Who's in Charge? | The Nation


Who's in Charge?

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Then came 9/11, and the vision man was back. Maybe not that first day. Frum recalls that he and his fellow speechwriters were dismayed by the speech Bush delivered that night from the Oval Office. (Hughes had chucked the speech written by the team and drafted her own.) The problem was that Bush "referred in passing to a 'war on terrorism,'" but "he offered no explanation of the attack and promised no retaliation." Worse, for Frum, Bush "offered instead a doughy pudding of stale metaphors." For instance: "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining." It was not, alas, "a war speech." It did, though, contain the line about making "no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." And Frum cannot resist informing us he had been the one to insert that thought into every draft of the speech.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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As speechwriters do, Frum focuses on Bush's rhetorical replies to the attacks. And he argues Bush did get his mojo working after the "Awful Office Address," and the nation was able to see "a new Bush." It appeared when Bush spoke at a National Cathedral memorial ceremony ("This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing") and when he delivered an address to Congress in September ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"). But words had to be coupled with action, and, Frum notes, within the White House, "opinion divided between those who wanted to fight the smallest possible war and those who wanted to win the biggest possible victory." In other words, blast Iraq or not.

Frum, a hawkish Sharonista, favored the big-victory school, though such decisions were above his pay grade. (Powell and Rummy were battling it out, with Rice drifting toward the Defense Secretary.) Then Frum got his chance. The junior speechwriter was asked to draft a memo for a speech that would explain why Saddam had to go. He ruminated and concluded that "terror states and terror organizations formed an axis of hatred against the United States," and the "United States could not wait for these dangerous regimes to get deadly weapons and attack us; the United States must strike first and protect the world from them." Thus, in his first State of the Union speech, Bush wagged his finger at the Axis of Evil. There is something disturbing in the notion that the axis-of-whatever formulation was hatched by speechwriters, not policy folks. Frum's axis was more a rhetorical device than an actual organization. Still, he reassures the reader, Bush "understood all its implications. He backed them with all the power of his presidency." He graciously observes, "Once [Bush] uttered it, 'axis of evil' ceased to be a speechwriter's phrase and became his own, and he defiantly repeated it over and over again."

Frum's phrase struck a chord with Bush because he sees the world in the starkest of terms. Some might call it simplistic and rigid but Frum considers it bold and visionary. It was Bush, not Frum, though, who had to live with--and act upon--the "implications." Did the use of such aggressive language cause North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to feel directly threatened and behave even more belligerently than he otherwise might have? It's possible. Nevertheless, those words did set Bush on a road toward war. What do you do with an "axis of evil"? Obviously, you have to smash it. And Saddam, you're first. (North Korea? Well, we'll get back to you on that, it's more complicated. In the meantime, Kim, don't take it so damn literally. Iran? Well...) Frum had accomplished an important neocon mission: locking Bush--I mean, helping Bush lock himself--into that course of wider confrontation yearned for by the hawkish geostrategists. Bush's post-Axis of Evil use of severe rhetoric toward Iraq has increasingly left him little wiggle room beyond ordering war.

Stating the obvious, Frum notes that before September 11, Bush "was not on his way to a very successful presidency." He was "in danger of becoming his father: a candidate elected by the dwindling conservative coalition, who generated less and less enthusiasm within that coalition." His "political vision"--while existent--"was unclear." He "lacked a big organizing idea." His "Compassionate Conservatism" was no more than an "agglomeration of little ideas...wrapped together to look like a big idea." After Osama bin Laden attacked, Bush became a "superb" wartime President, Frum proclaims, demonstrating "moderation, persistence, and boldness." Frum asserts that "the record shows"--at least for now!--"that at every turn Bush has behaved with remarkable caution, circumspection, deliberation." He adds, "using only conventional weapons, the armed forces of the United States could have obliterated in any single afternoon after the fall of Kabul not merely Iraqi military power, but Iraq's existence as an organized society. But Bush waited and waited and waited." Let us praise Bush for not raining total destruction upon the men, women and children of Iraq.

Ultimately, Bush is not much of a mystery, in the world according to Woodward and Frum. As Frum advises, read Bush's speeches and statements, and you can usually tell what he intends to do. Forces swirling about Bush within the Administration may deserve analysis and sorting out. But Bush operates at face-value level. Moreover, he is the fellow in the lead chariot. The country--and perhaps the globe--is in his hands, not Rumsfeld's, not Cheney's, not Powell's. Make of that what you will.

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