On the Right, Caught in the Middle
Monday, October 17, 2005
Some of the biggest names in conservative punditry have been eviscerating President Bush over the Harriet Miers nomination. But no one has attracted quite as much attention as David Frum.
It's not just that the National Review contributor and American Enterprise Institute fellow was online with stinging criticism of Bush two hours after the president announced Miers as his Supreme Court nominee. It's not just that Frum has been blogging up a storm and hitting the television and radio circuit. It's that the Canadian-born journalist is a former Bush speechwriter.
"I think it was courageous," says Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "He knew that there would be a little suspicion, however unfounded, of personal animosity." Still, says Kristol, "because he worked there four years ago, he's not supposed to express an opinion?"
Frum, who is said by friends to be the target of fierce resentment by administration officials, was reluctant to be interviewed and uncomfortable with being portrayed as Miers's most vocal critic.
"For me, there has not been a moment when I have not just felt ill about this whole thing," he says. "My personal hope is that it gets resolved as quickly and quietly as possible with a minimum amount of harm to the administration" -- through a Miers withdrawal.
The fratricidal battle, as Frum describes it, goes to the heart of a conservative media establishment that, to outsiders at least, has long seemed to operate with enormous message discipline. But the new dissension raises a host of questions: Does the White House see journalists on the right as being on the team, and punish transgressors by limiting access? Do conservative media folks have a responsibility to challenge Bush when he deviates from their principles -- and if so, why haven't they done it until now? Are former administration officials expected to abide by an unspoken loyalty oath, and how long does it last?
Frum calls Miers "a lovely person" and recounts how she counseled, and wrote a will for, a young White House aide who fell ill and died of cancer. "But we're talking about the Supreme Court of the United States and what the institution needs," he says. "There are a lot of wonderful people in America who shouldn't be on the Supreme Court -- and a lot who should be on the court who aren't such wonderful people."
The spectacle of Frum, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, John Podhoretz, Kristol and other conservative commentators breaking with their president over Miers has the feel of a messy family feud. These, after all, are the political pugilists who are usually slapping around liberals and Democrats. But there is something about Bush picking his White House counsel and longtime personal lawyer -- and passing over a batch of conservative judges with sterling credentials -- that has inflamed his normally loyal media supporters.
Former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says he's detected a whiff of sexism in the opposition to Miers. Fox News anchor Brit Hume has noted that many critics of the Southern Methodist University graduate went to elite Eastern schools.
This prompted Frum -- a proud graduate of Yale and Harvard Law -- to fire back at "Brit Hume's and Fred Barnes' embarrassing repetition of Ed Gillespie's talking points: 'Brawwwwwk-sexism; brawwwwwwk-elitism; brawwwwwwwwwk-Harvard; brawwwwwwwwwk; brawwwwwkk; brawwwwwk.' "
Barnes, the Standard's executive editor, says that he thinks Frum's opposition is legitimate but that it is unfair to challenge the motives of those who disagree. "The notion that Brit and I are merely tools of Ed Gillespie or the White House is insulting and wrong," says Barnes, adding that he hadn't talked to Gillespie all week. "That's the kind of thing liberals do." Barnes also dismisses as "ridiculous" Frum's contention that Miers should not have been picked even if she turns out to be a solid conservative vote on the court.
Hume says it was obvious that his gibe "was considerably tongue-in-cheek, and some of the responses have been notably humorless. Lighten up a little bit!"