Rule By the Ridiculous
David Frum did not intend to write a send-up of the state. His goal was not to demystify the White House. But that is the effect of his chatty little book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush (NY: Random House, 2002).
It has very little substance, and no content of grave historical import. It mainly consists of goofy stories concerning what words Bush ought to use and how, what headlines are consuming the White House staff on a particular day, what issues were discussed before a certain press conference, etc. Petty stuff, mostly. To turn all this into a book underscores just how resourceful Frum is as a writer, and just how ridiculous the presidency (the patina on the state apparatus) really is.
You get the sense of what I mean from Frum's description of his new office.
The first time I sat on the sofa, I detonated a mushroom cloud of dust and insect fragments that hovered about my head for a quarter of a minute. The rest of the place as not much more hygienic: The phones were greasy to the touch, the carpet was spotted with dried chewing gum, and the surface of my desk was sticky with ancient coffee and soda spills. My wife was so horrified by her first visit to the place that she arrived the following weekend with disinfectant, vacuum cleaner, and scouring pads.
Frum blames Clinton for the mess (wait, the spills are "ancient"!). In fact, the filth is predictable. Take any public building (un-owned and un-saleable) and assign new management every four years and see what happens. It will be a mess, just as every older government building in Washington is a dump.
Now imagine putting the people who can't be bothered to wipe up a coffee spill – and have no reason to do so or care either way, only the incentive to use up what they can before their time is over – in charge of the whole country. What Frum doesn't realize is that it is not just his office or this building that is overutilized, unkempt, and vandalized. This is a metaphor for how the government treats the entire country.
What can we say about these interlopers, these temporary rulers of the world empire? What clowns these people are, funny but also gravely menacing because they take themselves and their role in history seriously.
They are not serious enough to put much thought into the effects of their actions on the country, on liberty, on the world, or much of anything else. Not a word in this book indicates that the White House has any sense of the moral and practical responsibilities associated with heading the world's biggest state. But they are serious enough to believe that they have somehow been blessed by the god democracy to make big, important decisions. Paul O'Neil, who was just fired as Treasury secretary, is right that it is all about "deluding the people" into believing something that is not true.
In his first meeting with Bush, soon after the inauguration, Frum reports that the president had only one firm policy item backed by real conviction: "his determination to dig Saddam Hussein out of power in Iraq." This was six months before 9-11, and two years before weapons inspections. Why should anyone take seriously the idea that Bush is waiting for Iraq to comply with anything? Though Iraq was not discussed much during the campaign, the secret plan for vengeance was always there.
Frum was hired as an economic speech writer, and out by the time it became clear that no one in the White House thinks that economics matters much. Of course, we've all noted the return of Keynesianism under Bush (did it ever go away?), as when he told an audience in Billings, Montana: "We want you to have more cash flow so you can expand your business when this economy is slowing down."
Well, Frum does not believe in demand-side theory; he just sees this as part of the necessary rhetorical apparatus. "As the nominal author of remarks like these, I would receive anguished telephone calls afterward from free-market theorists. 'He's spouting gibberish!' they would complain. 'You have to make him stop.' 'I have a better idea,' I'd reply. 'You make him stop.'"
Can you imagine? Centuries of writings on economic science! Hundreds of journals currently in publication! Thousands and thousands of students and professors studying economics in graduate school! And in the end, when it comes to actually making economic policy, it's all reduced to a flimflam man trying to create words that a guy like Bush can repeat with conviction. If you raise an objection, prepare to be dismissed.
There is more insight here concerning Bush's economics. We find out that Bush is against saving consumers money on gasoline, and, indirectly, that he has no plan to use the Iraqi oil fields to lower gas prices:
I once made the mistake of suggesting to Bush that he use the phrase cheap energy to describe the aims of his energy policy. He gave me a sharp, squinting look, as if he were trying to decide whether I was the very stupidest person he had heard from all day or only one of the top five. Cheap energy, he answered, was how we got into this mess. Every year from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, American cars burned less and less per mile traveled. Then in about 1995 that progress stopped. Why? He answered his own question: Because of the gas-guzzling SUV. And what had made the SUV craze possible? This time I answered. "Umm, cheap energy?" He nodded at me. Dismissed.
There is a nugget of information that may prove to be the fatal decision of the Bush administration. "Early in January , the president summoned his writers into the Oval Office for a preview of the coming year. His message boiled downed to this: We're finished on the home front until November, boys…. The domestic agenda was the same as the foreign agenda: Win the war – then we'll see." A year later, the recession is still on, Osama is still loose, and Bush's ratings are falling.
Remember the famous "Axis of Evil" phrase? It was originally "Axis of Hatred," and it was written by Frum. Why? Frum writes: "Bush decided that the United States was no longer a status-quo power in the Middle East. He wanted to see plans for overthrowing Saddam, and he wanted a speech that explained to the world why Iraq's dictator must go. And from that presidential decision, bump, bump, bump down the hierarchy….to me."
Again, what can this mean? Bush knew he wanted to get rid of Saddam but didn't know why? He hires people like Frum to drum up some, any, rationale? Talk about pulling back the curtain!
There's an interesting account of 9-11, how all White House staffers, there to protect the nation from its enemies, were running for their lives, clamoring for news, desperate to find a television set with CNN on, so they could find out what was happening.
The really chilling aspect of this book concerns the extent to which rhetoric as devised by speechwriters ends up determining policy. "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Nice phrase, a product of the speechwriters' office. Once uttered, it becomes the great excuse for the Garrison State.
In Frum's account, Bush has no core, no real understanding; he seems to wake up with a hankering for something and then order everyone to fall into line. Bush's nescience is matched only by his edgy arrogance, constantly on display. Page after page reports this kind of thing: an insular White House run by an "impatient," "dogmatic," "uncurious," and "ill-informed" president who believes he has been appointed by divine providence; a staff fixated mainly on what the mainstream media is saying day to day; advisers who specialize in election hokum and the art of propaganda; a widespread lack of clarity concerning what the administration believes on any issue; and a complete lack of concern about much of anything or anyone outside their immediate orbit.
Not that it really matters in the end. The state continues to burn through $2 trillion in private wealth every year, doing untold amounts of damage, and it will do so regardless of what the Bush administration believes or does.
Frum seems unaware of what a damning picture he is painting. You half expect him to report that Bush looked out the window one day and said, what are all those buildings and things out there? Are they part of the executive branch or the legislative branch? Can I tell the people in them what you do? Yes? Well, then, tell them to help with the War!!
How does the book contribute to understanding the state? As I read, I developed a picture in my mind of the state as a huge locomotive that forges ahead on auto-drive. At some point, Bush and his staff have the chance to sit in the front car of the train and pretend to be the drivers and affect various poses and rationales for why the train is moving and where it is going. They are given a pot of cash to toss out the window as they see fit, and some guns to shoot people from the windows. They are also given a press corps to write up their every move. They are generally happier to be perceived as driving the thing rather than actually driving it, and they are glad to use whatever is at their disposal to make their turn in the cabin really meaningful, even historic.
Frum didn't set out to make the government look ridiculous. But by giving us a peek into the workings of the inner sanctum, that is what he has done. Meanwhile, the next inhabitant of his former office will find a bigger mess than the one he found, and leave it, and the country, even more of a dump.