The Prodigal Frum

The Prodigal Frum

He spent his life inside the GOP establishment. Now, he’s on the warpath against the right. What’s gotten into David Frum?


David Frum speaks during a live taping of ‘Meet the Press’ at NBC studios March 15, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

David Frum has been cuddled as lovingly in the ample bosom of the great Republican establishment—and derived as much nourishment from its plump teats—as any other man in the last thirty years. The Canadian immigrant, who turned 52 in June, has been a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, an editor at Forbes, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a speechwriter for George W. Bush—Frum helped write the “axis of evil” line—and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The last of those jobs, the AEI fellowship, paid him $100,000 a year, and it did not actually require any work.

Yet in the past two or three years, Frum has quite notably, and with a giant sucking sound, detached himself from that reliable source of feeding, or rather funding. Most notably, he got himself fired from AEI, in all likelihood for writing a blog post arguing that, in their stubborn refusal to negotiate, Republicans missed a chance to pull the Obama administration’s healthcare legislation in a more market-friendly direction.

“The ‘Waterloo’ threatened by GOP Sen. Jim DeMint last year regarding Obama and health care has finally arrived all right,” Frum wrote at the end of the post, which ran on March 22, 2010. “Only it turns out to be our own.” Over the next week, the right turned against him for good: he was attacked in an editorial run by his old employer, the Wall Street Journal, and AEI fired him.

Frum stopped writing for the major right-wing magazine, National Review, in 2009, and has since found new shelter. Last November, he took to the pages of New York, a magazine with a liberal readership and an even more liberal editorial voice, to publish a cover story called “When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?” In that essay, he levied this attack on his fellow Republicans: “In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed…. My party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners.” Earlier this year, Frum joined the Daily Beast, where he has played the unpredictable centrist, attacking all sides, often ignoring politics, often deriding politicians: one day remembering hairdresser Vidal Sassoon as a Zionist icon and some days later calling out Newt Gingrich for obvious lies. He wrote one of the most devastating attacks on Coming Apart, the new book by right-wing hero Charles Murray. And after the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, Frum belittled the conservative minority. “Shoving fingers into the ears and chanting ‘nah, nah, I can’t hear you’ is a bizarre way to go about the judicial enterprise,” Frum wrote about the dissenting opinion. “Yet there is a comic as well as a depressing aspect to this latest expression of the conservative refusal to acknowledge unwelcome realities.”

Frum has not become a liberal. When I asked him whom he planned to vote for this fall, Frum—who was granted joint American citizenship in 2007—seemed almost offended by the question. “I’m going to vote for Romney,” he assured me, and perhaps himself. But he has become one of the media’s most effective anti-conservative, or at least anti-Republican, commentators. Frum would argue that he has not moved—much. He says the recession has given him a greater appreciation for the social safety net, and that while he remains “very concerned by the weakening of the American family,” he is “more and more inclined to trace that change to the way that the economy works,” not just to people’s poor characters. But mostly he believes it is the right that has changed, not him. He is trying to get them back on course.

Yet this is the man who once co-wrote a book about the “war on terror” with Richard Perle. It was only five years ago that in another book, Comeback, he stood against same-sex marriage and pinpointed illegal immigration as a major problem. He is now for same-sex marriage and food stamps, and he is a good bit calmer about immigration. Clearly, something inside him has changed.

So what happened? That’s a question that Frum himself likes to ponder, in ways that make it clear that his transformation has been, if not calculated, then at least very assiduously managed. This past February, Frum and I shared a long dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a swank restaurant in New York City (Frum insisted on the location, and on paying the steep bill). After a brief detour to warmly greet former AEI colleague and Iraq “surge” architect Frederick Kagan, sitting two small tables away, Frum settled in to answer the obvious question: while others on the right had stayed loyal and kept quiet, he had turned on his tribe—and publicly so. Why?

“Bad judgment,” he offered. “A weaker sense of self-preservation. And a certain margin of undeserved economic security.” Frum was saying, in other words, that only someone as stupid, brave and rich as he was could afford to behave in so reckless a fashion.

The topic came up again in April, at the end of a long telephone conversation Frum and I were having. As I began to wind down the conversation, he said he was surprised that I was letting him off the phone so soon. “You didn’t ask the questions I thought you were going to ask,” he said.

“What did you think I was going to ask?”

“Why me?” he replied.

I said that I didn’t really understand what he meant. So he rephrased it for me, posing the question he was obviously eager to answer. “Why,” said Frum—rhetorically, slowly—“did I take the events of 2008 to 2010 so much more to heart than my friends did?”

