A Post About David Frum
A PCC is a conservative who yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway—who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio. The PCC, in fact, distinguishes himself from other conservatives not so much ideologically—though there is an element of that—as aesthetically.
– Tunku Varadarajan, describing David Frum in The Daily Beast
On the subject of David Frum, I’ve got a lot to say, and I’ll begin by disclosing a personal story. In January 2009, I had a particularly bad day: the Washington DC based web magazine where I worked folded; and immediately afterward, I got a call informing me that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer, and would soon undergo a significant surgery. I am unsure how Mr. Frum heard about the magazine closing, but he e-mailed to ask if I would call him. On doing so, he offered condolences on a professional disappointment — a nice gesture, especially since I had precious little to offer him as a professional contact, and wasn’t a friend — and when I revealed why the lost job hadn’t been much on my mind, he spoke to me for perhaps twenty minutes longer, conducting himself in a most gentlemanly fashion.
Understand that I hardly knew Mr. Frum. I’d met him perhaps thrice in person, always in a room full of people. Even now I’ve met him perhaps six times. Upon calling me that day, I am certain he didn’t expect me to say that my mother had cancer — what does one even say to a professional acquaintance in that situation, beyond a mumbled, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” I still don’t know, because I can’t remember what Mr. Frum said, except that it consoled me greatly at the time, reassuring without being prying or presumptive: It was a polite, well-mannered, graceful, kind-hearted gesture, and it demonstrates two things. 1) The way Mr. Frum conducts himself isn’t intended to ingratiate himself to Washington DC’s liberal elite — he regularly demonstrates social graces on all sorts of occasions utterly unconnected with politics. 2) Probably Mr. Frum isn’t aware of how much he raised my spirits that day, which is another way of saying that being a gentleman — and striving to avoid shrillness, intolerance and boorishness — are commendable virtues and bedrocks of civil society. It is execrable to make civility into a vice, let alone an ideological signifier, as if most Americans don’t value these things regardless of their political beliefs, or benefit from a world where they are practiced.
Of course, David Frum is uncivil sometimes. I recall a line in Newsweek about Rush Limbaugh’s dimensions and manifold personal flaws that he phrased somewhat more harshly than was necessary (talk radio hosts bring out the worst in all of us), I’ve seen him scrap in the blogosphere, as so many of us sometimes do, and I object strongly to some of his rhetoric during the Bush era, when he questioned the motives of Iraq War opponents. But it is to his credit that he tries and usually succeeds in tempering the bad impulses that shadow us all in political argument. And it speaks poorly of anyone who criticizes not his rare failures, but his constant effort to resist them. What normal person wants to be like a boorish, mercenary talk radio host, for goodness sake? Since when are these qualities how conservatives define themselves “aesthetically”?
Other critics say that Mr. Frum is egotistical, disloyal, arrogant, self-important. Beyond the fact that these same people unselfconsciously laud Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — self-important folks with out-sized egos if ever there were any — it is noteworthy that these criticisms are always offered as though they refute the arguments Mr. Frum is making about a given issue, or a politician, or conservatism, or the future of the Republican Party. It is an intellectual coward or a fraud who tries to discredit ideas by pointing out the alleged, totally irrelevant personality flaws of their advocates.
Love him or hate him, Mr. Frum has been around Washington DC a long time. He possesses knowledge on political history, policy, and politics that is broad and deep. He has an especially curious mind, and a willingness to flout the conventional wisdom, which influences him less than most people. Were movement conservatives less childish, irrational, and defensive in the face of dissidents, they’d learn something — even when he is wrong, he often raises worthwhile points that inform my thinking, much as I might disagree with his ultimate conclusions.
And God knows I think Mr. Frum is catastrophically wrong on some issues. He is nevertheless a factually careful, intellectually honest advocate for what he believes — and if you don’t think that matters, go read Andy McCarthy, Marc Thiessen, and Victor Davis Hanson, men whose every blog post is riddled with glaring errors, whether of logic, fact, or omission. Muse on what their ilk does to public discourse, and if your musings are persuasive, expect that they’ll ignore them in direct proportion to their inability to persuasively rebut.
To my dismay, Mr. Frum agrees with these men, if not their least defensible rhetoric, on certain matters related to the War on Terrorism. Unlike those writers, I respect Mr. Frum’s work despite our disagreement, not for its politeness, but because it has rigor, and he regularly ventures before intelligent critics to defend his beliefs against the strongest counterattacks they can offer. Can you imagine any of The Corner’s least thoughtful War on Terror hawks debating Andrew Bacevitch on Bloggingheads? Or doing an interview like this one? It is uncomfortable to defend ideas, especially unpopular ones, against their most penetrating critics, and Mr. Frum willingly does that.
