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03.26.10

Inside David Frum's Bitter Exit

Ex-Bush aide David Frum was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for blasting the GOP on health care. Or was he? Tunku Varadarajan uncovers charges of goldbricking and Frum’s paycheck.

David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, no longer works for the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington. We know this because Frum has said so and the AEI has confirmed it. All narrative similarities end there, however.

Frum claims that he was fired as a result of a blog he wrote—later repurposed for CNN.com—in which he took the Republican Party to the woodshed for not “compromising” with President Obama’s health-care bill. Mike Allen, of Politico, has reported that Frum told him that “donor pressure” resulted in his being asked to leave AEI. In his conversation with Politico, Frum suggested that the president of AEI, Arthur Brooks, was effectively coerced into firing him. “I think [Arthur] was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”

One AEI insider told me “this is nothing more than a disagreement over Frum’s terms of employment. It has nothing—I repeat, nothing—to do with his political views.”

The AEI denies Frum’s version entirely. “David Frum resigned,” Veronique Rodman, AEI’s media director, told me last night. “His version of events is not true at all.” Frum’s narrative, of course, plays nicely into the Manichaean worldview of the likes of Paul Krugman, The New York Times columnist who blogged yesterday about l’affaire Frum. Deriving his lazy little blog item entirely from another blog—that of the economist Bruce Bartlett, who, like Frum, is a conservative apostate who regards himself as persecuted by his erstwhile fellow travelers on the right—Krugman accepts uncritically the view that Frum got the heave-ho because of his criticism of the Republican Party. What could be more natural, Krugman hints, than for a conservative outfit to take revenge on a turncoat?

It is widely (and reasonably) believed that Bartlett was fired by the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book unloving of President Bush’s policies. Wounded to the core by his own experience, Bartlett sees a repeat in the Frum saga of his own story. But he, too, is guilty of lazy and—dare I say it, self-serving—conjecture. He writes: “Now the same thing has happened to David Frum… I don’t know all the details, but I presume that his [blog] condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on health-care reform was the final straw.”

Bartlett goes on to add fuel to the Frum fire by repeating a remark that the latter had made to him “in private”—to wit, that the AEI was muzzling its health-care scholars (a word Bartlett renders, in contemptuous quote marks, as “scholars”) because they favored Obamacare. I ran this accusation by Kevin Hassett, a senior fellow at the AEI, and his response was that the muzzling charge was “absolutely false and easily falsifiable: Just go to AEI’s Web site! Joseph Antos, Scott Gottlieb, Tom Miller, they’ve been writing practically every day. And Sally Satel, too,” he said, referring to a particularly feisty AEI scholar. “Can you imagine trying to muzzle Sally Satel!”

Insiders at AEI, to whom I spoke at length, told me that Frum’s version of the story is “quite, quite untrue” (as one put it). The truth, in fact, is that he was asked—unsuccessfully—to pull his weight at the think-tank. A fellow told me: “David didn’t come to the office very much, and long before his blog, Arthur [Brooks, the AEI president] arranged a lunch with him to talk about coming more often to the office to earn his salary.

“David had been asked to do that in the past, and hadn’t done it. Arthur said, ‘You keep the current deal [$100,000 per annum] and you come in more.’ Frum basically said ‘no.’” (Frum did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.)

Another AEI insider told me “this is nothing more than a disagreement over Frum’s terms of employment. Rather than talk about it, he just resigned. It has nothing—I repeat, nothing—to do with his political views. After all, Norm Ornstein [another AEI fellow] has written things that are more helpful to the Democrats. And Norm’s safely sitting here! If AEI were to purge people who aren’t toeing the party line, wouldn’t they make life hard for him?”

Arthur Brooks, AEI’s president, is a man I’ve known for many years. Far from being a paint-by-numbers conservative, he is a free-thinking free-marketeer—libertarian, not conservative—who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. (He has voted for other Democrats, in other elections.) His forthcoming book, The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future, is—if I know the man at all—likely to be harsher on the Republican Party than anything Frum could conjure. To suggest that he hounded Frum out of his institute on the basis of one little blog defies belief. Knowing him as I do—and having observed the way Frum has spun his departure from AEI for a ravenous, gloating audience—I am certain about which narrative I choose to believe here. Put bluntly, it is not Frum’s.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)