That is, why did the financial meltdown that happened on his president’s watch, and the immiseration of so many of his fellow citizens, give Frum a greater feeling of responsibility, or at least unease, than it gave so many of his fellow travelers? I had a vague sense that we had covered this ground back in February, that he had already told me how he’d managed to break free of the Republican group-think, and that the answer had something to do with his stupidity, bravery and money. But I was happy to hear what he was going to say this time, so I bit. “OK,” I said. “Why did you?”

“I can’t tell you,” Frum said. “I don’t know the answer.”

One thing turncoats often have in common is their bafflement at their own conversions. If they can name a cause, it always seems to be the perfidy of their old friends: they left because everyone in their old party had turned into an asshole. Of course, the question “How could I have been so stupid?” is always a bit unfair. None of us ever reaches a satisfactory answer. It’s not surprising, then, that Frum offered two contradictory explanations for his own political migration: one filled with falsely self-deprecating bluster, the other genuinely perplexed.

But in Frum’s case, there may be a more intelligible explanation for his gentle, perceptible shift to the left. He’s going home again, to his mother, and to Mother Canada.

As nearly all Canadians, but basically zero Americans, are well aware, Frum is the son of a famous liberal and feminist icon, Barbara Frum. When he gained notoriety as a right-winger in the late 1980s, a nation of people to our north were shocked, and the more liberal half of them were scandalized—astonished that he could be so unworthy of his heritage. Frum has spent a lifetime proving them right, trying to sell them on some of our worst free-market ideas, such as less support for higher education, and pushing the United States into wars of which they disapproved. Twenty years after his mother’s death, it could be that he is at last saying, if not “I’m sorry,” then at the very least “I remember.”

* * *

There is no American equivalent to Barbara Frum. Canadians compare her to Walter Cronkite, but she was a star of both CBC Radio and CBC Television, so it’s as if she was their Walter Cronkite and their Robert Siegel. Or their Brian Williams and their Nina Totenberg. Maybe their Tom Brokaw and their Ira Glass—but with a dash of Barbara Walters, because Frum was, after all, a Jewish woman. She had Katie Couric’s warmth and Christiane Amanpour’s gravity. You think this is getting silly? Go ask Canadians of a certain age about her. They’ll tell you where they were when they heard the news that Barbara Frum had died.

David was 31 years old in 1992 when he lost his mother to the leukemia with which she’d been diagnosed almost twenty years earlier. She left behind her husband, Murray, and three children. Both David and his sister, Linda, now a Conservative senator from Ontario, speak and write about their nuclear family as idyllic. Murray and Barbara married young, had children early, and embarked on a cheery and rewarding life. Murray, a dentist by training, got rich building shopping malls. He is a major art collector and once put together a failed bid to buy the Toronto Blue Jays. After an early stint in print journalism, Barbara became the first star host of As It Happens, which remains the CBC’s flagship afternoon radio program, much like NPR’s All Things Considered. In 1981, when David was at Yale, she moved to CBC Television to host The Journal, a nightly magazine show. She was the country’s interviewer of record: among other coups, she landed the first Canadian interview with Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison.

David and Linda both admit that their mother worked all the time; it is clear that at times Barbara was more present for Canada than she was for her own children. In Barbara Frum: A Daughter’s Memoir, Linda’s 1996 biography of her mother, she describes how she and her older brother were raised in good part by nannies. They knew, she writes, that if they had to reach a parent, they must try Dad first. David is adamant that Barbara’s career never took a toll on the family, but he comes close to admitting that his life and writing have in some ways been a critique of her example. Some of that implicit critique has been conscious and thoughtful: “My own family does not follow the pattern of the family in which I was raised,” he told me. “My wife and I have made different choices in our lives than my parents made.” But some of his writing seems almost designed to irk feminists. Earlier in his career he considered it good sport to plump for traditional gender roles in a half-joking but unfunny way: “Men will tolerate any job involving big knives and fire,” he wrote in 1989. “Arranging things in neat piles can plausibly be represented as organization, but actually removing dirt is repugnant to the masculine soul.”

Frum seems never to have attacked working mothers specifically, although his own wife, writer Danielle Crittenden, got her start in America as an anti-feminist scourge, writing books like What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (1999). Rather, Frum became a leading Canadian purveyor of American-style reactionary anger. Stigmatizing unwed mothers and divorce were longtime passions of his. In 1993 he defended a Texas high school principal who kicked four pregnant girls off the cheerleading squad. He was a fierce foe of liberal immigration policies, a macho supporter of American military intervention, a tightfisted crusader for lower taxes and an acid critic of Canadian healthcare.

