THE TRANSITION FROM punditry to speech writing is a matter of going from writing that the speech was lousy to writing the lousy speech. Canadian author and columnist David Frum crossed over in January 2001 when he joined the new administration of George W. Bush, doubtful that the President had the right stuff, but unable to resist the opportunity of seeing the White House from the inside. “I had been looking in from the outside for a very long time,” Frum writes in The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. “If only for a little, I would like to look out from inside.”
He stayed only a year, one in which the Bush presidency was transformed by the events of Sept. 11,2001—a day at the office unlike any other. Frum has since successfully escaped
the White House, and lived to write about the experience among the buttoned-down Bushies—a highly regimented, highly disciplined, God-fearing, Bible-quoting outfit that doesn’t drink—at least, not to excess— doesn’t swear and hasn’t done drugs since college. The Bushies are reportedly annoyed at Frum for breaking the rule that what goes on inside stays inside. They shouldn’t be. There’s nothing here that Bob Woodward hasn’t written in his 2002 book, Bush at War. It’s just that Frum writes it better, not merely as a reporter writing up verbatim notes of the meeting, but as an observer, making his own mental notes at the table.
So much of speech writing for a president or prime minister often involves nothing more than words for occasions, or prose
about process. The Bush speech-writing team was challenged to go to a higher level in the wake of 9/11. In Bush’s National Cathedral address at a memorial service held three days later, there was elegance and purpose. In his address to Congress, where the bar had been set very high by Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor, there was astonishing eloquence and power.
Frum generously credits his colleagues, notably chief speech writer Mike Gerson, but gives most of the credit to Bush himself. “Bush was not an articulate man,” Frum writes, “but unlike his father the younger Bush valued the skills he lacked.” All news being local, the transplanted Torontonian lifts the veil on the famous No Canada! moment of the congressional address—when the President thanked other nations, but said nothing about the efforts of its northern neighbour. “My stomach plunged as I read it,” Frum recalls. “All references to Canada had been cut.” Bush broke the B’nai Brith Man of the Year Dinner rule of speech writing—if you’re going to thank someone, you have to thank everyone. “Had Bush been offended by Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s boorishness in not attending the Ottawa vigil? ” Uh, actually the PM did attend, and spoke quite movingly. A little fact-checking would have been in order here.
But Frum should feel no guilt about writing on Bush and his White House team. He was far enough away from the President to see his failings, close enough to observe his strengths, and does so with unfailing fairness. The portrait of Bush that emerges is of a leader confident enough to surround himself with strong advisers, and humble enough to grow into the job.
Nor should Frum have any regrets about crossing over. The environment inside may have been confining and conformist, but Frum’s writing has clearly been informed by the experience. Theodore Roosevelt once famously said that “it is not the critic who counts, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” Or as Frum’s fellowcountryman Lester B. Pearson once advised a student audience: “Don’t be downhearted in the thick of battle. It is where all good men would wish to be.” Frum has been there, a good man in the arena. I?H
Columnist and author L. Ian MacDonald, editor of Policy Options magazine, was chief speech writer to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1985 to 1988.
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