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!"
Frum, 45, is an intense but gregarious writer and the author of five books who enjoys throwing parties with his wife, the novelist and essayist Danielle Crittenden Frum, in the huge back yard of their Wesley Heights home. A former editor for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal editorial page who moved here in 1996, Frum returns periodically to Canada, where he writes a column for the National Post.
Frum drew some unwanted attention shortly before leaving the Bush White House in early 2002 when his wife told friends in an e-mail (which leaked to the world) that he had helped coin the phrase "axis of evil" for the president's post-9/11 State of the Union address. In early 2003, Frum published "The Right Man," a mostly positive book about Bush that nonetheless contained some tart observations.
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," Frum wrote. Although the book was no kiss-and-tell, it did not endear him to White House loyalists.
When Bush nominated Miers on Sept. 29 at an 8 a.m. news conference, Frum raced to his home computer and wrote that "Harriet Miers is a capable lawyer, a hard worker, and a kind and generous person," but hardly Supreme Court material.
"In the White House that hero worshipped the president, Miers was distinguished by the intensity of her zeal: She once told me that the president was the most brilliant man she had ever met."
Suddenly, Frum was deluged with media requests. He appeared on "NBC Nightly News," ABC's "World News Tonight," CNN and National Public Radio.
He has stayed on the offense for National Review Online, writing that if conservatives accept the Miers nomination, they "will be jettisoning every principle in favor of just this one: the leader is always right. That's not just unconservative. It's un-American." This week, he felt compelled to deny that he has "some secret personal motive" for opposing Miers.
"My conservatism is about ideas, not personalities," he wrote. "It is very dispiriting to me that we have reached a point where the honest expression of a conscientious belief is interpreted by many to be a disguised expression of a personal animus."
The attacks on Frum, says National Review Editor Rich Lowry, "are arguments of last resort when you have nothing better to say. . . . He's close to these people, so it's particularly hard to say things he knows they're going to take major exception to. It's very principled and courageous of him to be so out front on this from Day One."
After taking a Yom Kippur blogging break, Frum helped draft a petition against Miers for conservatives to sign, which quickly garnered 3,000 signatures. "It is madness," he wrote last week, "for a 37% president to declare war on his strongest supporters, but that is exactly the strategy that this unwise nomination has forced upon President Bush."
The ad submitted to the Detroit News was not exactly subtle.
Toyota and Hyundai operate "in countries that sponsor terrorism," it said, while General Motors does not.
Jim Doyle of the Level Field Institute, funded by retirees and suppliers of the Big Three automakers, says the News questioned the assertion, which he explained was based on State Department findings about Sudan and Iran. Then a News advertising executive told him the ad was being rejected because her bosses had decided it was "inflammatory to our advertisers." Says Doyle: "I didn't expect to get censored in Detroit."
The same ad, by the way, has run in Roll Call and been accepted by The Washington Post for this week.
So was the News protecting its automobile advertisers? Henry Ford, the paper's vice president for marketing, says he has "no comment other than it was a simple business decision."