Since Barbara’s death, David and Linda have both assiduously worked to portray their mother as a misunderstood conservative. In her biography of her mother, Linda writes, concerning the family’s politics, that “David changed. And my mother—and all of us—changed with him.” David told me that by the end of her life his mother was “center-right” in her politics. And possibly she was. But it seems unlikely. Barbara Frum was not just a cosmopolitan working mother. She was a matriarch of Canadian liberalism—several of her protégés over the years became prominent progressive journalists—and, what’s more, she seemed to embody for her listeners a certain warmth and empathy typical of the postwar Canadian left. In an incisive 1996 portrait of the Frum family, “Frum Left to Right,” Nation columnist Naomi Klein noted that the word Canadians used over and over to eulogize Barbara Frum was “compassion.”

One of Barbara’s most visible and personal acts of compassion was adopting Matthew, an aboriginal Canadian boy. Matthew’s adoption was part of a huge wave of what Canadians later called the ’60s Scoop: the aggressive removal of aboriginal children from their homes by the Canadian child welfare system, followed by the children’s adoption by well-meaning white Canadians. “My mother was thirty when Matthew came to our home,” Linda writes in her biography of her mother. “She could have given birth to another child had she wished. But her angry sense of the injustices dealt the Native Canadians and—to use her word, her ‘bleeding liberal heart’—convinced her that the way to expand our family was through adoption.”

Matthew had a difficult childhood, and as a teenager he was often in trouble with the law. In Linda’s book, her younger brother comes off as an unfortunate intruder, the incorrigible who messed up her perfect family. Her discussion of Matthew insinuates a critique of misguided liberalism. “My mother at first believed that unreserved love and affection could undo whatever damage a baby had suffered in his early months,” she writes. “But she did not believe that for long.” Linda’s father, Murray, offered an even crueler assessment. “I don’t think [Barbara] was able to make Matthew a contributing member of society who could give as well as take,” he told Klein. “We certainly aren’t getting a lot of glory out of his accomplishments.”

In her article, Klein said that Matthew was working in Vancouver as an actor and a carpenter, which is more than either of his siblings could tell me. David mentioned his brother curtly when he had dinner. “We had an adopted brother as well, and he was younger, and it was not successful, and he’s now fine and doing well” was all he would say. Later, when I asked if he could put me in touch with his siblings, he wrote back with his sister’s e-mail but said, “I’m not in close contact with my brother.” For her part, Linda said she did not know how to reach Matthew.

Klein notes that the two elder siblings take a dim view of “compassion,” their mother’s signature virtue. “It is almost literally meaningless to talk about compassion when you are discussing public policy,” Frum told Klein. “The left has taken ownership of this word,” his sister said. But Matthew, the direct recipient of Barbara’s vexed and complicated good will, was more generous. I could not find Matthew today, but in 1996, when Klein spoke with him, he—alone among the three Frum kids—seemed to appreciate the lesson of Barbara’s empathy. “Today, I thank them for everything,” he said of his adopted parents, adding: “I thank them for all the good qualities that I picked up. I’m there for my friends like they were always there for their friends. I have compassion now.”

* * *

Beginning as a young man, after Yale and then Harvard Law, David Frum paraded his opinions not only in conservative American magazines and on cable television but in the Canadian media as well. How many of the thousands, even millions, of Americans who would recognize Frum know that he is just as visible in Canada, where he is a ubiquitous columnist and TV talking head? “I am sure there’s a lot of people who have been reading his columns for the past twenty-five years who would be surprised he doesn’t spend all his time in Canada,” Linda Frum says. He is also an important political activist in Canada, having organized a 1996 conference to urge the two conservative parties to unite in opposition to the Liberals (they finally did in 2003). And he deserves much of the credit for the conservative resurgence in Canada, where the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, is something like a Christian version of the earlier David Frum: a pro-Israel, small-government deficit hawk. A sort of Frumkenstein’s monster.

To many Canadians, then, the contrast between Frum’s politics and what they presumed about his mother’s is striking. It would be as if Chelsea Clinton were ranting on Fox News. Frum disagrees, of course. He prefers to emphasize the continuities between his parents and himself. He argues that his mother was above all a free thinker and a loyal Canadian unionist (she abhorred Quebec nationalism). And he believes that his parents led him toward conservatism, or at least permitted it, by raising him to be a free-thinking, intellectual kid.

