The Surprise Presidency

Of George W. Bush

By David Frum

Random House. 303 pp. $25.95

David Frum is the neoconservative writer-turned-White-House-speechwriter who coined, sort of, the phrase "axis of evil." Originally scripting the words "axis of hatred" for the 2002 State of the Union address, he found the last word changed by his boss, Michael Gerson, to the more assonant, moralizing "evil." Now returned to journalism, with his place in Bartlett's two-thirds secure, Frum is the first insider to produce a book on the 43rd president. In The Right Man, he shares with readers some carefully sifted details about how Bush came to exceed Frum's expectations.

A Canadian by birth, Frum gained prominence writing for the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard; his books include Dead Right, a critique of the conservative movement, and How We Got Here, a meditation on the Me Decade of the '70s. Even though he was still a Canadian citizen -- and was put off by the prospect of attending White House Bible study, which was "not compulsory, but not quite uncompulsory, either" -- he took the plunge and joined the Bush speechwriting staff. And although his faith in the president's true-blue conservative credentials was not deep, he let his curiosity get the better of him.

Frum quickly assayed those around him. A few stood out: Politico-in-chief Karl Rove was both "political guru and leading intellectual," and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the one Cabinet member "whose mind could truly be said to sparkle." But for the most part, the White House consisted merely of pleasant mediocrities. Voices were seldom raised in anger; during his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Frum never saw "one of those finger-jabbing confrontations you see in movies about the White House." And the leader of the bland was former communications director Karen Hughes, who "loathed risk and abhorred ideas . . . rarely read books and distrusted people who did." Indeed, one talented would-be staffer was denied a job because of the informal "no marijuana after college" rule.

Frum presents a year in the professional life of an upper-mid-level White House staffer. Mixing details about the speechwriting process -- the final text for the president appears in 16-point type, Arial font -- he also offers his right-of-center, right-of-Bush spin on issues such as tax cuts, electricity deregulation and stem-cell research. For his part, he always stood ready for an ideological rumble. Recalling an impromptu exchange in a hallway with liberal stalwarts Barbra Streisand and Harvey Weinstein, he recounts his ringing vindication of Bush's Kyoto-phobic position on global warming after what he considered their ineffective challenge. Yet by the summer of '01, after the Republicans lost the Senate, Frum had mostly given up hope that Bush would ever be the sort of rootin'-tootin' right-winger that he yearned for. He began avoiding parties where he knew his conservative chums would rip into his boss for his missing agenda, knowing Frum could say little in Bush's defense.

Indeed, he often had cause to wonder just what "43" believed. In the Oval Office, the president would periodically uncork a "jaw-droppingly candid remark -- a brutally frank assessment of some foreign leader or an expression of doubt about some program to which he was publicly committed." Yet these shockers stayed private, opening up a potential credibility gap. Alas, Frum shares with readers neither the specifics of Bush's candor nor the objects of his "fierce anger."

But everything changed after Sept. 11. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Bush made -- as Frum deploys the favored language of neocons -- "a moral commitment" to the task of fighting terror. And Frum himself finally made his own commitment to American citizenship.

From this point on, Bush's presidency becomes more interesting -- and Frum's memoir less so. The perspective shifts from fly-on-the-wall to pundit-in-the-gallery. The last half of the book is dominated by Frum's Middle-East views -- pro-Israel, pro-"regime change," anti-Muslim, anti-Colin Powell -- not Bush's presidential deeds. And while Frum doesn't shrink from applauding Bush for uttering lines Frum himself wrote, he offers little fresh insight into how Bush became, in his view, the Right Man for the job of worldwide evil-undoing.

Frum left the White House in February 2002, not long after the "axis of evil" address. There was little for him to do, he says, since war had shunted his primary area of expertise, domestic policy, into the background. He dismisses the rumor that he had been fired after a stray e-mail from his wife, giving him credit for the phrase, went too far astray. Yet Frum is still in the Bush brigade. Writing with post-9/11 admiration for his commander-in-chief, he declares, "War had made him, as it had made Roosevelt and Reagan, a crusader after all." And Canadian-turned-American Frum, pen in hand, wants to be part of that crusade. *

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday and a contributor to the Fox News Channel. He was a White House aide in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.