budget the president intends to
send to Congress.

Bush’s
"Economic Message" was — in comparison to what came next — more or
less a guerrilla affair. It was drafted by a little group of four of us in a
basement in the West Wing, then radically revised in a single weekend at Camp
David by Bush and his top communications aide, Karen Hughes.

In
the past, States of the Union had tended to be big, themeless monsters, crammed
full of ideas and proposals from every department of the federal government.
Clinton was the worst offender, but by no means the only one.

Bush
was different. He insisted that his most important speech of the year have an
overarching message — and so each one has done. That first speech, for
example, had the clarity of a syllogism:

1.
The U.S. has a big surplus (as it then did).

2. We’re going to spend some
of this surplus on top priorities: education, Medicare, and the military.

3.
We’re going to use some more of it to retire debt.

4.
We’re going to return the rest to the taxpayers.

5.
Thank you and good night.

The
second speech, in January of 2002, contrasted sharply with the first. It was
written in the midst of war by an administration that had settled into its
chairs. It was a big job, involving people from all over the White House — and
even all over the executive branch. It had to deal with both the threat of
terrorism abroad and the economic slowdown at home. Yet it too was simple and
direct — and it too was under an hour in length.

The
2002 speech drove home one forceful message: The United States is threatened by
an axis of evil made up of both terrorist groups — not only al-Qaeda but also
Hamas and Hezbollah — and of terror-sponsoring states that now seek weapons of
mass destruction, notably Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The speech gave notice
of a new policy of the United States toward terror states: The U.S. would no
longer let them throw the first punch. (Or, as the President more elegantly put
it, "I will not wait while dangers gather.") In other words: With the
world menaced by terrorism, the United States was laying aside its Cold War
strategy of containment and deterrence for a new strategy of pre-emption.

What
will Bush do tonight? Two predictions I feel pretty confident of. This speech
too will have a clear message — and it will once again clock in at under one
hour.

I
suspect he will begin with the domestic portion of the speech. He’ll want to
describe his new tax plan in some detail and show how it will help the families
listening to the speech. He’ll explain how reducing the tax on corporate
dividends will correct the tax code’s bias in favour of debt finance — how
that correction will cause the value of companies’ shares to rise — and how a
rising stock market benefits everybody.

The
most attended to portions of the speech, however, will deal with Iraq and the
Middle East. Bush will remind his listeners of Iraq’s repeated breaches of its
international obligations and of the craven failure of the United Nations to do
anything about that defiance. He will promise to return to the United Nations
once more, but he will announce that the United States and its allies will be
prepared to act outside the United Nations system if the UN fails again. This
speech will be the no-turning-back moment for Bush — and for Saddam Hussein.

Now
here’s the great question mark over the speech: Will the President keep talking
after he makes his case for war? Will he talk about what comes after the war?
For example, about his larger plans for a more democratic, more economically
open Middle East, at peace with itself and therefore capable of making peace
with Israel and with the West? Those plans for a new Middle East terrify those
who have profited from the tyranny and disorder of the old Middle East, including,
sad to say, the government of France. Many people will no doubt urge the
President to be cautious and circumspect, to save his grand design for later.
And perhaps he will follow that advice.

But
with Bush, I’ve always found it wise to bet that he’ll take the bolder course.
And if he follows form tonight, he will deliver a speech to remember.

That Giant Swooshing Sound

David Frum January 27th, 2003 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It’s
a strange thing to go to bed at night plain old David Frum and wake up in the
morning the "controversial" David Frum — and stranger still to have
the same thing happen twice in one year.

The
first time it happened to me was in February 2002. I resigned from the White
House staff at the end of January. About two weeks afterward, an e-mail my wife
had written to some family and friends about my role in the 2002 State of the
Union address was intercepted by the online magazine Slate and
published. As I was packing up my things as scheduled at the end of the month,
a colleague of mine came running into my office — Robert Novak had just gone
on CNN to announce to the world that I’d been fired.