Frum says that for most of his teenage years he was apolitical. But in the summer of 1975, when he turned 15, his mother gave him a copy of The Gulag Archipelago. His parents had gotten him a job working on the election campaign of Jan Dukszta, a liberal politician, and he read Solzhenitsyn’s book in the streetcar on the way to campaign headquarters and back. “It had this overpowering effect on me,” Frum says. “And some of the people on the campaign—that party drew some people further to the left, including some actual Communists, and I had never been exposed to anything like that. The combination of people making light of what I was reading about every day for forty-five minutes there and forty-five minutes back, and Vietnam with these boat people the following summer”—it gave him a distaste for the doctrinaire left. When Frum arrived at Yale and began to see Canada through the eyes of its dynamic capitalist neighbor to the south, he began to formulate the views, and the contacts, that led him into the American conservative establishment.

Raised a cosseted Canadian prince, Frum became, in his early 20s, a wide-eyed convert to American exceptionalism. “I’m a Hamiltonian, and I always have been,” Frum says. “I believe in an American-led world order. I believe in the strength and power of America. It rests on economic and industrial power. And the evidence is strong that free markets generate more economic and industrial power than other systems.”

And that faith in an “American-led world order” remains the strong thread that connects Frum to the American right, even as he has become less focused on issues like sexuality and family structure. When I ask him how his views have shifted in the past couple of years, he mentions a newfound appreciation for the welfare state. “I am much more respectful of the role that unemployment insurance and food stamps and other such programs play in a modern economy,” he says. “That’s one reason why, as bad as this is, it’s not as bad as the 1930s.” To judge from his recent writing, Frum has found a new synthesis, according to which a moderate welfare state stabilizes the United States so that it can remain internationally strong. A little liberalism at home helps keep us neoconservative abroad.

Frum may have a new outlook, but then it’s nothing new for Frum to have a new outlook. He has made a career of fresh starts, of small changes of heart, of a quiet tippy-toeing away from whatever his last stance was. He has written two books offering new ways forward for Republicans, boldly telling them what to reject from their past and what to embrace for the future: Dead Right (1994) and Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (2008). After leaving the administration, he wrote an early memoir explaining all that was right in the Bush White House (The Right Man, 2003), but now freely talks about all that went wrong in the administration’s later years.

Frum says he is a pragmatist, focused on the issues of the moment rather than abstract ideological purity. “I have never reasoned from first principles,” he says. And his willingness to reconsider old views is refreshing—far preferable to an ossified stubbornness masquerading as integrity. But one can understand the view, expressed in 2008 by Daniel McCarthy, the editor of The American Conservative, that Frum “appears never to have had any principles. What he does have is modus operandi.”

While Frum’s enthusiasms have changed over time, he has a solid, unbroken record as an antagonist of conservatives like McCarthy, who is what we might call a paleoconservative nationalist: deeply skeptical of free trade, open immigration and foreign wars. Frum was an early critic of Pat Buchanan, who he said in a 1991 essay was “everything that couth conservatives want to escape.” Like Buchanan, McCarthy and Ron Paul, Frum is serious about limiting immigration. But he has always rejected the rest of the paleoconservative agenda, according to which the United States should reduce its international footprint and hoard its resources for its own people.

In return, the paleocons describe Frum as a spineless calculator. “I think a lot of conservatives—and you can see this in [Frum’s book] Comeback—a lot of conservatives really did think that after electoral debacles in ‘06 and ‘08, there would be a general shifting of conservative thought,” McCarthy told me. “And I think Frum wanted to be in on that. I don’t think it was cynical, but it was that something that he and most other movement conservatives had been supporting had come crashing down. Obviously he hoped that once this rethinking was in order, he would come out on top.”

Peter Brimelow is an English-born journalist who edits, a far-right anti-immigration website. He once worked in Canada and knew the Frum family, and he and David were later friends in New York City. When Brimelow’s wife died in 2004, Frum wrote a touching obituary. But as someone who always operates from first principles—in Brimelow’s case, an anti-immigration principle—he shares McCarthy’s view of Frum as untrustworthy. “I think he is genuinely one of those people who doesn’t like to be on the fringe,” Brimelow says. “I’ve always found with David [that] he’s very good on small ideas—criticism of healthcare policy, that sort of thing. But I sometimes worry about the overarching ideas.”

