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Book Reviews:

The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush: An Inside Account

by David Frum
Book Review By Steve Labinski


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Billed as the "first inside account of the Bush White House," David Frum's The Right Man sheds good light on George W. Bush, a President many either love or hate. What makes this book so effective is the author's application of level insight and intellect, coupled with an innocence borne of no previous experience with Bush or Beltway politics.

Frum worked in the White House as a speechwriter for the President. Unlike many on the Bush team, Frum had never worked with the President, and he writes in interesting detail of his impressions of Bush. As a conservative Republican, he supported Bush in the 2000 election but, as he describes it, "not enthusiastically."

Initially, Frum was skeptical: Was Bush's compassionate conservatism anything more than a marketing slogan? Why did Bush appear awkward on television? The media quickly interpreted the awkwardness as simple stupidity. Late night TV hosts peppered their monologues with well-received jokes about Bush and his level of intelligence.

Frum's first close encounter with Bush had been at the Republican National Convention a few months earlier. Covering it as a freelance writer, he found the convention to be completely insubstantial overall. However, when Bush made his speech to the convention, Frum relates that his eyebrows went up. "When he finished, I wobbled. The speech was not only very good, it was very smart -- and not smart in the disturbing way the campaign had been smart, but smart in an interesting way, even a promising way."

Many of Frum's opinions and analyses revolve around Bush's speeches. Frum was hired at the start of the Administration, and stayed for two years. During this time, Frum worked with a team of speechwriters who managed events like the first Bush tax cut and, most notably, the events immediately preceding the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001.

There are chapters in which Frum offers his insight into many of the issues and questions that have been raised about Bush. Bush often spoke about being inclusive and bipartisan. As Governor of Texas, he famously worked with the Democrat leaders in the state legislature to enact his own agenda, making him extremely popular in the state.

When Presidents talk about "bipartisanship" or "nonpartisanship," they usually mean that they wish the other party would roll over and play dead. But he meant something more by bipartisanship than 'Do as I say' He meant respect, trust, and a good-faith effort to shrink political differences rather than maximize them for political advantage: in a word, civility. Bush said in his inaugural address, "is more than minding our manners. It is doing our duty."

Frum finds duty a recurring theme in Bush's thoughts and view of life. The reader may completely disagree with Frum's psycho-analysis. He does a good job, though, of documenting his claims, and he obviously restrained himself from making overreaching points.

Duty was a word Bush used often. Sigmund Freud imported the Latin pronoun Id to describe the impulsive, carnal, unruly elements of the human personality. Among recent presidents, the first President Bush seemed not to have an id at all, while Bill Clinton's was given the run of the White House. But sometime in Bush's middle years, his id was captured, shackled and manacled, and locked away. The press quickly seized upon his early bedtimes and August vacations as examples of laziness. "But no president who rises at 5:45 every morning to have his first briefing at 6:30, who interrupts his day to run three miles in twenty-one minutes before lunch, and whose idea of a vacation is clearing brush in 110-degree West Texas heat can accurately be called lazy.

Frum explains that Bush controlled the While House in the same manner that he controlled his id. If he felt betrayed or attacked, he would get angry. But then a cooler head would emerge. Here Frum makes a very insightful conclusion. He shows how Bush's self-control directly translates into Bush's approach to bipartisanship; it is an exercise of self-control. Since bipartisanship is so rarely seen in politics nowadays, people do not know how to recognize it, or even define it. Frum writes about Dick Cheney:

There has never been a vice-president like Dick Cheney, and there probably never will be again. He adjured any independent political existence from the president. He had no political operation at all. He employed only a single communication aide, Mary Matalin, and she answered at least as much to Karen Hughes as to him. He shared his sole speechwriter with the president. He built no power base within the party, and he shunned personal publicity. His strength depended entirely on Bush's trust in him -- and he earned that trust by subordinating himself entirely to Bush.

So is Cheney a shadowy figure, controlling Bush from the sidelines? Frum says not at all. In fact, he explains how Cheney's views were usually overridden. Cheney believed that the nation's energy policy should emphasize exploration and growing energy production. Karen Hughes, a key figure in the Bush circle, argued that conservation and the environment is a defining issue among women voters, and that many consumers, like in beleaguered California, want price relief immediately. Frum's writes in great detail about Cheney's commission on energy policy, and how the White House handled it, which in his opinion was inefficiently.

The book is not what could be called a puff piece on Bush. Frum maintains objectivity and concludes that,at heart, the White House is a bureaucracy, with some ideas implemented well and others not. He discusses how the Cheney energy policy was clearly their first mis-step.

Frum laments that the 2001 Bush Tax Cut has been, as of that writing, the only piece of legislation that has been successfully enacted into law. He goes though other initiatives like Social Security reform, education reform and faith-based organization initiatives, all of which were essentially torpedoed.

Frum explains in his chapter "The Summer of our Discontent," that the entire strategy for the agenda was knocked completely off due to the famous party-switching of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. In a very interesting section, Frum explains how the "weak" Jeffords, in a series of blundering moves, stopped the Bush legislative agenda in its tracks, hopelessly messed up the Education bill, and gave the Democrats control of the Senate.

Before September 11, 2001, Bush had not considered foreign policy a priority at all in the campaign. His first trip to Europe clearly reflected that stance, and the European press covered it with extreme hostility. Bush clearly was more comfortable with domestic affairs.

September 11 changed everything. Not only did Bush have to adjust immediately to the immediate catastrophe, but he also had to deal with the most volatile part of the world, the Middle East. Frum notes that Bush's vote in the 2000 election among Jews was pitiful. Still, Frum notes how Bush immediately stepped into a role that improved his popularity in America, gave his Presidency a mission, and a place in the history books.

Advisors like Condoleeza Rice maintained that foreign policy cannot be "all things to all people." This is in contrast to the Clinton administration's penchant for confusing foreign policy with random do-goodery, as conservatives saw it.

Other New Related Books:

Frum's job as Presidential speech writer meant that he was involved in writing the State of the Union speeches before Congress. Bush's State of the Union address in January, 2002 was just several months after the terrorist attacks. The whole world was watching, eager to see what Bush would lay out at the state of the union, obviously one of considerable turmoil. Frum sought to give the speech a vision, or "legs," to a foreign policy now labeled the Bush doctrine.

Rice's fifth priority was to deal decisively with the threat of rogue regimes and hostile powers. To deal decisively with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the United States had to discredit the ideologues that sustained them. To deal decisively with militant Islam, would the United States not have to do the same?

Using the references to Nazi Germany, Frum hit upon the idea to label the countries Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil." This now famous phrase happened to be what everyone remembered after the State of the Union.

Consequently, the first half of The Right Man focuses on domestic affairs. We see how much of the administration easily became adrift. The second half of the book discusses 9/11 and how it essentially turned around the Bush presidency.

Was Bush the right man for the White House? Frum draws a portrait of a man with many common faults, but also a great many strengths, particularly in leadership skills. The reader gains a nice insight behind the manner by which President Bush thinks and works. Frum pulls off a deft memoir on how Bush has turned out, despite much skepticism from both conservatives and liberals, to be the right man for the job.

-Steve Labinski

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