David Frum seems to be trying a little too hard to make it in this town -- and that's saying something.

Reach his voice mail and you learn not only that he's out of the office, but that he's on a book tour. He is promoting "The Right Man," which according to DavidFrum.com, "is the first inside account of a historic year in the Bush White House, written by the presidential speechwriter credited with the phrase 'axis of evil.' " Frum's coinage of "axis of evil" was revealed in a tacky episode last March when his wife, the writer Danielle Crittenden, bragged of his achievement in a mass e-mail.

Frum is talking like an insider and selling himself hard. Neither of these things carries any great shame or novelty in Washington, especially for someone who is trying to sell a book. But the substance of "The Right Man" is secondary to the nerve it took to write it. He has violated the administration's stringent code of discretion. He worked in a realm -- presidential speechwriting -- that encourages invisibility. He worked in a White House that prizes secrecy and actively works to suppress personalities other than Bush's. And he worked there for just 13 months.

"I honored the rule about keeping confidences," says Frum, 42. He also honored the rule, he says, "of keeping the president's thinking confidential as he's thinking it." (It's unclear, however, how familiar the author was with the president's thinking. Asked how many one-on-one meetings he had with the president, Frum says there were "six or eight." But when pressed to exclude walk-by encounters in the hallways, the total falls to "two or three.")

He has fleshy pale cheeks, bright brown eyes and an eager bearing that leaves the impression of an overgrown boy. Frum is sitting in his office at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a resident fellow. He is surrounded by stacked boxes of "The Right Man." Speaking in a smooth, NPR-perfect voice, he has completed 17 radio interviews by lunchtime. He began at 6 a.m. and will be finished by midnight.

Frum is attempting what is probably an impossible balancing act: He wants to "speak truthfully about what I saw" at the White House while still hoping for the administration's love. He observes from outside the sanctum but still promises an "inside account." He is a self-described "minor player" who still feels qualified to write that Secretary of State Colin Powell is the "deadliest bureaucratic knife fighter in the whole Bush administration."

All of which has made him a figure of some disdain, both within and beyond the Bush circle. This is manifest in a classic Washington form: Conversations with people who know Frum begin with on-the-record praise and spiral into on-background ridicule. "There's a sort of desperate edge to David's need to be noticed," says one well-known conservative who knows Frum and has ties to the White House. Frum has an outsider's zealousness for recognition, he says. In addition to still being a Canadian citizen, Frum was also one of the few Jews in the Bush White House, a point of which he seems acutely conscious.

Frum is certainly not the first White House aide to be criticized for writing a firsthand dispatch. George Stephanopoulos and Robert Reich were both accused of disloyalty and worse for writing memoirs about their days in the Clinton administration. But Frum, who had virtually no access to Bush and served barely a year, would seem a pioneer into an uncharted chutzpah zone. Which is not to say such works are not valuable.

"I love David's writing, he's a real mind," e-mails Peggy Noonan, the former presidential speechwriter (who doesn't slam Frum on background). "The Right Man," she says, offers a "constructive" record for posterity. "Bill Safire once told me what history never has enough of is first-person testimony -- David gives history his testimony."

But questions about Frum's motivations are easier to evince. "It does make you wonder what he was doing at the White House to begin with," says Ted Widmer, a former Clinton speechwriter who is now a professor of history at Washington College on the Eastern Shore.

"I think it's pretty clear that he took this job in order to write this memoir," adds conservative columnist Robert Novak. Frum and Novak clashed last year when Novak reported that Frum was fired from the White House after the e-mail incident. Frum and the White House both denied this.

Frum shrugs off most of these suspicions. He is aware that it comes with the territory of authorship. After a lecture at AEI on Monday, a young woman asks Frum how she can get a job as a speechwriter in the Bush administration. He suggests a few people for her to send a re{acute}sume{acute} to. "You might not, at this point, want to mention my name," he says.

"The Right Man" is short on gossip and, for the most part, kind to Bush -- a kiss and kvell book. But it also contains stark and oft-quoted exceptions: that the president "is impatient and quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill-informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader should be." He writes of his frustration with the lack of brainpower at the Bush White House -- a notion that, sources say, has annoyed many in the administration above all else. He derides adviser Karen Hughes as a woman who "rarely reads books and distrusted people who did." Within the Cabinet, Frum writes, there is just one figure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "whose mind could be truly said to sparkle."