Brimelow believes that Frum’s ability to think for himself has its limits. “He grew up in the heart of the Toronto media establishment, which is fundamentally left-wing,” Brimelow says. “He’s not used to being in opposition.” Ultimately he believes that Frum’s need to be liked by the right kind of people—those whom Frum might call the “couth conservatives”— will always determine his politics. In these Tea Party times, Frum has thus recoiled to the left.

* * *

Frum’s critics on the provocative fringe are, it turns out, much more eager to talk about him than the establishment types who know him well. Those conservative insiders who would speak were insistently diplomatic. “David sees himself as an in-house critic who wants to make sure the party goes forward,” Michael Cromartie, the well-connected vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told me. “He has gotten himself in trouble with people who think he spends all his time trying to get on CNN.” When I asked Cromartie if he agreed with that critique, he said, “No comment”—something I heard a lot. I called five of Frum’s former colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, and none would speak on the record about him. Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal did not return my call. Nor did Peter Wehner, who worked with Frum in the White House, nor National Review’s Rich Lowry, nor The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes. The list goes on…

Frum says he has committed an unpardonable sin within a political movement. There are three cardinal rules of getting along with people, he says: “You don’t tell people they’re bad writers, you don’t tell people they have no sense of humor, and you don’t tell people that they’ve mishandled a political negotiation. There are a lot of things that people will forgive, but those are the unforgivable.” And Frum broke the third rule, telling his confreres that they had mishandled a political negotiation. “You’re saying, ‘You put party before country, and you tripped over your own feet putting party before country. You didn’t even deliver a win for your party.’”

Ten years from now, Frum says, “when every conservative in Washington says the things I said, they will still blame me for saying them. And furthermore, they will always begin saying them with the phrase, ‘Look, I have no regard for David Frum. I’m no David Frum.’”

I suspect Frum is right about that. On the psychology of others, he’s very good; less so, I think, on his own. It is not simply that his views have changed—really, his temperament is different. Where he used to sound jerky, a master of the simplistic and bullying—really, “axis of evil”?—he now sounds kind and patient, perhaps more like his mother. If, as we age, we see our parents’ flaws more clearly, so too do we see their virtues.

On this count, I think Linda Frum may get her brother’s psychology exactly right. When I told her it seemed as if she and David idealized the parenting they got, she said that “we idealized our parents, not their parenting.” What could that mean: to idealize the parents but not the parenting?

If Frum saw flaws in Barbara’s parenting—such as working too hard and adopting a child who needed more care than she could give—then maybe he would develop a strong defense of the traditional family and a critique of welfare-state “compassion.” Maybe he would even marry a woman whose life’s work was to say that women themselves, and their husbands and children, pay a price for feminist hubris. Maybe he would make his home in a country where the broadcast career that severed him from his mother for so much of his childhood was virtually unknown. And so he did.

But if he idealized Barbara Frum—not the parent but the icon, the emblem of Canadianism, the nonpartisan television mother who reassuringly showed up in the living room every night—then he might retain an abiding interest in Canadian politics, even if from Washington, DC. He might keep writing about Canadian politics, publishing regularly in magazines and newspapers most Americans have never heard of. He might keep his Canadian citizenship even as he drew a salary from an American president most Canadians loathed. He might stay Canadian. And so he did.

Frum is now just two years younger than his mother was when she died. It would make sense if, as he aged, he was thinking more deeply about her legacy. And if, in fact, Barbara Frum’s politics changed as she crossed into middle age, then perhaps her son David is emulating her still. Long sustained and enriched by his own certainties—on the frivolous, wasteful generosity of the social safety net; the need to stigmatize divorce; the righteousness of the American crusade abroad—maybe Frum has, like his mother, lost a bit of his youthful confidence.

“When you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it’s easy to say poor people don’t deserve fuck all,” Matthew Frum told Naomi Klein back in 1996, after reconnecting with his birth community. “I live within the Native community. I see girls getting pregnant at 14. I dare David to live the life that I live and see if he still has the same opinions.”

Those are harsh words from a younger brother, but they also contain a kernel of hope. Matthew seemed to believe David was capable of change, if only he got out and saw the world. Well, Matthew was right. David no longer holds the same opinions. He says that a lot of things have helped change his mind: the enduring recession, the intransigence of Republicans in Congress, the Tea Party. Maybe he has not spent time among the pregnant Native girls Matthew spoke of—and maybe he never sees Matthew either—but Frum’s getting the message, as he’ll be more than happy to tell you.

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