'The Right Man' -- entertaining glimpses

January 26, 2003|By Paul West | By Paul West,Sun Staff

The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, by David Frum. Random House. 384 pages. $25.95.

Loyalty means everything to George W. Bush. He made his national political debut as the family's loyalty enforcer during his father's '88 run. When he launched his own candidacy, he forced his chief strategist, Karl Rove, to sell his political consulting business. That way, Rove could give Bush all his time (and couldn't cash in on his Bush connection).

In the Bush White House, taking credit away from the president is considered disloyal. Telling tales out of school is highly disloyal. Thus the official reaction has been decidedly cool to David Frum's book about his year as a junior presidential speechwriter. At a recent White House briefing, spokesman Ari Fleischer sniffed that he doubted that he'd have time to read it.

He needn't have worried, if he ever really did, about the content. There is little that will come as a surprise to close watchers of this White House or to readers of previous books about Bush. We are told that the president can be hot-tempered but is extremely self-disciplined. He has a poor memory for facts and figures but an abiding faith that God is guiding his presidency. He's ill-informed, intellectually incurious, and defensive about those who think he's not really in charge of his administration. Those aren't insignificant observations, but they're not new.

Nonetheless, the first book by a Bush White House insider does provide an entertaining glimpse from within an administration that is especially deft at keeping unflattering information from leaking out.

Bush's Cabinet, notes Frum, contains few sparkling intellects. "Conspicuous intelligence," he concludes, "seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House." He accurately pegs Bush adviser Karen Hughes (also Frum's boss) as the most powerful woman in the White House since Edith Wilson and the only staff member who could criticize Bush. But he can't resist putting her down: "Hughes rarely read books and distrusted people who did -- anything she did not already know she saw no point in knowing."

We get few glimpses of the real Bush. There is a nice anecdote about the president's "ancestral puritanism" seeping out when he flicks off a lamp before leaving a room at the White House. Complains Bush: "Do you think it's going to occur to anybody to turn that lamp off when we leave the room?"

Frum's thesis, that Bush rose to the occasion after Sept. 11, is hardly novel. At the same time, he fails to provide convincing proof for one of his more intriguing claims, that Vice President Dick Cheney's influence has been exaggerated and that his views "were often overridden."

An e-mail by Frum's wife earned him brief notoriety last winter, after she boasted that he'd written the "axis of evil" phrase in the State of the Union address. When Frum left the White House staff soon after, there were suspicions that he'd been kicked out for disloyally claiming credit for the president's words.

Frum says that he'd already resigned and that the e-mail and his departure were unrelated. He proudly devotes a chapter to his authorship of the phrase, though what Frum wrote was "axis of hatred"; Bush's chief speechwriter changed it to "evil." One could argue that it is among the most infelicitous things Bush has said. Not surprisingly, he hasn't repeated the line in months.

Frum is smart and an engaging writer. His novelistic description of what it was like to be a White House worker on Sept. 11 is gripping. But he orbits around more substantive questions -- how Bush actually governs and where he's leading America during this uncertain period -- without offering convincing answers. Graceful circling, though.

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. He covered the 2000 presidential election and the presidential campaigns of Bush's father. Before joining the paper, he was a reporter in Texas and Washington for the Dallas Times Herald. He began his newspaper career at The Atlanta Constitution.

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