The White House would not comment on the book's assertions. "I will add it to the list of books that I don't have time to read," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said earlier this month. "I just hope it stimulates the economy and creates jobs."

"Aides must resist the temptation to self-aggrandizement," Frum writes in "The Right Man" in a passage recalling an admonition from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Frum says he was faithful to this dictum. His book is not self-aggrandizing, he says. It "makes very clear my small role in the scheme of things." He likens himself to Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby."

"The only thing that was important about Nick Carraway is that he had a little cottage opposite the great mansion," Frum says. "He had a clear view across the lake and could see what was going on. And sometimes they invited him into the parties."

But it is not hard to suspect that Frum -- or at least DavidFrum.com -- views his role in history as slightly greater than that of a mere observer. "David Frum," we are reminded, "helped make international headlines when President George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address linked international terrorists to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea."

Frum decided to write "The Right Man" last March. This was after he left the White House and his wife's "axis of evil" e-mail drew smirks. That notoriety, which Frum calls absurd, served the unintended purpose of branding Frum in the marketplace. It brought him far more recognition than anything else had in his punditry career and convinced him there was an appetite for intelligence about the Bush White House.

The administration's control of information frustrated him. "I don't know who it benefits to say we are going to wrap this administration in mystery," he says.

Actually, it benefits Frum. "The Right Man" has ranked near the top of Amazon.com's sales charts almost from the day it went on sale Jan. 7. Frum says he doesn't check his Amazon ranking often. "My wife does," he says.

"The Right Man" is a fast read, one made even faster by sections that are heavy with well-known rehash and thus easy to skip. Still, the book's description of Sept. 11 in Washington is poignant. And though it breaks no real news, it is rich with fun tidbits such as a hilarious account of an impromptu debate between Frum and Barbra Streisand about climate change.

Frum says it took six months to complete "The Right Man." He wrote from his home in Northwest Washington just after his third child was born. Frum struggled with the writing, he says, partly because he worried about how it would be received by the White House and the media. "I tried to write in a respectful way and not in a way that would cause gratuitous damage," he says. "But there comes a point when you say, 'Are you writing a book or not writing a book?' "

Just a few weeks before his deadline, Frum discarded everything. He started again and wrote in a sprint at the end of last summer. He delivered his manuscript to Random House the morning after Labor Day.

Frum has not overcome his antsiness over how the book will be read in the White House. He is at his most plaintive when talking about how positive this portrayal is of Bush, how "The Right Man" is not a tell-all book, and how people who read it will come away liking the president more. Twice during an interview, he describes Bush as "an attractive person."

Asked what the reaction has been from the White House, Frum squirms. That's not for him to say, he says. If the book harms the president in even a minor way, "that would pain me," Frum says.

One can imagine that if George W. Bush has read "The Right Man," he despised it. Even if the book is basically friendly, it -- and Frum -- would seem a tidy embodiment of so many things the president dislikes: uncontrolled information, a cry for recognition by a freelance spokesman, and -- by virtue of his spotlight grab -- an outsize personality.

A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, Frum is the kind of conspicuous smarty-pants that Bush had little use for during his own days in the Ivy League. The book also engages in some quickie psychoanalysis on the president, another thing that Bush famously loathes. Bush married Laura because she is the opposite of his mother, Frum writes. And Hughes serves as a mother figure to the president.

Frum says he dropped off copies of the book at the White House before it was released. Does he know what the president thinks of it? "I would rather not guess," he says. "You can create a fact based on just a guess."

So you turn the question around and ask how important it is to Frum that Bush likes him. He laughs nervously and his self-assurance disappears behind a suddenly red face. "That's interesting," he whispers.

"Uhhh. Uhhh.

"Put it this way. I would be sorry if he is displeased. I will regret that. But, uhh, if you're going to be a writer, you have to write truthfully." Frum appears, at this moment, to be almost sad. It conjures a sense that resonates in the book, which makes it an at-times uncomfortable read: The author is still trying to master his own feelings about the right man.

The phone rings. A cold-calling interviewer. He politely refers the caller to his publicist.

In another few minutes, Frum is outside, heading to another interview. He is in acute demand, a man enjoying the warm blast of a hot book. "I'm having enormous fun," he says by way of goodbye. He grins his way into a waiting car.

"I tried to write in a respectful way," says the one-time Bush speechwriter, "and not in a way that would cause gratuitous damage." Frum, above,

worked as a Bush speechwriter for 13 months. But he had very little access to the president, perhaps "two or three" private meetings if you don't count encounters in the hallway.