The
story was entirely invented. But what does that matter? What happened next was
like one of those sandstorms that suddenly rise up in the desert. They’re a
strange part of the local climate in Washington, D.C. One minute you’re walking
along, minding your own business, and the next, everything is howling around
your ears, and your skin is being sheared off by swooshing grains of dirt. The
phone never stops ringing, and photographers show up on your front steps, and
your children’s teachers cluck at you sympathetically, and you get weary of
your own voice saying over and over and over again, "I’m sorry, I have
nothing more to say on the matter."

In
time, of course, the whole thing dies down — and everybody forgets what it was
about, or even if it was about anything at all. All they remember is the
sandstorm itself.

Years
ago, my wife and I lived in Brooklyn Heights in a brownstone apartment. Our landlord,
a man of great age, lived on the lower two floors. One day, the bell of the
brownstone buzzed. I raced downstairs, but my landlord shakily beat me to the
door. Hobbled by stroke, he still managed to shamble his way to the stoop,
where stood a shaggy young man in jeans and a T-shirt, raising money for
Greenpeace.

"Good
afternoon, sir. I represent an environmental organization — some call us
controversial — but . . ."

"Greenpeace!"
my landlord snorted with contempt. "Aren’t you the people who blew up that
French boat in Australia?" He was referring to the Greenpeace boat, the
Rainbow Warrior, which was in fact bombed by French intelligence while in
harbor in New Zealand. The young man was startled. "No, sir — it’s the
other way round . . ." Too late. SLAM.

There
may be something to be said for the French view of the matter. For many years
afterward, an English friend of mine used to try to ease his way out of
immigration difficulties at French passport control by loudly declaring,
"Je supporte le sinking du bateau Rainbow Guerrier . . ." But the
details have been lost to history.

What
remains is this catch-all, the single word "controversial," into
which all manner of notoriety, earned and unearned, justified and unjustified,
can be crammed.

We
can use the description to cover for our imperfect human memory. Who remembers
now what exactly Oliver North was supposed to have done wrong during the
Iran-contra affair? Much less whether he was guilty or innocent? Or what
ultimately happened to him? Better to reserve judgment, and to apply a simple
word that means — "He’s famous — but I’ve forgotten why."

The
description has even greater utility as a way to avoid offering an opinion when
an opinion might be dangerous.

"Do
you like Rush Limbaugh?"

"Well,
he’s certainly controversial."

In
this case, the word simply means — "You go first." The word
functions like a pair of asbestos-coated tongs, with which potentially lethal
materials can be picked up and held far, far away from oneself.

For
me, though, the word has always had a much more precise and even painful meaning.
A few weeks ago, I woke up to being "controversial" once more. After
leaving the White House, I decided to write a book about my experiences.
Nothing so remarkable about that — my former boss, Karen Hughes, just received
a million-dollar advance for hers, and good for her. I told my story in as
lively a way as I could, without (naturally) betraying any of the confidences
that had been imparted to me. And suddenly even before the book was released I
heard the familiar sound of that desert sandstorm beginning again . . .

Up
came whipping this enormous maelstrom of accusation and counter-accusation
about what I said and what I didn’t say, and who was mad and who was not mad,
and what the White House thought and what it didn’t think. The New Yorker magazine
flatteringly (but absurdly) blamed me for everything it didn’t like in
President Bush’s foreign policy. So did North Korean state media. The only
thing missing was my old pal Bob Novak’s latest attempt at fictionalized
biography.

So
there’s that third meaning of the word "controversial": It is:
"I’m going to kick you around the block before I know anything about you
or what you’ve done."

In
practice, of course, all three meanings run together. Or rather, they all run
one after another. The third meaning blends backward into the second and
ultimately reduces itself to the first — until you find yourself being asked
by the man in the next seat on the plane: "David Frum? Hey –
didn’t you blow up that French boat in Australia?"