When New Majority was renamed FrumForum, Mr. Frum was mocked for naming the site after himself. I cannot look inside the man. For all I know, this was motivated by pure egoism. Even if that were so, however, it would still be the case that he possesses enough humility to grapple with critics and publish writers with whom he forcefully disagrees — and as a reader, that is the only kind of humility that I require from the publishers, editors and writers I read. The most objectionably arrogant sites on the right are the ones that do nothing but cheer-lead an ever shrinking circle of ideologically pure allies who presume that they possess all the answers, and that anyone who disagrees with them should be subjected to mockery and character assassination.
I hesitate to raise foreign policy at length, because Mr. Frum is an astute advocate for a hawkish approach that I’ve come to regard as catastrophically misguided — it is one more reason I’m glad his focus lately has been domestic matters — but here goes anyway, because that interview linked above contains a passage that I’d like to comment on. It begins when the interviewer accuses the Bush Administration of a long list of crimes.
“I think it is very hard to argue that there was anything that the Bush administration did that was as far a departure from the law as the Roosevelt administration’s destroyers-for-bases deal with Great Britain…” Mr. Frum responds.
Guernica: “Departure from the law”?
David Frum: Something illegal. Remember the destroyer-for-bases deal in 1940?
David Frum: Okay, well look it up. I think that just about everybody at the time argued that it was almost certainly illegal. But it was a war. And in retrospect, you know the law that prevented that was a kind of mistake. Or Abraham Lincoln, using presidential authority to suspend habeas corpus.
Guernica: So protecting an undercover CIA operative’s identity is a mistake?
David Frum: One of the things that Jane Mayer, who is obviously no softy on the administration, says at the beginning of her book, is, By comparison with previous wartime administrations, the Bush administration’s illegalities were admittedly—and now I’m gonna forget the exact term she used—trivial or small. But she begins her whole book, which is an accusation of massive lawlessness, saying that if you compare it with other administrations during wartime, these things look pretty trivial. Um, that doesn’t mean they’re okay, if they’re illegal. It just means that people need to have some context in which they judge these things.
There is something that really bothers me about this argument. Abraham Lincoln led the country through a Civil War that claimed more lives than all other American conflicts combined, threatened the very existence of the Union, and determined the fate of the slave population. FDR confronted the Axis powers, a force that credibly threatened to take over the world even as its European half perpetrated a horrific genocide.
In contrast, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — awful as they were — killed fewer than 4,000 people, posed no existential threat to America or any other Western nation, and afforded an opportunity to respond at a time and place of our choosing. Of course, the Bush Administration didn’t know all of that back then. It would be forgivable if they overestimated the threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists immediately after 9/11.
But all these years later, it is a weak defense indeed to say that the Bush Administration was no worse than Lincoln or FDR. Imagine if you figured out the differences in lives lost now versus then, or the seriousness of the threat to American peace and prosperity now versus then — were the Bush/Cheney team sent back in time to preside over either the Civil War or World War II, and told to multiply their post-9/11 lawbreaking according to the proportional difference in national security threat level, they’d have to either cancel the experiment or lead the country into dictatorship.
Put another way, if torture and asserting the right to indefinitely hold American citizens without trial on the sole authority of the president is the response to 4,000 dead, what’s the response to 40,000 dead? I don’t mean to be glib even talking hypothetically about an attack that killed 40,000, but I must confess that much as I fear that prospect, and how much it would directly damage our nation, I am even more frightened of what our politicians would do in its aftermath.
I am reasonably certain that Mr. Frum would have serious objections to what I’ve just written. I am as confident that if I pitched him a piece worth running at his Web site, he’d run it (I’ve never been paid to write anything there, nor do I expect I ever will be), that if I ran into him on the street or at a party, he’d be unfailingly polite, and that if I sought his counsel on some personal matter (and again, I don’t expect to ever do so), he’d listen and help if he could.
It’s a shame that Mr. Frum has been asked to resign from AEI. I don’t have any knowledge of why exactly that happened, but given the intellectual corruption endemic to so many Washington DC think tanks, I can’t help but assume the worst. As a self-interested consumer of political commentary, I hope Mr. Frum finds new opportunities that expand his output and his audience — I expect that I’ll be touting some of his insights and forcefully railing against others for many years to come. And unlike so many Washington DC based writers, I am confident that he’ll continue writing what he believes irrespective of financial and career implications. In that narrow sense, I judge that he’s too arrogant to do otherwise.
And let me add that every writer should possess that kind of arrogance.
(Also, I like David Frum’s bookshelf. Wish he’d write more of those!)