article

03.27.10

The Frum Flap

It was a grand mistake to fire David Frum. Dad would agree.

Into the tempest-in-a-teapot caused by the firing of David Frum by the American Enterprise Institute, for the sin of bad-mouthing his fellow conservatives and Republicans over health care reform, let me tippy-toe to the teapot and drop in a few leaves.

First, some background: David wrote a blog post criticizing the GOP for not getting itself embedded in the Democratic health care surge. The Wall Street Journal editorial page lambasted him rather nastily (considering David once labored in glory on that same page), snarking that he "now makes his living as the media's go-to basher of fellow Republicans."

Then my dailybeastly colleague, the estimable Tunku Varadarajan, attacked David in strikingly personal tones, calling him (in effect) an elitist suck-up, a "Polite Company Conservative" who more than anything craves the good opinion of the bien pensant Georgetown crowd.

David is a brilliant writer and a brilliant thinker. Further, he is what the movement needs now more than ever—the contrarian.

A little full disclosure here: I've known and admired David Frum since 1982, when I tried to hire him to replace me as George H.W. Bush's speechwriter. The problem was that David was Canadian, and we were in a recession; that obstacle was later overcome when he went to work for Bush 43, during which tenure he helped to coin the problematic rallying phrase "axis of evil."

Tunku Varadarajan: Inside David Frum's Bitter ExitI was no fan of that phrase, and was deeply troubled when David subsequently went on to slander (the ever problematic) Patrick Buchanan and the now-late Robert Novak for being "unpatriotic" over their resistance to the Iraq war for which "axis of evil" was a rallying cry. That article, radioactively controversial, appeared in the National Review. To paraphrase the late Mary McCarthy on the (thankfully late) Lillian Hellman, I hated every word of David's article, including "the" and "a."

But David is a brilliant writer and a brilliant thinker. Further, he is what the movement needs now more than ever--the contrarian.

There are two, stand-out original conservative thinkers in my generation, both, as it happened, named David—Frum and Brooks. Both got their start at National Review. Both deeply admired William F. Buckley, Jr., and not just because he gave them their start; but because of what he stood for, and how he went about making the arguments.

I invoke William F. for straightforwardly mischievous reasons. He was the founder of the modern conservative movement that is in such terrible shape at the moment. He was also unpredictable.

While his brother James L. Buckley was running (not so well) for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1976, WFB endorsed Allard K. Lowenstein for Congress. Allard K. Lowenstein was so far to the left of WFB that WFB wouldn't have been able to find him with the Hubble telescope. And yet WFB recognized in his friend Al a fineness of mind and principle. A patriot. But oh, what a hullaballoo it caused.

But then WFB had always been a reliable supplier of hullaballoos. In 1965, while running for mayor, he endorsed construction of bicycle paths in New York City. He was green before Green. In the late 1960's, he came out for decriminalization of drugs. For a black president. In the late 1970's, he came out for giving the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians. (Is it really possible that we were once so wrapped around that isthmus?) In one of his finest oratorical displays, he debated his great friend Ronald Reagan on the issue — while Reagan was running for president.

If Reagan, as president, did something that WFB thought wrong, he said so, loudly and clearly, often in big-type headlines on the cover of NR.

Flash forward to two years after our invasion of Iraq: He pronounced the enterprise to be failed. The reaction to this sounded an echo of LBJ, post-Tet, when he gloomily said, "If we've lost Walter (Cronkite), we've lost the war." In 1988, WFB endorsed Joe Lieberman, then a Democrat, for the U.S. Senate. Well, the list goes on and on.

Like Frum, WFB was charged — by very stupid and self-revealing people — with being an elitist suck-up, in this case to Manhattan and other eastern-seaboard liberals. One particularly stupid person, whom I'll spare the ignominy of naming, actually accused him of adjusting his views so that they would be fragrant to Norman Podhoretz. We all had a good laugh at that one.

The point — and yes, I suppose I ought to get to it — was that WFB was tolerant of different views. It wasn't a case of Godfatherly "I keep my friends close, my enemies closer." It was a case of intellectual security and self-confidence. He wasn't worried that hanging out with the enemy was going to corrupt his principles.

He famously maintained excellent friendships with the Left. With John Kenneth Galbraith, whom he teased mercilessly for a half-century, and to whose sick-bed he traveled every three weeks during the final years. With Ira Glasser of the — gasp! — ACLU. With George McGovern, who, cancer-ridden and hemmed in by massive South Dakotan snowdrifts, heroically ventured to WFB's memorial service at St. Patrick's. With Murray Kempton, the liberals' Liberal, even to the point of secretly financing one of Murray's books. With Daniel Patrick Moynihan—who had had the temerity to unseat WFB's brother Jim for the Senate seat. This list, too, is long.

It is not for the likes of me — non-intellectual, and post-partisan — to tell AEI how to handle its resident scholars. But the teapot having been heated, let me now drop in my leaves and say that it strikes me that AEI has not burnished its reputation as a center of right-intellectual thought. And Tunku, for whom I have collegial regard and friendship, has not embellished his credentials as a fair-thinker. I say this because of his insinuation -- unsupported by the evidence — that David was actually (wink, wink) let go for "goldbricking," i.e, not pulling his weight. The briefest glance at David's productivity and output during his tenure there ought to put the quietus on that canard. (Can one, in fact, put a "quietus" on a "canard"? Doubtless the Beast's eager commentariat will have a few words on that score.)

Another conservative banishee to hear the sound of accumulating oyster shells clacking around his feet was Bruce Bartlett. A comment of his goes, I think, to the heart of the whole mess.

"I have always," he said, "hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind." (Emphasis mine.)

As Dan Quayle once put it so well, "What a terrible thing to have lost one's mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is."

Indeed, how sad.

Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary.